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Q & A With Craig Thornton: Wolvesmouth, Thomas Keller + Cooking with Fire

Craig Thonton over his stove
Craig Thonton over his stove
Caleb Chen

Back in August, we happened upon a photo from an underground supper club called Wolvesden. The blogs were already raving about these secret dinners, and in October, we had the opportunity to dine at one ourselves. There were thirteen of us there that night, with each person bringing bottles of wine and beer, which were shared openly amongst the group. We ate and drank for over four hours, put down thirteen courses, and left more than a little full.

The man behind the stoves was 28-year-old Craig Thornton, who took a rather unusual career path, leading him to a rather unusual professional situation. He cooks, preps, and shops almost entirely by himself. He refuses to work in a professional kitchen, or even to open his own restaurant. Thornton, it seems, does things his own way. So we sat down with the chef just before the holidays, and talked about his difficult childhood, the intentions behind Wolvesden, and how he formed his own personal style.

Check back tomorrow for part 2, and later this week for a recipe from the chef.

Squid Ink: So, you're different from all the chefs we usually talk to, in that you don't work in a restaurant, or have one. You don't have a truck, or a cart, or a sous chef, and it's all totally by design. Why is that?

Craig Thornton: Okay, I paint. So you start out with a blank canvas, and I'm telling you, "put this color here, and this color here." By the time you get done with the painting, and I'm adding to it too, it's not gonna be what I wanted it to be fully. So doing it pretty much by myself, I'm able to get through exactly what I want. It's a lot more work, obviously. It's a lot more straining, but it's a chance for me to do exactly what I want to do, and to continue developing my style. And I figured the only way to do it was just to do it by myself.

I'm very shut off from the food scene. I know what's going on, but I purposely shut myself off from it. I have to kind of just sit there by myself and figure out what I'm all about, as far how I want to cook. Or even when it comes to painting, it's the same thing.

SI: So what, really, is Wolvesden? Is it a supper club? Is it a dinner party?

CT: For legal reasons, it's a dinner party. It's a dinner party, basically, that's run exactly as a restaurant would be -- as far as the organization of it. How dishes are done is very restaurant-style. Obviously, since it's not a restaurant kitchen, I have to pick and choose how I would do certain things that would be different from a restaurant. But it's a dinner party with the organization and basically, the backbone, of what a restaurant is. It's just doing it on a smaller scale. Rather than have ten cooks cooking for seventy people, I'm one cook cooking for twelve people. So it's like a fraction of a restaurant, you know? It's like one-seventh of a restaurant, or one-tenth of a restaurant.

SI: Where are you from?

CT: Originally born in Orange County, grew up in Arizona, and then moved to Temecula when I was sixteen. And from there, from sixteen on, I've lived all over the place. Basically just traveling around cooking when I was twenty.

SI: As I learned from watching Carson Daly, you didn't exactly have the easiest childhood in the world. What was that like, and what happened?

CT: I grew up in, basically, like I said on the Carson thing, in a drug-induced environment. And, you know, obviously you've got other obstacles, you know, that.... that's what's hard to talk about. You know, growing up under just so many circumstances, from drugs, to abuse, to... I'm a kid who grew up on welfare, food stamps, and government food. Doing this stuff with food has been my way of pushing as far away from that as possible. And I don't know, I guess food is definitely my way out of that. Looking back on that, I mean, obviously I look back and I remember things, but it's kind of like going through those obstacles, you can make the best of it, and try to figure out how to get out of it, and that's what I tried to do. When I was sixteen that's when I got out to California. I couldn't handle it anymore. So I came and lived with some cousins. And then I actually started snowboarding, and that's what I thought I was gonna do before I was cooking. I was trying to become a snowboarder. And I decided on a whim that I wasn't gonna do that anymore.

So yeah, it's definitely weird, kind of. Someone asked me about the contrast between growing up on government food, and then the food that I'm doing now. How I'm into high-end cuisine and high-end products. And it's not even high-end products, it's just...

SI: Quality products.

CT: Yeah. Quality. High-quality products. But it's the contrast of growing up. I don't have the traditional story of, "he sat at his great-grandmother's legs while she was cooking." I was cooking for my grandmother. I would go over to her house and cook, and that was my escape. I went in there, like I said on the Carson thing, I went over and took apart her fridge and then made her order from me. And this is when I'm eight or nine years old. And I'm asking for cast iron pans for Christmas when I'm ten years old. Asking for mixing bowls. What's funny is, my grandma, when I was young, she thought that I'd be a chef. She said, "oh, you'll be a chef when you grow up. Or you'll be a lawyer." Because I loved to argue. But, you know, that's what she thought I was gonna do. And that's obviously what I ended up doing.

SI: A lot of chefs, when they're asked what their last meal would be, they call back to food from their childhood, and their family. So what's your answer to that question?

CT: Mine is white beans with ham hock, and really good bread and butter. And that is a dish that my grandma would make. And also yeast rolls. She made these yeast rolls. [My] Peking duck dish actually uses a combination of her yeast rolls, and a classic steamed bun. But I'm mixing both. Just based off what I remember her doing. They're yeasty, they're sweet. But I would go out for that meal for sure.

SI: When you were sixteen, were you cooking at all professionally at that point?

CT: I wasn't cooking professionally. But I was cooking in school. My school had a cooking program. I guess you could call it off-site catering. I was doing that when I was fourteen. I was in Arizona. I wish all schools had it. The school I went to in Arizona had it, and they basically ran it like a restaurant. You've got twenty kids, but it's a class you had to sign up for. And there's a chef, and the chef is teaching you, mainly, organization. Not necessarily flavor at that point. It's pretty low-budget. You can imagine a school-catered event. It's more about organizing and developing good habits, good hygiene, understanding sanitation. Basically building that foundation of how to properly execute things. And that's the most important stuff. Without that, you're screwed. You're getting people sick.

 

Arctic char with rye fritter, butternut squash purée
Arctic char with rye fritter, butternut squash purée

SI: And then you worked for some kind of restaurant that was all wood-burning, right? What was that like?

CT: It was all run by wood fire. That was in Portland. And the thing that you learn there, obviously, is intuition, and how to really pay attention to when something could be done. Because your heat is going up and down, up and down, and it's all depending on the wood. One piece of wood is different from the other. It makes you think more about how one piece of salmon is different from the other. Everything is different. Nothing is the same. If you ever watch me cook, when I make this arctic char dish, I'll be moving the pans, and moving the fish all around in the pan because I can feel where all the different heat spots are. Then I'll stack certain pieces that I want to cook more slowly.

So you learn more, I guess, heat control, which is what cooking is. Unless you're doing raw food and stuff like that. Me cooking an apple, I would maybe cook it for thirty seconds, and then put it off to cool. And that's just enough to get the outside a little softened, but the inside is still nice and crunchy. But when I was younger, I would have cooked the apple all the way through. I wouldn't have necessarily thought that far through it. But I think going through that, and cooking just with wood and the ingredient, it forces you to look at things in different ways. If I was able to, I'd love to have just a wood fire in [my kitchen]. Man, I would love that.

I do a lot of the sous-vide stuff. Not a lot of it, I mean, a lot of stuff I do is classical, and sometimes sous-vide, but mainly because I'm doing almost all of it myself. And it's almost impossible to put out twelve plates, twelve courses, without having some sort of mechanism that I could use. So I plan courses accordingly. But it is weird, the difference between going from just fire to a little machine, where you can set the exact temperature that you want.

SI: You were at Bouchon in Vegas. How did that go and what was your job there?

CT: I worked the line. Well, I did prep and then worked the line. And then usually on your day off you're supposed to come in and help do pastry or baking. You know, it's not something that you have to do. But it's encouraged. Do you know what I mean? But when I was there, I was working seventeen hour days, six days a week, sometimes seven days a week. Obviously there's an intensity all the time, but you also put the pressure on yourself to live up to the standards that are set, because you don't want to let anybody down. More than anything else, that's what it is. You know what the standards are going in, and it forces you to push yourself as hard as possible, whether you're working five hours or you're working seventeen hours. You need to be working the same regardless. So literally I'd go home, take a shower, fall asleep, go [to work], and that was it. That's all I did. Just being there, in a place like that, you learn how to do three or four hundred covers. So you learn a lot more about organization. And that's why the [Wolvesden] dinners are the way they are. I feel like most of my life has been about learning how to properly organize, but also having the improvisation. If you're organized, you're setting yourself up to be able to improvise.

That's the thing, I think, working at most places -- I've learned to improvise based on my situation. If I'm in my kitchen, I'm going to cook differently than if I'm in your kitchen. But what some people do is, they have a set idea of what they want, and then they go in my kitchen, and they have all these choices, with dehydrators, and circulators, and ice cream machines, but then they go to your house and you might not have that. But they still want to do that menu that they set out to do. And that's why it fails sometimes. It's about being open-minded and being able to change on a dime.

SI: Thomas Keller is known to be a bit of a perfectionist. Did that come through when you cooked at Bouchon?

CT: Oh yeah. [laughs]

SI: How so?

CT: Just him walking in the room, people stand more straight. I think it's awesome to have that kind of presence. It's not about conforming to his style, but it's a respect thing which I think is amazing. And that's the kind of thing I'm more in awe of when someone comes in. Where they can change a whole dynamic just by walking into a room. Not even by looking at anyone. You know that they have high expectations, but it's also leading by example, which is pretty important. I've carried it over to these dinners, and it's not just a Thomas Keller thing. My life has taught me to lead by example, and I've been doing this stuff alone for a long time. I've had to, as a survival instinct for me growing up, in a certain way. I've learned to do things on my own. Once I say I'm gonna do something, I'm gonna do it. Even if it means not sleeping for thirty-six hours.

SI: So why did you leave Bouchon?

CT: Well, I had no money. I went to cooking school, and the thing is, you have to pay a shit-ton of money for that. Would I do it again? Not necessarily. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could go do it, and be disciplined enough to do it a hundred and ten percent, and pull as much out of it as possible. I mean, the way that I cook now is nowhere even near what I learned in cooking school. But what I'm trying to do is strip down everything. The butternut squash puree that you had. It's butternut squash, water, a little bit of butter, salt, maple syrup. Nothing more. But the way that I was taught to classically make it, was to use chicken stock, mirepoix, cream, butternut squash, all that stuff. If you notice, I'll put three flavors together. It's that char, with the rye fritter, with the squash puree, and that's it. It's not squash puree with forty flavors, and the rye which has rye and caramelized raisin, and the char. You know what I mean? As I keep going I try to strip down more and more. I try to take everything out. I guess my cooking is more of a study in psychology, and irony, and the essence of what something is. It's all these things smashed together.

But sometimes with a sense of humor. I want to get surgical trays, and serve raw meat on them, and have people eat it with surgical tweezers. And there's a dish called "primal," which is bone marrow, sweet breads, and broken bones on the plate. They're like smashed bones, obviously not edible. I'm actually not a fan of inedible garnishes, but with this one I was trying to make a statement. When you go to a table and you set that dish down, you can tell a lot about people. Some people dive into it. They still have that primal instinct. But some people don't even want to touch it. So you can see what kind of person they really are.

SI: So your plate is essentially a Rorschach test?

CT: Basically. I did a dinner, it was in San Diego like five years ago when I started these. It was like the third or fourth dinner that I was doing, and I was doing it for this supper club. It was a dining group, and they were all dressed up. But none of them were really talking to each other. So the next time I did the dinner -- I made another dinner for them -- I made this really crunchy dish, where I knew it would make everybody uncomfortable. Because everybody was so quiet. So they're all sitting there covering their mouths, looking at each other, and just crunching. And I went in, and I started laughing, and I said, "the only reason I made this dish is because you guys don't talk." And it totally broke the ice. They didn't even realize, and then after that, you couldn't stop them from talking.

It's making observations like that which I like doing. I'll dip into my artistic style, which is kind of a psychology point. Sometimes I'll start a dinner off with a course that's gonna punch you in the face. But then the next one will go down, and then it will build up a little bit, then go down, and then boom! I think of it more as a heart monitor. If your heart monitor goes up and down, then you're alive. If you have a flat one you're fucking dead. And that's mainly how I think of food. It's very much like a heart monitor, where you have the ups and downs. If you have that slow, flat, thing, then you're dead. Which means your food's dead. Which means it's not exciting.


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