Craig Thornton is not a sellout. And if you're willing to have a little faith, he's not a pretentious asshole, either.
"That's not it at all," he says.
It's 9 p.m. on a Wednesday at Ruen Pair, the late-night Thai place frequented by Thornton and members of his small kitchen crew in their rare off hours. A month earlier they'd revealed Thornton's long-awaited second act: the seafood-centric concept Sharksteeth. Like his other concept, Wolvesmouth, it's a multicourse, communal affair — aka a dinner party — and it couldn't have come soon enough for the experimental chef's rabid fan base. But Thornton's a guy who takes his time. And though his ideas are big, the way he executes them is anything but.
"I like little things because I can control the quality on that level," he says. "A lot of chefs are making ever bigger restaurants. I want to make them smaller and smaller and smaller."
Over the past few years, he's turned his back on more than enough money to open a "proper" restaurant — more than enough to expand from his 20 or so seats to 100-plus and staff up from seven full-time workers to several dozen. In 2012, when he was 30, he was profiled in the New Yorker, and soon after the investors came knocking. But even before all that, the wait to land a seat at Wolvesmouth stretched as long as six months. He's easily the most idolized L.A. chef without a restaurant. He's probably one of the most idolized chefs in L.A., period.
So why is he sweating this Thrillist listicle?
At Ruen Pair, instead of celebrating the launch of Sharksteeth, Thornton is temporarily fixated on a snarky description of his new baby, published earlier that day. Staring at his phone, he recites excerpts in a mock-serious tone: " 'That dude who's critically acclaimed from Wolvesmouth decided that wasn't enough, so he started this seafood-centric dinner series as well. Show-off.' "
He's even more annoyed with the description of how someone might get into Sharksteeth: " 'Go for a swim off a short pier, and then apply via the website.' "
The thing that really gets him is that he's so not that guy. Wolvesmouth is highly exclusive by default, not by design; Thornton doesn't feel he can cook the way he wants to cook on a larger scale. And at Wolvesmouth, he asks that diners pay only what they think the meal is worth.
"They could fill that place up, especially in a town like L.A.," says Jeff Wise, who managed to snag a seat at not one but two Wolvesmouth dinners in the past year, and who sat across from me last Friday at Sharksteeth. "They could fill it up with celebs and dot-com people, and I'm sure they would put more money in the envelope than the people who do attend these dinners. And I'm sure it would be less fun. That seems like a tradeoff they're willing to make."
When Thornton finally moved Wolvesmouth out of his Arts District rental loft in June, it wasn't into a gleaming dining room with a state-of-the-art kitchen funded by suits but, rather, into a 1,200-square-foot bungalow in the Silver Lake/East Hollywood vicinity. He was able to buy it thanks to his impeccable credit. What else does a famously self-reliant chef do but turn down buckets of money so that he can save up to buy, gut and renovate a house?
"When that New Yorker piece came out, it was all at my doorstep," he says of the offers he rejected. "I don't think I'll ever have that kind of opportunity ever again. And if I did, I would do the same exact thing. I don't think that people understand that that's how strongly I feel about it. They think, 'Oh, you're just running it this way because you have to.' No. You don't understand. I turned down more money than one could ever fathom in exchange for pursuing whatever I could dream of making — just so I can plug away at a snail's pace."
Wolvesmouth has relocated from the loft to the bungalow with the same format: Hopeful diners join the mailing list and wait (and wait and wait) for an invitation. Sharksteeth, held on different nights (and, eventually, simultaneously in the house's basement) is slightly different: three fewer courses than Wolvesmouth's nine, simpler and mostly pescatarian presentations versus Wolvesmouth's artistic and carnivorous arrangements, and — the biggest difference by far — ticketed seats. The idea is to be democratic: Anyone can wait for the release of tickets on the Wolvesmouth/Sharksteeth site and hit refresh until they snag a $98 seat (or until the tickets sell out).
If the price tag sounds rather undemocratic, keep in mind that it includes tax and gratuity (and that it's BYOB). That comes to about $12 per course — courses that incorporate Dungeness crab, lobster, branzino, albacore, octopus, clams and halibut.
Close your eyes and this food tastes like the most soulful and inspired cooking to come out of the most refined home kitchen. (That's not to say it isn't restaurant quality, because it absolutely is. In a way, it's better than restaurant quality.) Open them and you'll see the artful little sketches on which Thornton draws inspiration for his stranger, more elaborate Wolvesmouth courses.
"What I thought was more important, when I first started doing Wolvesmouth, was how I could do the craziest dish that is so abstract," Thornton says. "When you're cooking when you're younger, you're cooking more for the idea of the dish — and you don't give a shit what somebody who's eating it thinks. But after talking to people, you realize that what is more important to them is really actually enjoying the taste of a dish more than enjoying the idea.
"How do I understand the diner more? That's a lot harder than cooking."
In true counterintuitive fashion, Sharksteeth starts with what might be the dinner's masterpiece course: a squid-ink raviolo stuffed with lobster, potato and mascarpone, resting atop a rib-eye Bolognese (the only meat in all six courses) and graced with romano beans, haricot vert, tarragon oil, gremolata and lobster bechamel. It's surf-and-turf meets lasagna meets Picasso.
A halibut dish, the fifth course, brings together smoked creme fraiche, braised leek, crispy potato bits and dehydrated green onion powder. The sauce is a full clam chowder that the kitchen reduces and purees. The kicker? Tiny little grapes so perfect they almost seem spherified. They add a burst of necessary sweetness and bright acidity. "It flirts with high-end fine dining," Thornton says.
The couple seated next to me, who've been trying, unsuccessfully, to get into Wolvesmouth for eight months, seem more than satisfied.
"This is the dish I'm not going to like," the man says of a smoked branzino salad with snap pea, cucumber, yam, green apple, cucumber juice and grilled milk focaccia (if Thornton were into large-scale production, he could make a killing mass-marketing that focaccia).
The man ends up loving it.
Wise, seated across from me with his wife, Barbara, and 16-year-old son, Ian (a fellow Wolvesmouth veteran), are equally smitten. While talking to Thornton, who's readily accessible as host, Barbara and Ian get to the bottom of the otherworldly apricot in the soup course, a corn velouté anchored by Dungeness crab wrapped in grilled zucchini. Was it dried apricot or fresh? Turns out it was neither. And both.
"They dehydrated fresh apricot and reconstituted it in lime juice two-thirds of the way," Jeff Wise gushes. "I mean, come on man! The care to such a minor detail! And that wasn't even the focus of the dish, it was just a little adjunct."
As for what's next on Thornton's ever smaller and more intimate agenda, he's contemplating a standing-room-only tapas bar, Lobos de Sangre ("Wolves' blood"). How serious is he? He's heading to Spain this week, "just to go do research. It's hopefully not a super long time off."
He also has a fascinating and format-busting art-meets-food concept in the works for next spring. (No more details can be revealed yet, but it will be the first of its kind.) And eventually, he'd like to house Sharksteeth in the basement of the bungalow, Wolvesmouth on the ground floor and a new, avian-themed concept on the roof. An entire ecosystem — sea, land and sky — all contained on one little plot.
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"I really don't think that the restaurant of the future is going to look like restaurants now, because I don't think they'll be able to," Thornton says. "Because of water shortages. Food prices are going to skyrocket. Population is going to grow. Everything is going to become so hyper-inflated. That's also a big thing that I'm trying to think about. The menus are going to have to be smaller. The diner and the business are going to have to become more connected.
"I like doing stuff on a small scale," he says, "because in the future everything is going to have to be smaller."