Q & A With Craig Thornton, Part 2: Nicolas Cage, Reflective Cooking, and How To Get Into a Wolvesden Dinner
Caleb ChenCraig Thornton takes a break from cooking
If you read part 1 of our interview with Wolvesden's Craig Thornton, you learned about his difficult childhood, his stint at Bouchon in Las Vegas, and how he developed some of his unique creative flair. For part 2, we continue the conversation, and find out about his time as a private chef for Nicholas Cage, and the genesis of Wolvesden.
We also spoke about with Thornton about the amount of work that actually goes into one of his multi-course dinners, how difficult it is to get into one (you can join the mailing list here), and where he draws the line on his pay-what-you-can price structure. If you're feeling especially bold in the kitchen (or want to really surprise the guests at your next dinner party), you should make sure to check back tomorrow for Thornton's "Wolves in the Snow" recipe. Or as he describes it in the interview below, "a wolf attack-scene on a plate."
Squid Ink: You wound up as a personal chef for Nicolas Cage. How did that come about?
Craig Thornton: I got scouted out, basically. But working there was amazing, because it offered me the ability to travel, and taste, really. Through that, I did tons of work with his son -- his son had a band. We were touring all over the place, and going all over. So you eat clams in Rhode Island; you go to Maryland, you eat crab. You go to Maine, you eat lobster. You go to the south, you eat barbecue. When you're able to go try all these things, you're able to put it in your flavor bank.
It was really a time to be able to, obviously, save money, and invest all my money into buying [cooking equipment]. Everything went right back into cooking. While I was doing that, I was doing these dinners. But I was doing them privately. It wasn't something I would post on Twitter. I was refining the process. I was building up, and getting dishes, getting glasses, getting circulators, and dehydrators, and building up all that equipment. So when you come, you could feel like, "wow, this is a dinner party, but it's not a dinner party." It's very much in the middle of both. I mean, I've got three-hundred-and-fifty plates in my house. That's not something a normal house would have. I've got thirty wine glasses. Thirty water glasses. Thirty champagne glasses. Eight sets of silverware. But [the Nicholas Cage job] afforded me the ability to make that stuff happen.
SI: What started you down the road of doing the Wolvesden dinners?
CT: The idea of that started five years ago. And so every move that I've made has been getting it toward this. For me personally, because I grew up basically alone, and having my own sense of who I wanted to be, working for other people -- like working for other chefs -- wasn't going to get me where to I wanted to be. [My cooking] is my interpretation of the world. Or experiences that I've had. And rather than worrying about what chefs in Chicago are doing, I'm not like, "they're doing this dish? I've got to do something like that now." I don't care what the trend is. And that was more the attitude of the Wolvesden.
People keep asking me, "what style of cooking do you do?" So all I say is, "it's reflective cooking." It's a reflection of my own thoughts, inspirations, and experiences. It's extremely vague, but that's what cooking is to me. The BP dish. I was pissed off about the BP stuff, so I made a dish about it. The wolves in the snow dish [recipe coming tomorrow]. I thought it would be awesome to have a wolf attack-scene on a plate. So I made this dish that looks like a wolf attack-scene on a plate.
But the thing is, I'm not just gonna throw any flavor together. I want to see if it works. I think things through, and then I make adjustments and hopefully it works out the way that I want it to. But at the same time, I obviously want to refine it and make it better. But just from the very beginning, that's what I wanted to do, was have an experience where it's so personal that it's just fucking ridiculous. When I was in restaurants, I felt like, when you're there, you end up doing a lot of paperwork and putting up with a lot of drama, which takes you away from the cooking part. Most of the drama that I have is from cooking. Most of the stress that I have is from cooking. It's not from the line cook hooking up with the waitress. That's not where I'm trying to go. I'm trying to focus on the food, the flavors, and also the people who are there. What's weird, is some idiot said, "oh, do you think that a lot of this comes from your ego?" But I said, "this has nothing to do with my ego. Because if it had to do with my ego, then I'd be making the most out-there, weird dishes, that some people might not be able to understand."
It's about trying to make the best experience for who's there. Because obviously, I can't feed everybody on the mailing list. We could do all these dinners for two years, and still not be able to do go through the mailing list. So when people are there, I don't want to let them down. So the thing that's difficult now, is there's obviously a lot of hype surrounding it. So I feel like the bar for Wolvesden is raised up here, so where do you go? So every time I'm trying to top it, and that is a pretty difficult thing to do.
Just this week, I'm gonna be doing thirty-six, thirty-seven new dishes. That's in eight days time. And coming up with dishes so that they flow. So doing the Wolvesden is my chance to be able to do this stuff. And hopefully it does taste good.
SI: How long have you been operating with Wolvesden as your full-time focus?
CT: Well, I left the private gig in mid-June. And I was doing these prior to that, so I basically was just not sleeping so I could do these. But seeing if it could be something that was sustainable enough to where it would at least pay for itself -- that was the goal. For the space to pay for itself, or the food. To have it be sustainable. So it was an experiment, based on the "business model," which isn't necessarily a business model. But once I figured out that it would be sustainable, then I knew it was time for me to go lay it all out. It's crazy going from a comfortable position, to putting yourself in the shit to be able to really do what you want to do. For me, I totally think it was worth it. But a lot of my friends and family members thought I was an idiot.
Flickr/djjewelzWandering the Forest: braised rabbit, juniper, Douglas fir brandy, onion, Douglas fir gelée, glazed carrot, brioche black truffle soil, chive, chanterelle, bluefoot, hen of the woods
SI: How much help do you actually have over the course of thirteen-course dinner? From conception, to shopping, to prep, to cooking.
CT: I do the shopping, I do 99% of the prep. I have Cortez there. He does things like soak the sweetbreads. I tell him to take them out and put them in ice water. It's things like that, like "hey, can you peel potatoes?" Everything else, I do. At the end of the day, my hands touch every single thing that touches the plate. I have some other friends, like Julian. He helps out with all the other stuff. I can't respond to emails anymore. There's so many coming in that I gave up. I can't cook, and respond to these people, and go shop, and clean, and prep. There's just too much.
People really want to get in, and how do you respond to somebody like that? We just randomly go through and pick. We go through and we pick people who like food. But then also, it's randomness. "This person looks cool, let's bring them. Whatever." But then we have a freestyle, and people can write whatever. And people write funny shit. Like you know that Hangover quote, where he says, "I'm a one man wolf pack?" Someone wrote that whole thing, but based on the Wolvesmouth stuff. He did this whole thing, and I was like "that guy's coming to dinner. But the thing is, it's becoming bigger and bigger. Now it's not possible to put a dent in the [mailing list].
SI: What percentage of people that try to get into these dinners actually get in?
CT: Now, the percentage is probably 10%. Obviously, at a restaurant we could feed all these people in a month. But we'd be seating 30 people at once, and then I'm not doing all the cooking. I did twenty-six people with help, with some friends, a few weeks ago, and it was seven courses. And that was fucking brutal. I'm still plating twenty-six people, but with them expecting my style of food. And so much of it is time-sensitive and temperature-sensitive. So you have to make the menu completely different based on that. So I'm not gonna do sweetbreads for a party of twenty-six.
SI: How many hours go into one dinner?
CT: Maybe thirty-five, I'd say. But most of that is due to L.A. traffic, and driving. I go to certain places for certain things. I'll go to Santa Monica to get tomatoes, and that's it. I'll drive there because this guy has these tomatoes that I really like. So I go specifically to him, because I know it will be consistent. So you're paying, with time and money, for consistency. Yesterday, the ocean trout that I wanted to get was fourteen pounds. I don't need fourteen pounds for twelve people. I'd be paying a a hundred and fifty dollars for a fish. That's one course out of ten. That doesn't make any sense. So I did trout, because I found an awesome trout. And it was English muffin sabayon with trout and chanterelles. And that was the dish. But it was based off of having trout. If I had ocean trout, it would have been different.
SI: You say that your dinners are pay-what-you-can. But how far will you take that? Let's say somebody really wanted to try your food, but gave you thirty bucks at the end of the dinner.
CT: I would hope that that someone would send me an email. For the most part, we've been fortunate that people put in an amount that's able to cover the expenses, and that's kind of what we're hoping for. But if somebody was just dead broke and couldn't make it in, I would hope that they would just email me or talk to me beforehand. We'd figure something out, because then I could make adjustments to the menu. So maybe I wouldn't serve sweetbreads. But I have thought of doing more of a family-style dinner for people who want to try my food but can't afford it. So maybe it's twenty-five bucks, but it's high quality and has creativity to it. Even if it's maybe just a burger night or something.
SI: What would it take for you to cook at a restaurant?
CT: [Laughs] I'm not cooking at a restaurant. I think it would be fun to consult on menus. I'd be open to doing something like that. But if I was going to open a restaurant, it would literally be the Wovlesden, in a restaurant space. Same size. I have gotten some emails from other chefs. There are a lot of ones who are like, "this is awesome." But there are a lot who say, "you're not a chef. You need a restaurant." But I don't give a fuck about what you think. I don't care if you want to call me a chef or you want to call me some little ratty dude who cooks.
SI: Well I guess technically, the term chef comes from "chief," and the title is more about running a kitchen than cooking. So there's that sort of association, I guess.
CT: Yeah, so that's the thing. I'm a cook. I don't care. Call me whatever you want. But at the end of the day, I'm into cooking, not... but the thing is, I do run a kitchen, pretty much. In Japan you go to places, and there's the tiny place that seats eight people. It's a guy doing sushi. And you're telling me that that guy's not a chef, because he doesn't have a bunch of people shouting words at him? To me, what I'm doing is almost like what those guys are doing.
So that's the thing. I actually do more now than when I was in restaurants. The food comes in, a guy preps it, and you're basically heating it up. You're a line cook. I mean, obviously, you're cooking. There's a lot of stuff a la minute. But I'm doing everything. Sourcing. You don't do that in restaurants. You call your guy and say, "get me this." But I have my meat guy, my fish guy. I'm lucky because I've had them for a long time, and I had them when I was doing a bigger volume. So I'll buy an extra five pounds, even if I don't technically need it. But that's how you get the best products. And that's what I'm serving at these dinners, is the best of the best.
SI: Where are you eating these days?
CT: There's a place on Melrose and Wilton that I like a lot. It's a Oaxacan place. It's a grandma, her daughter, and then her daughter's daughter all working in one place. They've got really good horchata. But since I moved [downtown], I've been eating a lot more ramen. I've been to a ton of fine dining restaurants. Here, Providence is probably my favorite. I've eaten at Ludo's place. I think it's awesome. What he's doing is awesome. He, in a way, woke up the L.A. food scene to accepting this kind of craziness, and to being more experimental, which I think is awesome. He, in a way, has changed the L.A. dining scene a lot.
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