Interview: Chef Craig Thornton of Wolvesmouth: Seasonal, Underground Dining with Deceptive Flair (Part 2)
Typically, if you end up in a wolvesden, you’re in for a world of hurt, and it’s going to be a tight squeeze. Thankfully for diners, chef Craig Thornton had a better idea when developing an underground supper club called “Wolvesmouth,” which has gained a cult following for his seasonal, market driven and often artistic forms of culinary expression. That combination, and the convivial, surprise party vibe, attracted the attention of Lexus, who featured Thornton as one of six artists in their “Fresh Perspectives” video series, where he explored the themes of “Escape” and “Empower.” On May 13, we joined Thornton at the Wolvesden, avoided getting torn limb from limb and learned a good deal about his background and approach. This second part of the interview continues our initial exploration in Part 1.
What was the first dish you ever remember cooking, in your life?
The first that I think I ever made was potato salad. That was for my grandma, or my grandma dictating to me what to do. I remember cooking the hell out of these Russet potatoes at her house, and she was explaining the difference between a Russet potato and red potato. But I remember chopping the onion, and remember slicing it into really small discs, but even at that age, I wanted them to be small, but I have no idea why.
In the video, you said you still chop onions the same way.
When I brunoise an onion, that was kind of what I was referring to. Literally the first time I cut an onion, I remember thinking, “Ah, man, I want these onions to be really small.” Because my grandma enjoyed them small, but she cut them completely different. I remember seeing her cut onions, and I wanted to have small onions like her. I remember cutting an onion and seeing there are these layers. You know how you have your circle, but if you cut that circle in half, and pull out the middle, you’re left with basically all these nice julienne slices; they’re just half-moon shaped. So I just took a knife, turned it, and they’re all just perfect little brunoise. I was so excited about that. That’s still the way I do it to this day. I don’t understand the classic way of cutting an onion. If you have an onion, you cut down and cut in, but you don’t actually need to cut into it. If you cut it in half, the layers are already there, so if you cut in, you end up with all these different sizes of onions. Things like that drive me nuts for some reason, when I’m thinking about cooking dishes, or trying to observe what’s actually happening when I do something.
So you’re a painter?
Yeah, I paint as well.
How has your cooking affected your painting?
I would say more, my painting has affected my cooking. My cooking hasn’t really affected my painting. I really like – obviously colors – I like colors a lot. There are certain dishes where I’ve thought about the idea of how water colors look. One dish, I took all these different colors of beets, and basically turned them into water color. I put ‘em on the plate, but put ‘em in different stages. I’d basically juice them, reduce it down and put it right on the plate. You have golden beets, bull’s blood beets. There were some beets actually in Portland that were blue and white, so you’d reduce them down and come up with this sky blue liquid. I remember one dish, I took a paintbrush and kind of dabbed it around. Then I let it dry, I let the dish dry. Then I went back and in another spot, put gold, and let that dry, so all the colors, they’re each their own color without blending together. These dried colors look just like, literally, to me, they look just water colors. The idea with this scallop dish was this live scallop, and I just kind of placed it around the plate…The idea was that you could take the scallop and get that intense beet flavor. I just put a couple herbs and greens on the plate.
In one video, you turn a beet into a blackberry.
That one took, actually, a lot of effort. I had to make the molds, so I got this stuff to make molds with. The thing that’s hard about it, because there are so many nooks and crannies, it took me a lot of just making different molds and different levels and thicknesses of the mold, because when I would pop out the beet, all the little fruit parcels, they would all break off. I’d be left with these horrible looking beets that didn’t look anything like blackberries. It was more about the trial and error of trying to figure out how to really just make it look just like a blackberry. It took quite awhile of figuring out how to do it. And the end process, I ended up making a certain type of mold that was a little bit thinner, then I had to freeze it, but it couldn’t be frozen all the way. It had to be to where just the outside was frozen, where it bent a little bit to allow it to get out of the mold, and there was all this stuff. There was a lot of work that went just into that little beet.
So a technical challenge?
Are there any other examples of morphing appearance, one thing appearing like another in your cooking?
It’s crazy, because you’re asking questions I’ve never been asked before.
It’s thought provoking for sure. I tend to do stuff that’s not necessarily posing as something else, but I tend to have – like you’ve probably seen – like my ice creams – I tend to go toward French toast ice cream, or cinnamon toast ice cream, or birthday cake ice cream with a cake that tastes like frosting. You’re flip flopping roles. I like that a lot. Usually, they don’t necessarily mimic what it looks like. For that “Empower” dish that I did, that just kind of happened to be kind of like, more of a way that I could technically show somebody without them actually being there tasting it.
Do you plan to do more of that?
Yeah, I need to save up a lot of money to get some molds. That’s for sure. There’s a couple dishes that I kind of have in the works, one that I’ve wanted to do for a long time that I’m trying to figure out how to possibly do it. It’s going to involve a piece of soap with a bite taken out of it.
What would the soap be made of?
It’s probably going to made of some sort of infused cream or parfait of sorts, flavored with some sort of floral taste. Kind of the idea is, it’s going to be this dish where you’re going to have this piece of soap with a bite taken out of it, and it’s going to have this floral taste, and kind of be sudsy, and it’s going to represent getting your mouth washed out with soap. When you cuss or something, as a kid.
Did that happen to you, as a kid?
Oh yeah, from my grandma. Just random stuff like that, that makes you laugh when you get older. To me, when I was a kid, it obviously wasn’t funny, but as I became older, it became something that was kind of funny. It’s something I think a lot of people can relate to, well, at least if you had a Southern grandma like I did.
What was the most recent dish you developed, and what was your approach?
I just did 10 dishes last week, so those were 10 new developments.
What’s one that you think worked especially well?
There was one that I actually want to refine and I want to serve it again next week. I want to revisit it and refine it down. It was this rabbit dish, actually, that I think Bill [Esparza] might like, because he’s a Mexican food fan. But it’s taking this rabbit and then you’re cutting all the meat off the bone, and you’re taking the kidneys and liver, soak ‘em in a little bit of cold water, then Cortez – the one that helps me organize all sorts of stuff – he bought me a grinder for my birthday, a meat grinder, so now I can grind stuff. I take the rabbit, grind the livers and the kidneys, take the rabbit meat, have it all ground out, take tortillas, soak ‘em just in a little bit of water, puree them, take mole spices. And so it’s basically all the spices that go into the mole, without the liquids, fold all that tortilla puree, with the mole spices, into the ground rabbit mixture, obviously season it, then there were currants and pine nuts in it. It was almost like my version of a picadillo, in a way. Then take that mixture, put just a little egg in it, put it aside, take the rabbit carcasses, make a rabbit broth out of those, cook black beans in the rabbit broth, put that aside, take Poblano peppers, roast them off, peel out the inside, peel off the skin, then take the rabbit mixture and put it on the Poblano, Monterey Jack cheese, more rabbit mixture, and then roll it into a cylinder. It’s like a perfect cylinder. So you look at it, and it would just be this green, dark green Poblano cylinder, but inside is the rabbit meat with Monterey Jack cheese in the middle. And then you have those beans that have been cooked in rabbit, crema, so it would go crema, beans, cylinder, cotija cheese, and then I took tortillas and fried those, took them out of the oil, and then tossed them into a thing of sugar and cinnamon. Eventually, I want it to be a churro, though.
To hear you say that, that’s where my mind went.
So it’s kind of like going to that churro texture, but this was more of like a tester dish. I can’t get to the churro yet, because there are so many other steps to it, that I need to kind of build up into the idea of adding a churro. How can I finish off with that dish with the churro still being the texture I want it to be? That was the dish. It was kind of my play off mole meets chile relleno, in a way, but not really, but the technique is actually a very Italian meatball making technique, just using Mexican ingredients, but the ideas of how Italians make meatballs. Usually they use breadcrumbs, so I used pureed tortilla, so you have still that texture of an Italian meatball, but the flavors are all Mexican, and you’re using rabbit.
It’s like a rabbit chile en nogada.
Pretty much. For me, now I’ve had the dish. I tried it because I made it for a dinner, and now it’s going through and trying to refine, just trying to make it better. That’s kind of the thing where things have gotten a little more difficult with what I do, because sometimes people expect, “Oh, he’s never done this dish before,” every single time, every single dish. But the thing is, by doing that, then I shoot myself in the foot by not being able to refine a dish, because like the rabbit dish, I have a bunch of ideas on what I’ll be able to do to that dish to be able to make it better the next time we serve it.
You made 10 dishes last week. How many do you see making again?
I really like the dishes that I just made the other day. That’s the thing, they’ll all probably at some point – I don’t know, maybe three will be remade. Maybe four or five will be remade, but they won’t be the same dish at all whenever I remake it. I’ll refine the process down, to where, I’m taking out this, that didn’t work so well. I’m going to put this in instead, but for the most part I’ll usually move on to another ingredient, because I’ll get into ingredients at a certain time. Obviously it’s spring, so now I’m into the spring ingredients, but summer’s coming up quick.
Do you tend to shy away from signature dishes?
I seem to have a couple signature dishes. It’s not that I shy away from them. I’ll do ‘em if people really want me to cook ‘em. When I do private dinners, people request certain dishes, which is totally fine with me. If anything, it actually makes it easier, because there are certain days where it is hard to conceptually have to – it’s like making an album every time – so it’s forcing yourself to do it to where it actually makes sense. It’s one thing to just throw a bunch of ideas of a bunch of dishes down. It’s another thing for it all to work in an actual tasting menu, rather than just a bunch of ideas. I could easily come up with 10 or 12 dishes and just like ‘em up, but it’s having to work through how they’re all going to work together, that’s the part where something – just one ingredient – I could just sit here and freak out and punch my table as many times as I want, because thinking about one ingredient, and just because that one ingredient segues into another part of the meal. It’s frustrating to put yourself through it, but once you get it, it’s way more rewarding than just going through and doing a signature dish, but even those, even the ones that have kind of been signature dishes, I’m still refining those. They’re completely different dishes from when I started.
What are the signature dishes?
The Wolves in the Snow one, a lot of people have requested. The Fuck B.P. dish. The Wandering the Forest one. Twin Peaks dish. The Hollywood dish. The ones that are more thematic, I feel like people really want to try those ones.
What’s the Hollywood dish?
The Hollywood dish is kind of my sarcastic view of Hollywood. It’s this black sesame meringue that’s kind of like that concrete jungle kind of thing. Then there’s this coconut poundcake. The idea behind that, there’s also dried coconut milk powder, that’s set in a line, so it’s – but the idea behind that, people think of California, or Hollywood, and they think of palm trees, and coconuts, usually, so kind of tied into that the idea of what people think of Hollywood and the palm trees of California. And then obviously, the coconut milk line going across, you know the reference to that, probably.
Not personally, but I’ve heard of it.
That’s the thing, I don’t personally either, but you witness a lot of stuff in this city. One of the only times I ever really use any sodium alginate, I don’t really ever use it, but for this dish in particular, I did. But it was this encapsulated rose water and lime, and it was made to look like silicone. Two implants. Then there’s a smoked beet juice that’s been reduced down, and I take stamped lips, like Marilyn Monroe lips, and then stamp ‘em on the plate, so it’s like fake lips. Then there’s gold and chocolate sorbet, so I put gold flakes in it. Then there’s silver on the plate as well. Kind of the idea was for it to be something that’s just so over the top and crazy, because that’s what Hollywood is, it’s over the top and crazy. That dish had to be over the top. Gilding the lily, basically.
What do you look for in a restaurant experience?
The main thing, I just want to have a good meal. In a sea of tons and tons of restaurants, sometimes it feels like that’s a lot to ask, just to have a meal that has something that has seasoning. You eat at tons of restaurants. I guarantee that you have certain criteria. For me, I’m really – it doesn’t take much. I want a good ingredient and if it needs salt or needs sugar, then think about it. Or if it needs acid, to be balanced, really that’s all it takes for me, and maybe a good playlist, maybe some good music.
You talked about creating energy in the room. You play music during your meals?
How does that vary depending on what you’re cooking?
Usually, I obviously think about the type of people that are going to be coming, and whether or not they listen to Eazy-E or whether they listen to Muse, or something. We have a couple playlists that we put together that kind of build up and go down throughout the night. It’s almost like a DJ in a way. You don’t want to batter people with Metallica “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and then go into another heavy song. You kind of mellow it out, just not all intense-energy music. On the other hand, you don’t want to have it be slow music that just kills the conversation, because that music, whether or not people realize it, it changes the tone and the energy of how they talk to each other. You’ll have people, when it’s a little louder, they’re leaning in, and people are focused in on the conversation, and when it’s really slow music, they’re kind of leaning back in their chairs and they’re not being as talkative, because they may be afraid that someone down there might hear from them, and they don’t feel comfortable with that person on the other end, yet, so they’re talking to their friend over here. I try to make the playlists to where the pace of the songs flow, so that way it’s not people feeling awkward to where everyone can hear them at the table.
So the music is with the guests in mind and not you in mind. If you could only cook with one more animal, what would it be and why?
That’s the thing, I’d be fine cooking with no animals, actually. My favorite thing to cook is vegetables, just because they’re the most interesting to me, at least right now. Obviously just for use, a pig, because a pig provides so much. You can literally use every single part of it. It’s probably the most self sustaining animal. I’d definitely have to say a pig, just because it’s so self sustaining, and it gives so much. I really like rabbit, too, but I would say a pig.
What was the longest you ever waited at a restaurant for a meal, and was it worth the wait?
I’ve had some pretty long waits. I’m trying to think of which restaurant I had the longest wait at. When I was in New York, I had to wait a long time to eat at Corton. It was totally worth it, though. I had such a great time. It was just me by myself, but nobody was leaving, so I was there for two and a half hours, waiting to eat, and then my meal, when I went in there, I was talking to my waiter and they found out that I cooked, and once they found out that I cooked, then the whole thing changed. Halfway through my dinner, everything changed. It went from this thing where it was like, okay, I’m almost done, to okay, now we’re going to add 16 more courses to what you’re doing. It was amazing. I loved it.
Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?
Drinking? I don’t really drink that much. I actually very, very rarely drink. I like juices a lot, I like root beer a lot, and I like water a lot. I don’t necessarily drink that much. I really don’t go out that much. Mainly because I’m almost trapped inside of my bubble, I think, sometimes. I’m always thinking about different ideas, stuff like that, that by the time I even think to go out, I’m already thinking about what else I need to be doing. Once I start thinking about that, it makes me not want to go out.
You don’t have beer or wine here?
Not really. Hophead Jim from Beer Belly, he’ll bring me beer sometimes and I’ll try it out, and it’s really good. These local craft beers are awesome. Those things are really good. I’ll have one of those every once in awhile. I like Eagle Rock Brewery. I had one the other day, Orchard White.
Yeah, that was really good. With wine, I’ll drink it just basically, whenever Eva opens up a bottle of wine, I’ll have a little bit. I like ciders. I really got into those when I was in Norway. I had ‘em over there for the first time.
Can you get Norwegian ciders over here?
I haven’t found them, no. I’ve found some Swedish, but I haven’t found the Norwegian ones. For the most part, I just drink a lot of water and lot of juice. With root beer, I’ll limit myself to three root beers per week.
Do you have any favorite outdoor activities?
Snowboarding or surfing, I really like a lot.
When was the last time you did either one?
This winter I was able to go snowboarding a couple times. I wasn’t able to go that much because I was just more focused on all the cooking, so it kind of takes away from it. And I also went surfing too. I’m looking to hopefully be able to go to Oregon soon, and if I go there, then I’ll go surfing and fishing. I love fishing.
Me and Eva, we were out on a jet ski in Oregon, and caught a 22-pound salmon off of a jet ski in the middle of the ocean. It was insane. I had to club it. She’s like reeling it in, and I clubbed it and pulled it on to the jet ski, and then basically hooked my hand in it’s mouth and just grabbed a little rope, tied it to the jet ski and put it on my leg right here. Just rode back with it and ate it literally 45 minutes out of the water.
What did you do with it?
Just roasted it, just took it, filleted the sides off, took them and roasted it. And then, it was at her parents’ house in Oregon. They have this thing called thimbleberries. Have you heard of thimbleberries?
It looks like a thimble, but it’s little berries.
It’s kind of like a raspberry in color. It looks just like a raspberry, but a lot smaller pieces, and you can literally stick it on the end of your finger. Just think of a raspberry if it were open just a little bit more, a little bit more round. So I took those, and they’re really tart, and it’s a tart raspberry flavor. They have those growing wild around her parents’ house. They live basically in the forest. It’s amazing. I love it. There was wood sorrel growing on the ground. So I roasted it, took it out, put a couple thimbleberries with it, wood sorrel, that was it. They’re just growing around her house. They have a river just running behind it that we were fishing in this winter, when we went there for Christmas. That was a blast, just going in and trying to catch these fish, and you can see them all swimming up because the steelhead were spawning. It’s crazy, because you can see all the dead steelhead going up, dead on the side of the beach.
Would you say that you have any mentors?
There’s this guy that I started with, named Thomas McLaughlin, he was kind of like, had the biggest impact on my cooking attitude, which is just a very anti- – not like an anti-establishment attitude, but you don’t really care about the hype of things. You just focus on what’s important, which is the food. And just doing things properly, taking pride in what you do, and just trying to do as best you can and just not accepting mediocrity.
Where did you work with him?
I worked with him in Oregon. When I went to cooking school out there, before I started school, I went in and walked up to him during middle of service, which was just the dumbest idea. I would have never done that now. I was talking to this guy, and he’s looking at me like, “Dumbass kid.” I’m walking up to him at 7:30 when it’s peak service on a Friday night, and I walk in and tell him, “Oh, I want to work for free. I’ll do whatever. I just want to be a really good cook. That’s all I want to do.” He just looked at me, like, “You’re an idiot. You’re getting into the wrong industry. This is really hard, blah, blah, blah, but if you really want to do it, we’ll find out, won’t we.” He has me come in. He says, “Alright, be here tomorrow, 6:30 in the morning.” I get there in the morning, and it was kind of like he had me washing dishes. I was washing dishes and prepping, peeling thousands of shrimp, just doing that kind of stuff, shelling peas and fava beans, basically all the jobs that nobody wanted to do. Then I did that for awhile for free and then worked my way up, and worked my way through basically everything, and saw the workings of the restaurant and did all that stuff, learned just how to do things properly, and when and why it’s not okay to make shortcuts. How people make shortcuts and why you shouldn’t, even if it means losing sleep over, you just don’t do it.
What was the place called?
It was a place called Serratto. He’s not there anymore. He owns a bar now. He left that to open a bar. He wants to go open up his own restaurant. At the time I was working there, it was a pretty hardcore place, because the owners wanted it to be – it was like regional Italian – the owner, I remember sitting there doing garde manger, and he would look at you, at if the plate wasn’t right, or if he didn’t think it looked right, or it didn’t look good enough, he would literally look at you and he would push all the plates off of the pass on to the ground. But he wouldn’t let you stop him and fix the plate. He would just look at you and just shove your plates and he’d make you watch him do it. Then you’d have to start all over again. And he’d make you clean it up and start all over again.
The plates would shatter?
Yep. And the owner of the place, he had a very high standard of what he wanted, so after a couple times of that happening, you realized that you’re not going to get away with anything.
Has Thomas eaten here?
No, he’s in Portland still. I’ve had a couple people from Portland come and eat.
What was the school that you went to?
I went to a school called Western Culinary.
Okay. Do you know Tai Kim from Scoops?
I’ve met him.
He was a culinary instructor there.
Oh really. I had no idea.
He went to school there and then stayed on to teach.
I love Scoops too. Scoops is awesome. That place is really cool.
It seems to fit with your approach.
Yeah. Definitely. I almost think it’s like a Portland thing.
Did you think that before you knew he was there?
That’s the thing, I’ve told Eva or just a couple of my friends that went there, this reminds me of a place that would be in Portland. It’s very just, it is what it is. It’s not trying to be what it’s not. That’s what I try to do. I do my thing. I put a lot of work into it, and I hope that people enjoy it. That’s really all you can ask at the end of the day. I’m not really worried about putting $100,000 paintings and $50,000 curtains to make it a good time. I’m more worried about buying good products to feed people with, buying the best produce I can find, buying the best fish that I can find, buying the best meat. That’s the stuff that I focus on. That’s what I feel, like Scoops, you go in and it’s no frills, it’s just good product and it’s really good ice cream, and that’s what you’re buying. Luckily, this is a pretty cool space. I love this space, and I was lucky to find it, but does this space define the food that I do? Not necessarily. I just lucked out in finding a really cool space.