Interview: Chef Craig Thornton of Wolvesmouth: Seasonal, Underground Dining with Deceptive Flair (Part 1)

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Chef Los Angeles

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.

How did the “Fresh Perspectives” opportunity come about with Lexus?

I was approached through my agent actually. She approached me. Basically they were interested in – I guess what I do here – at my spot. They started out, you get the three themes, and I ended up doing two of those themes, and making dishes out of two themes. I originally had six dishes planned, but the power went out here – actually, all of downtown the power was out, so then we literally had to stop filming for awhile. There was all this stuff that was going on that hindered almost being able to do more. So we just focused really hard on getting the best out of the two, for “Escape” and “Empower.” It was a good opportunity, and I just had to snatch it up.

At what point did you get an agent?

Back in October. It was just mainly for things that come along, like this, just bigger opportunities to be able to try and put this stuff out there more. The eventual goal is to try and be able to build this underground dining experience, to just take it to a bigger level where I’ll be able to push myself harder and just expand my cooking repertoire. At the end of the day, the ultimate goal for me is to be able to push myself creatively and I need to find new avenues of being able to do it.

What form would that take? Is this building towards a restaurant at this stage?

No. Right now I don’t really want a restaurant because I’m kind of all over the place usually. And I feel being a restaurant, I would go crazy. I’d probably do really good for the first six months, and then I’d get really itchy to leave. I would just want to just go travel a little bit.

Why couldn’t you do something like Bar Masa or Urasawa with your food?

I like this chaotic way of going about it. With those kinds of restaurants, it becomes a thing where you’re expected to be at that spot, in order to make it work, you’re going to be doing that, seven days a week. For me the thing that’s hard about that, once you have a space like that, you have a lot more responsibility. And I’m not saying it’s harder to be creative, but just by doing it, your mindset does change. Right now I’m more focused on building my style of food. Aesthetically, my style, flavor profiles, everything. I’m more trying to refine my own idea. This is a way where I can be in my kitchen during the week and don’t have to worry about feeding an audience. I can just be here working on random ideas that pop into my head. I can go out, go shop around, go find this stuff, and then just test out ideas. Pretty much, it’s kind of like my kitchen lab in a way, and then just refine my ideas down. Maybe as I get older, I’ll probably segue into wanting to have a restaurant, but for me, right now, I’m more focused on developing my style, in my own space and in my own time.

What prompted your very first dinner in San Diego five and a half years ago?

I was working at a sushi restaurant, doing some sushi and I was always the one who would make these little random hitters, which is basically a little amuse, but I would call it a hitter, because you’d walk through the door and you would get that person’s attention just by giving them something really small. People would come in – it drove the owner crazy that I did it – but it was a way for me to start pushing tiny tidbits of dishes I would think of. I would just do it using scraps from pieces of salmon or pieces of toro or whatever, and then it kind of evolved into something a little bit bigger, where people were coming in, just requesting for me to do all these little plates.

That kind of segued into this one foodie from San Diego, he was coming in once a week just to eat those dishes, and then he asked if I would go do those at a party for him with eight or 10 people. So I showed up and literally that chaos, I was hooked. I like controlled chaos a lot. I like feeling like any second it’s going to fall apart, and that was how – in those days, I’m cooking with nothing in those days. Literally I’m cooking with what a college kid had. You know, a set of 10 plates that I would just re-use over and over again. I had literally just nothing, pans, maybe two All-Clad sauté pans and two All-Clad pots, and I would just sit there and cook as quick as possible, then wipe it out and go to the next thing and trying to pace out these meals, trying to do this, it was crazy. But I like feeling like you’re walking on a tightrope, and one false move, and a whole dish is completely ruined. That’s still how a lot of my food is. If you’re missing one thing, then the whole dish just falls apart. That’s what makes it more interesting, for me, at least, right now.

What was the sushi restaurant?

It was a place called Love Boat, in Temecula, the I.E.

Do you remember what you served at that first dinner?

I was really into Alain Passard at the time – you know the egg that he does? It’s a little egg yolk, and it’s got a little whipped cream in it, and a little sherry vinegar – I kind of did my version of that, which was the egg yolk in the bottom. You take the egg, you cut off the top and you remove the white, and you put the yolk back in the bottom. Then you’re floating it in a pot of water, so you’re basically lightly cooking the egg yolk. I took mushrooms, cooked them down, and then pureed ‘em and reduced that down again, folded it into a little whipped cream. Then I took some caramelized shallots and probably a sherry vinegar gastrique, or a sherry gastrique. Then just like a little fleur de sel. I think it was like seven courses, which at the time, I didn’t realize how much of an undertaking it was with literally one set of plates and four pans and two knives, because that’s all I could afford.

So you have a little bit more at your disposal now in terms of equipment?

Yeah. You can just look around and see. I’ve got all my stuff all laid there, and I’ve got probably 300 plates in those [cabinets]. I’ve got stuff everywhere now, dehydrators, ice cream makers, circulators, food processors, blenders – I’ve got all that stuff – juicers, mixers. Then it was so bare bones. It was so fun, but I couldn’t cook to even half of the ability that I wanted to cook at, at that time.

How have your dinners evolved since that first night in Temecula?

I was traveling everywhere. I was packing up everything just because I was living in Temecula, in the Inland Empire, at the time. And I’m driving to San Diego, and I’m driving to Orange County, and I’m driving to L.A., doing these dinners. So everything I had to do, everything I was prepping, I had to make sure to travel well, because I was driving 100 miles each way to these places. So I couldn’t do things like weird ice creams or weird sorbets – not that I even owned an ice cream maker – but I went to Target and got a $17 one. I’d do stuff like get to somebody’s house and pull out my ghetto ice cream maker, and literally as soon as I got there. I’d start churning it right off the bat, and then keep doing my stuff. I’d have somebody unloading the car, and then I’d be setting up the ice cream maker so I could make say a sorbet for course seven. So I’m getting that on right away. And then the other stuff’s coming in. Here I’m able to do a little bit more, though I’m still only using a home oven and one small stove, a little four-burner stove that anybody has in their house. The difference here is I’ve got all the equipment and I’ve got all my stuff laid out where it’s organized in a working space I’m not leaving. That’s the hard part. You’re prepping, then you’re packing up, then you’re driving, then you’re unpacking, then you go through the dinner, you’re packing, you’re driving, then you’re unpacking. So you’re doing all this extra work, and all the extra work takes away from the actual cooking. Here I can concentrate on cooking until people are actually getting here, whereas before I could concentrate on cooking until 3 in the afternoon, then I’d have to have my car loaded up and have everything and I’m driving.

So now everybody comes to you?

Yeah, now everybody’s coming here. It’s just a lot nicer because I’m able to do things that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to do before. I’m not really having to worry about, oh is this going to melt by the time I get here. I don’t want to put this in the fridge again once I get there, but I’m going to have to. I had to go through so many different variables, and think about how all the food is affected. There are so many dishes that I won’t prep ‘em ‘til the last minute, but before, I had to prep ‘em before I went, even though I didn’t want to, but that was the only way it was going to possibly be done. Now it’s just things – something like peas – as simple as getting peas ready – you don’t want them to sit out all day, but I don’t have to refrigerate them. I can shop at different times too. When I go to farmers markets, I can shop off of when I’m going to be able to serve something. That’s kind of the hard thing about sourcing. Rather than doing a one-stop shop, I’ll shop for certain ingredients on certain days, because I know something like cauliflower, I can prep ahead of time. I can save a cauliflower puree and do that ahead of time. But say strawberries, I’m not going to buy strawberries yesterday and let ‘em sit out all night because I’m not going to refrigerate ‘em. I’ll buy them the day of, then I’m going to buy this thing this day, and I’ll buy this thing, this day, based on how they’re going to hold up, and when they’re going to be at their peak. It’s more of being able to time stuff out, although it becomes more work.

Do you have a spreadsheet to help you keep track of all your work?

No, because everything is constantly changing. Dishes are constantly changing. I have no idea. I have a dinner, that we were talking about. I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do, absolutely no idea. That’s the hard part. I’ve got to source everything out. First I’ve got to come up with the concept. First we’ve got to talk about the random range; what’s something that I can do in my space that is something that I can plate for 12? I can plate it fast enough where the temperature’s not really going to be affected as much. There are just so many variables that come into it, rather than what the actual dish is at the end. By the time that the dish is done, everything is there for a reason flavor-wise, and everything is there based on what I’m able to create in this space-wise.

That kind of gets at the next question. What’s the criteria for a dish that you would serve?

That’s the thing. Obviously it’s got to be able to work in this space because I don’t have a six-burner commercial range at my disposal. I wish I did. I’ve got one small oven. So everything has to revolve around the timing. The timing, obviously, the balance of where it’s going to be in the dinner. If I serve something heavy, I’m always going to do something to lighten it out, either lighten out that dish, or lighten up the next dish to where you feel like you’re balanced. The hardest thing for me is you eat a bunch of food that’s heavy, heavy, heavy, and you leave and feel really sluggish, just kind of – ugh – that’s just too much.

I know the feeling lately.

I’m definitely trying to find a balance of literally everything, of the food, the space, but honestly, I even think about what people are going to be talking about during the dinner, and how quick they’re going to go through one course. Say it’s something like a scallop. I’ve noticed people eat those insanely quick. So then I think about, what’s the next thing I can get to go after that? Then I’ll look at the table and I’ll look around and see what can I put out next that can be a little bit slower that can draw out the eating, or, if it’s going to be another dish that’s going to be fast, it all depends on the energy of the table because I’m right here, so I can see. I’ll look over there. Granted, I have an idea when I put my menu up, how I’m going to serve and what I’m going to do, but I also kind of look really what’s happening at the table. I can adjust this. I can take this out of the dish because you can tell if a crowd is insanely going at it at the table and talking, and if everyone is talking, then I slow my cooking down. I slow everything down. So I make dishes where I can do that. I’ll tend to stick to certain cuts of meats, to where I know how I’m going to cook them. Say rabbit, for instance, I just like rabbit more than chicken. To me, that’s my answer to chicken, is rabbit, because it’s a really neutral flavor. You obviously have the “rabbit” flavor of it, but it’s a vehicle to put a bunch of flavors on. And people who follow my stuff I don’t really serve a lot of beef. I serve pork, but it’s not necessarily at every meal. I tend to go with rabbit, lamb – I like lamb a lot – and squab, for some reason. Those are kind of my go-tos, because those are ones I personally like the flavors of a lot. I don’t really eat a lot of beef or chicken. Only if Eva wants to make something, or we’ll go to Zankou or something.

How many dinners are you hosting at this point? How often are you having the dinners?

It’s kind of sporadic right now because of the Lexus stuff. I’ve slowed down so I can concentrate on doing that stuff properly. There are a couple events coming up for the Lexus thing, where I’m going to be doing the Wandering the Forest dish. I’m going to do that at one of the events. That’s also another luxury that I have. I can slow down or speed up the stuff that’s going on. Right now, I do private dinners too, as well. Right now, I’m doing three of the Wolvesden dinners this month. Before that, I was trying to do two a week. I would love to do even more. The hard part, aside from the sourcing and the actual physical act of cooking and putting it altogether, is I have neighbors right here. One, two, three, that I have to worry about. Because this space was one of the first ones that was redone, the noise, literally, when you’re walking upstairs, you can hear them, so they can hear everything that’s going on in here. It’s respecting your neighbors. That’s another reason why I don’t do them as much, because these people all work too and they all get up early for their jobs. If I’m doing these four nights a week, that’s four nights a week that they have to put up with the noise until midnight or 1 in the morning.

Do they know what you’re doing here?

Yeah, they know.

Do you cook for them?

No, but everybody always comes by the door, because they can always smell stuff. So they always come by the door and say, “Oh, man, I need to come in here.”

So they’ve never been to one of your meals?

Nope, nope.

Demand clearly outpaces supply in terms of seats. How you decide who sits at your dinner table?

Well, usually we try to leave 1-2 seats open for people who have previously been. We do that mainly because it’s good to test consistency. So if somebody comes again, you can talk to them and see, how was this in comparison to the last meal? How was the food? How was the overall experience? They play multiple parts, because they’ve been to a dinner, and usually when people come to the dinners, the very first couple minutes, they don’t really know what to do, so usually the one or two people. They’re like, “Oh, I’ve been here before. You can put your wine up there. If you want to share it, we’re all open to sharing. I’ll share my bottle of wine, and dah dah dah dah dah.” All of the sudden, you’re getting somebody who’s already been, and they’re sort of taking over the group. Then by course two everybody’s all comfortable with each other. It just kind of speeds up the awkward introduction phase, because you’re getting a bunch of people that don’t know each other. They’re kind of kind of the bridge to that.

Then we look at how long somebody’s been trying. There’s somebody, they’ve put a thing in every single dinner. So finally, the one who does it – Dim Sum Pup – he goes through Julian [Fang], who just flags, “Okay, this person’s tried to get in 30 times.” Then they get moved to the top of the list. Then there are certain times where we randomly pick a name. You have, obviously, personal acquaintances or friends, we’ll save ‘em a seat. But for the most part, our goal is to get people off the mailing list, because I get e-mails from people all the time, they ask me personally, and it’s hard to tell them no. We’re just trying to knock as many people off the list as possible. That’s also why we only do +1, because everybody wants to bring 10 people. That’s one dinner, now you’ve already filled up the whole dinner except for one or two seats. That’s for one name off the list. It would literally be impossible to feed 1/100 of the list at that rate.

How are people finding out about you at this point?

At this point, it’s still a lot of word of mouth. There’s been press and stuff like that, but most of the e-mails that we get – you know, we have that Freestyle section where people can just write how they heard about us, or just write freestyle, write whatever you want. People will say, “Oh I heard about you from a friend at work,” or “I read about this on,” or they’ve seen something, but a lot is still word of mouth. But obviously the articles don’t hurt because you can easily through Twitter or e-mail, just send someone a link to something. Then if they’re curious enough, they’ll sign up. Luckily they’ve been curious enough, so that’s good.

What was the first dish you ever remember cooking, in your life?



Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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