If food were judged on the basis of sheer Instagramability (and the way things are going, that day may be nigh), L.A.-based chef Craig Thornton would be in a league of his own. At his Downtown L.A. supper club Wolvesden, Thornton sends out plates that blur the line between food and visual art: A sliver of tender pink pork belly here, a pool of squid-ink lobster sabayon there, splatters of preserved blueberry-beet gastrique—all executed in a #nofilter composition of vibrant produce, carefully sourced meat, and always, always, a pop of acidic fruit.
But there is more to Thornton’s food than mere aesthetics. The self-confessed control freak has spent years refining his craft, first in the kitchens of hipster-food mecca Portland, and later as personal chef to Nicolas Cage (!). Seven years ago, Thornton started an underground supper club in his Arts District loft, serving an improvised multi-course tasting menu to groups of just ten guests at a time. He hasn’t had an empty seat or bad Yelp review since.
These days you might finding him rustling up a birthday dinner for the Nine Inch Nails, or catering a private culinary salon hosted by Questlove. But Thornton’s glamorous Los Angeles career couldn’t be farther removed from his impoverished Arizona youth. “I grew up eating government food. As in, canned meat, peanut butter in a can with a stamp of a peanut on it. Powdered eggs that had a stamp of a chicken on a brown package. Powdered milk,” he says, noting that his sparse childhood diet had a surprising impact on his palate. “[Eating that food] helped me to detect what is not good more so than what is good; I know very well what ‘not good’ tastes like. When you grow up on a diet of lesser quality you’re able to pick it out, because it’s smashed into your taste memory.”
I don’t want my food to be like walking through an abstract art gallery, where you’re just speeding through it by the time you’re halfway round.
Twenty years on, Thornton’s taste memory is composed more of places and moments than of any particular dish or technique. “When I was thinking about my ten dishes, I realized the stuff that has stuck out has been is entirely experience-driven—which is why I’ve taken the direction I have.” He’s referring to his steadfast resistance to a permanent, brick-and-mortar space—what he refers to as “stainless steel box cooking”—as well as his most recent project, Cut Your Teeth. For the latter, Thornton teamed up with L.A. artist Matthew Bone for a five-week installation encompassing art, music, and food, housed inside an Atwater Village warehouse kitted out to resemble a wild woodland—taxidermied bears and all.
While Thornton dreams of creating a new medium for gastronomy, he insists he’s not trying to go over his diners’ heads. “What I want is the balance of creative and comfort, that middle point,” he explains. “I don’t want my food to be like walking through an abstract art gallery, where you’re just speeding through it by the time you’re halfway round. I want it to be a mixture of abstract art, pop surrealism, classic landscapes, and hyperrealistic portrait painting; a gallery of stuff that pushes the envelope, as well as stuff that you really love to look at.”
Here, Thornton reflects on the eating experiences that have shaped his career thus far, from blue crabs on the bank of Mill Creek, MD, to the peanut butter and pickle sandwich that he served in his first ever ‘restaurant.’
WHITE BEANS WITH HAM HOCK, YEAST ROLLS, AND BUTTER
If you’re Asian, you might’ve grown up on steamed white rice; for some people, it’s mashed potato. White beans are my rice, and this would be one of my ‘last meal’ dishes. It was something my grandma made—she was Southern, so the ham hock was her thing.
There’s a richness to this dish, but I don’t feel like crap after I eat it. I still don’t like heavy meat extravaganzas, for the same reason I rarely drink: I don’t like to feel hungover. I don’t like feeling bad. I don’t like feeling sick. I don’t like feeling blah—it annoys me. This is a rich dish that doesn’t make you feel heavy or gross, and it’s cheap to make. It was a cheap luxury that I got to have [growing up]. (Photo: Coconuts and Cardamom)
PEANUT BUTTER AND PICKLE SANDWICH
I started cooking at my grandma’s house. I would go through her fridge, pull stuff out, and write up a little ‘menu’ of options—things like a turkey, pickle, and cheese quesadilla for 75¢—for her to choose from, and then make whatever she wanted. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was basically running a restaurant! I didn’t even know that restaurants existed then. I just wanted to make some candy money.
There are actually inflections of my childhood diet in the way I cook now. I used to really like peanut butter and pickle sandwiches as a kid, and back then I couldn’t tell you why I liked them. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I have an affinity for acid components. I like acidity against rich foods—I don’t enjoy rich on rich; I don’t want uni, quail egg, and caviar. I want uni with a Meyer Lemon curd and puffed crunchy rice. I like to lighten things up. I didn’t understand that as a kid, but looking back I realize that’s why I made those sandwiches in the way I did. (Photo: Jessie Next Door)
SHRIMP TOAST AT FISH CHURCH (GOTHENBURG, Sweden)
When I was a personal chef living in Sweden, I’d go to a place called Fish Church in Gothenburg. This was before the whole Scandinavian food craze. I was shouting from the roof tops that their food was incredible, and people were like, “Sweden? Why would Sweden have good food?”
This dish is basically just a tartine—little tiny shrimp on a piece of toast. I’d go to Fish Church, pick a couple of them up, and sit beside the canal with those and my elderflower drink, with my feet hanging over the water—all by myself in Sweden, just eating my shrimp toast and taking it all in. It’s one of the rare times in my life where I was able to just slow down and acknowledge that I would always remember that moment, and that it wasn’t just the shrimp toast that I enjoyed about it. It was the entire package. Even a moment as simple as that made me realize that most people’s biggest food memories have nothing to do with a tasting menu or an attentive server. It’s all the other stuff. This was the first time I started thinking about how I could create that for people. (Photo: kotiliesi.fi)
BLUE CRAB at CANTLER’S (Annapolis, MD)
This was just blue crabs. Just a pile of crabs, on a table, that you ate with some hush puppies. But you ate it outside with all this water surrounding you. it was less about the food and more about everything else—breaking your little crab with a mallet, and looking at the water where they’re pulling the crabs out. Things like that are why I’m driven to create the whole experience—although, of course, the food matters first and foremost. (Photo courtesy Craig Thornton)
WOLVES IN THE SNOW AT CUT YOUR TEETH
This is venison, creamed hen of the woods (mushrooms), cocoa coffee crumble, preserved blackberry beet gastrique, and fried moss. It’s one of my dishes, and it represents a turning point in the realization of the installation. It’s about the point where I figured out how to put together all my ideas for the installation in a way that made sense; the dish itself is a representation of the ideas behind the paintings, and the space, and concept, and the goals. (Photo courtesy Craig Thornton)
SWEATMAN’S BBQ (HOLLY HILL, SC)
I planned a whole trip around Sweatman’s and McCrady’s, just to eat Sean Brock’s food. Again, the food was great, but the meal was memorable because of the environment and the journey I took to get there. You’re out in the middle of nowhere in this tiny little town, and you’re just watching these people do the thing they’ve done for decades.
At Sweatman’s, they have this thing called hash, which is just all the ground up bits from barbecue in this tomato sauce —kind of like liquid sausage. You have it over rice and it’s so fucking good. That was a destination spot that funneled into my idea of experience, experience, experience. The driving there, the getting lost…it was all part of the meal. (Photo: Burgers, Barbecue, and Everything Else)
HONEYCOMB DISH AT WOLVESDEN
This was a process. We created the honeycomb dish specially, and that was a big thing for me. From drawing it on a piece of paper to seeing it glowing in the installation was the realization of a dream in my mind, and something I want to extrapolate on more. It was the cornbread and honey ice-cream. The coconut crunch. The nectarine. The ricotta. The honey-steamed cake. It was all about ‘thinking past the plate,’ which is kind of a thing of mine.
I’m actually in the process of taking the honey coconut crunch and making that into its own product that you’ll be able to go buy in a store. I haven’t really found any elements of what I do that I can carry over and control the quality of—because I am control freak over my food—but this is a product that has crossover appeal. So far, everything Wolvesmouth has involved me being there, but this is the start of a new way of doing it. (Photo courtesy Craig Thornton)
ASPARAGUS SQUID INK GNOCCHI WITH CRAWFISH at Wolvesmouth
This is another one of my dishes. It represents something that has nothing to do with food—it’s about my youth, and music. Before the Nine Inch Nails tour, the band came to Wolvesmouth for Trent Reznor’s birthday. When I was very young, Nine Inch Nails and Joy Division were a very huge part of my ‘escape’ music. Making this dish was a reminder of how far I’d come—from being 11 or 12 years old, using Trent’s music to escape my very abusive upbringing, to having him eating my food. That music had such a big influence on making me feel not alone in the situation I grew up in. That dinner created a moment where I was very aware of how far removed I am from my youth. (Photo courtesy Craig Thornton)
DUCK AGNOLOTTI WITH HUCKLEBERRY JUS
This is a dish from when I was in Portland working for this chef named Thomas McLaughlin. Thomas was a chef that was very much flavor-driven. He instilled in me that focus on flavor—texture first, and it doesn’t fucking matter what it looks like. Even though my food looks a very particular way, I actually approach everything thinking: I don’t fucking care what it looks like. I want it to taste good.
This dish, in particular, was where I really started understand that I like fruit in my dishes—a LOT. I ate this dish and realized the huckleberry was what made it for me. When I read it on paper, I was like, “Berries? With pasta?” But it totally worked. I go a bit further—all my dishes have that component now. I like freshness, I like vibrancy, and this dish was the first one that made me realize I wasn’t crazy for liking that. (Photo: John Mariani)
DIN TAI FUNG PORK DUMPLINGS
I love the flavors—vinegar, soy, ginger, chili oil—but mainly I love the idea of consistency behind them. That’s what I strive for, because making the same thing over and over, and making it good every time, is what’s important. There are always 18 folds in the fucking dumpling—I count them—and I’ve never had a bad batch. I’ve eaten so many over the years, and it’s always spot-on. If you can make something well, and have it be consistent, that’s all that matters. I want more hits than misses. It might looks like I’m trying to make crazy stuff, but I’m really not—I’m trying to make good stuff. Stuff that’s delicious. (Photo: Honest Cooking)