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Watermelon radishes, stinging nettles, kaffir lime leaves. Ask Craig Thornton what he plans to do with this stuff and he'll answer, "I don't know." How about the green garlic or Nantes carrots? "I don't know." Yet here he is, scouring the Santa Monica farmers market, seeking inspiration for his next Wolvesmouth dinner party.
Frequently lumped in with au courant pop-ups and supper clubs, Wolvesmouth is neither. It's more of a microrestaurant, a reflection of Thornton's idiosyncratic cooking style and DIY purism.
Working out of the spacious but nonprofessional kitchen in his downtown loft, Thornton does all the cooking and much of the prep, with help from his trusty assistant, Cortez (a high school friend from Menifee). The food is plated and served by a few friends, including two food-obsessed attendees from a previous dinner. At the intimate meal, a dozen guests share a communal table a few feet from the stove. The pay-what-you-can meals are a gustatory marathon, anywhere from 10 to 17 courses.
Thanks to rapturous praise from food bloggers and an appearance on Last Call With Carson Daly, Wolvesmouth was quickly a hit. The wait list now stretches to more than 1,000 people.
Thornton cooked in restaurants and served as Nicolas Cage's personal chef after graduating from the Western Culinary Institute. Something of a chef savant, he learned to cook as a child by preparing elaborate meals for his grandmother. The "whatever's in the cupboard" style developed into a vocabulary of improbable flavor pairings and novel preparations. "I like to take something that looks perfect, then tear it down and turn it into something new," he says.
He has no set menu when he begins cooking. The meal continually evolves, like jazz improv, with Thornton shifting ingredients from one dish to another. After much deliberation, he incorporates the nettles into ribbons of pasta topped with braised rabbit, hedgehog mushrooms and hazelnuts. The kaffir lime leaves flavor a delicate panna cotta surrounded by crumbled yuzu vanilla cake. It's a virtuosic culinary experience minus the pomp and the price tag.
The dishes look as intriguing as they taste. During last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he served a dish called Fuck BP: an artful mess of squid, fluke, oysters, mussels and clams atop yellow uni "polenta" on a puddle of black squid ink, splattered with drops of verdant green parsley oil. Unsurprisingly, painting is his hobby.
He says he has no desire to work in a restaurant, but make no mistake, Thornton is ambitious. He has an agent trying to develop a TV show, an alternative path to success that bypasses the traditional restaurant career but allows for an escape from his barely solvent business model.
At the end of the night, guests leave donations in red envelopes. Half of the money covers the cost of ingredients. After paying his helpers, Thornton isn't left with much. "As long as I can pay my rent, I don't really care," he says, heading to the kitchen to make himself a rudimentary sub with a leftover baguette and mayo straight from the jar.