Chef Interviews

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

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Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 4:08 PM
click to enlarge Craig Thonton over his stove - CALEB CHEN
  • Caleb Chen
  • Craig Thonton over his stove

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.

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