What do painting, snowboarding and really loud music have to do with the culinary arts? We’ll let Wolvesmouth’s chef Craig Thornton explain.
Craig Thornton grew up in the northwestern corner of Arizona and California’s Riverside County. He was a snowboarder who came of age listening to self-made bands like Page 99 and Burzum, Orchid and Joy Division up and down the West Coast. “I was going to shows with groups of friends whenever I could. For a long time, I was more into music and snowboarding than anything,” said Craig. “That’s what we did five days a week — we’d figure out how to go to shows.”
But about 15 years ago, Craig got inspired. He craved the blood, sweat and tears that go into starting something from nothing and needing to prove yourself. The kind of thing that he saw from his favorite bands, but using his own non-musical skills. Aside from snowboarding, Craig had always been a painter, specializing with oil on glass — and turns out he is a pretty good cook, too. After putting in his time at culinary school and the restaurant world, he was ready. Craig had watched his favorite bands play the same small spaces for years on their own terms, steadily earning the recognition of more and more people. Now, he’s using that model to forge his own path on the fringes of LA’s booming food scene.
Nothing about eating at Craig’s restaurant, Wolvesmouth, is a typical dining experience. Thornton wouldn’t even describe it as a restaurant, really. It’s more like a dinner party crossed with an art installation. For seven years, Wolvesmouth was run out of a taxidermy-filled loft space in Los Angeles’s Arts District, and in 2015 it moved to Thornton’s small home on the border of the Los Feliz neighborhood. All 18 to 20 diners at the nightly meal sit around one long wooden table in a room open to the kitchen, with everyone partaking in the same nine or ten course dinner.
“With dishes, I serve the heaviest and extreme dishes right up front. It’s like the equivalent of going in with double bass and screaming guitars. You’re going for it right away…”
And the food? When Craig constructs each night’s tasting menu, he does it as if he’s sequencing a record. “If I were in a band, I would want my album to start off with double bass drums,” he says. “In your face. Huge.”
That means tossing out the traditional approach of gently ascending from the lightest dish of the night to the heaviest. Instead, he goes hard right from the first plate. “I serve the heaviest and most extreme dishes right up front. It’s like the equivalent of going in with double bass and screaming guitars. You’re going for it right away, and it sets the tone immediately: Oh fuck, we’re in it now,” Craig explains. It pushes you into the Wolvesmouth world faster, and you know immediately that you’ve got no choice but to go along for the ride.
He might begin with a pulsating black and white construction composed of ribeye cap, creamed kimchi, squid ink sabayon, beef tongue, Asian pear, and vermouth. Something intense and unlike anything else that has touched your palate. So what does that sound like? “Someone like Trent Reznor, or Nine Inch Nails. You go to a Nine Inch Nails show and they have you in a whole different world immediately. Visuals, music and food, those are the things I put together to put you into a different world,” says Craig.
Working further with the sounds and space of the environment, Thornton designs the experience of eating at Wolvesmouth to stimulate all five of the senses. “Everything that I do now asks: ‘How do you have taste, touch, sound, sight, scent all enacted just before it’s too much?’”
A Sensory Experience
For several years Thornton has worked with Sonos, but at the end of 2015, they partnered for their biggest project yet. During two weeks of meals for friends and guests, Thornton took full advantage of his own space and what Sonos equipment can do.
The experience started inside a neighboring storefront that Thornton recently annexed, where the bathroom was transformed to replicate the décor of the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, while music from the cult TV show played on a loop. Guests lounged before dinner inside a monochromatic room where videos of alligators were projected on fully tactile alligator leather upholstery amidst a collection of alligator skulls, while listening to songs selected from episodes of “The Alligator Hour,” the Beats1 radio show hosted by the Queen of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, one of Thornton’s pals.
From there, guests were invited to explore the courtyard, which had been transformed into a swamp setting, then down into the house’s basement where there were oysters, a fully-plumed peacock along with a flying and perched peacock, and moss on the walls, as lush albums like Beck’s Sea Change played on the stereo. Once the meal began, everyone passed an iPad around, adding his or her own selections to the Sonos queue. At the end of the meal, diners traveled down through a hatch into a small space called the “sound bath” where they absorbed the intense sub frequencies of drone metal masters Sunn O))).
“Food and music are the main two components where, if it’s not there or right, then the entire things falls apart.”
Giving the diners control of the music during the meal was a rare choice for Thornton. Most nights he elaborately manages the soundscape, creating a playlist on the fly suited to the particular personalities gathered around his big table. If most of them are strangers, he’ll start mellow to ease them into the experience. If they show up ready to party, he’ll increase the tempo and volume right from the start. “Each group has a certain energy, so you have to figure out what the energy is,” he says.
But it’s obvious he couldn’t fully ditch the painter in him. Oils are a medium that require you to have the final image in your head before you even begin; Craig’s complex dishes and elaborate presentations reveal this artistry. “I like starting with an end idea and then having to work backwards,” he says. “It makes you have to visualize what you want even more. You think harder about what you want to do before you do it.”
As Thornton has more opportunities to indulge and experiment with new ideas as a chef and artist, he recognizes that the core of what he does remains what people are putting into their mouths and what they are listening to. Those are the key ingredients. “Food and music are the main two components where, if they’re not there or right, then the entire things falls apart,” he says. “You’re kind of going on this roller coaster, and you’re using the music and the food to get you there.”
Got Plans This Weekend?
If you’re in the L.A. area and want to try and snag a rare seat, you can submit your information to an email database (which now includes between 40 and 50 thousand names). Craig and the Wolvesmouth crew will send out dates for when they’ll be cooking, and you can then submit a request and cross your fingers for an invite. There are usually two seatings a night and each menu is unique, with exact dishes rarely (if ever) repeated. Which feels just about right for Craig’s style.