Originally published as part of MSN.com’s “Fresh Perspectives” series, April 2011
Craig Thornton is passionate about many things. He loves traveling; he loves wild nature; he loves Tom Waits and Joy Division. But all of these things are subservient to his first love: cooking. More precisely, the 29-year-old loves cooking for others—and at his Los Angeles loft, which he calls the Wolvesden, Thornton does just that. Other great chefs may dream of opening restaurants, but through a series of Wolvesden events whose attendance is limited to a dozen people who have signed up online, Craig Thornton hopes to bring back the old-school dinner party.
“I really enjoy having people walk up and talk to me while I’m cooking,” says the chef, whose previous jobs included cooking for Nicolas Cage and at one of Thomas Keller’s prestigious restaurants. “They’re talking about a dish or about somewhere that I need to go try, and I like that exchange more than I enjoy feeding 200 people. … The whole idea is that you come in, you eat, you leave, and you’re like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”
That question is difficult to answer if one perceives iconic chefs as being lofty restaurateurs or reality show contestants. Thornton approaches a new dish as a painter approaches a fresh canvas; he considers what he wants to say with it, what mood he’d like to infuse it with, what materials he needs to make it perfect, and how it might work in context with the art surrounding it. And if it comes out looking a bit weird, that’s fine.
“When I make a plate, it’s very aggressive-looking,” says Thornton. “I don’t like the idea of everything being perfectly square and symmetrical. My stuff looks more raw, more organic, and more aggressive. … I’m trying to get across a feeling of movement, of energy. When I see perfectly-cut lines on a plate, it makes me think of type.”
Thornton created two dishes for Fresh Perspectives, on the themes of Empowerment and Escape. The Escape dish, which Thornton calls “Rabbit in the Forest,” hints at his love of sitting around a campfire in the woods – “that’s my escape from reality,” he says. But for Empowerment, he played a bit of a trick.
“It looked sweet, but it was savory,” he says. “When I think of the word empower, I think of liberating yourself. Looks can be deceiving; you look at something, and you assume that it is what it is. You assume that it’s going to be yogurt and berries and granola, and then you bite into it and it’s a pickled beet in the shape of a blackberry. Feta cheese was the yogurt; it had more the texture of a whipped yogurt. And the granola was a sweet and salty granola that I made. Underneath that was a beet salad that you couldn’t see at first. The idea behind the dish was that of liberating yourself by actually looking and tasting and really thinking about what’s actually going on before passing judgment. Once you do, that’s when you can empower yourself to move forward.
Moving forward is Craig Thornton’s central preoccupation. He wants to bring Wolvesden dinners to other cities and towns, provided he can maintain the quality of the experience. And more than anything, the chef wants to continue blurring the lines between art, music and cooking – creative mediums that, to his mind, come from the same place and fill the same human need.
“Food is very much how you would view art in a gallery,” says Thornton. “Cooking is a craft, but you can use it to create art as you would anything else, like painting. Everything starts out as a craft. Once you have the idea and express it, that’s when it becomes art.”
EXCERPTS FROM THE MARCH 2011 INTERVIEW
What’s the first thing you remember cooking?
Oh man, I mean I started cooking when I was extremely young, literally when I was 9 or 10. I was asking for cast-iron pans and mixing bowls for Christmas. The first thing I remember cooking was a turkey, pickle and cheese quesadilla that I made for my grandma.
That sounds really good.
At the time, all I knew was I liked the flavors together. But as I got older, now I understand why the flavors would actually work together. But this had to be when I was probably 7 or 8 years old.
How do you perceive flavor? As color? As music? Or something else entirely?
That’s the thing; it really depends on what mindframe I’m in. if I’m out with some friends in a restaurant I’m not necessarily tasting, but more concentrating on having a great time. But when I’m really thinking about what I want to do flavorwise… I went to a Godspeed You Black Emperor show the other night, and as I watched the show I was literally creating a whole dinner concept in my head. I look at literally everything and find to try to find its connection to food. As far as actual taste goes, I like to think that I perceive taste a little more intensely. I grew up literally on canned government food, so I pick up on off flavors extremely easily. So if I’m making something or I go to a restaurant and there’s an off flavor, I pick it up really easy, because it brings me back to growing up with it.
Like, dehydrated, reconstituted whatever?
Yeah. You’d open up a silver can that has a picture of a pig on it and that’s all that would be on it. But the flavors, you know government cheese, government fruit loops, stuff like that … there’s off flavors with them. Growing up with that, I think I’m perceptive to off flavors immediately. When you’re a kid, that’s when you develop your taste buds as far as things that you like and that you don’t like, and I don’t like off flavors. I can go into a place and I can tell how many times a meat’s been reheated because I can taste it.
Why do you do these speakeasy-style dinners? Why not just open a restaurant?
I feel the world is speeding up so fast that most everything seems to be just surface connections . I’m sure you experience it every day; I experience it every day, everyone experiences it. It’s like talking to a person in text message only. The world is becoming very much like a turn ‘n’ burn—you know, where it’s “try and get as much stuff out as possible and just keep moving on” and you don’t really get strong connections with people.
Obviously, I’m working on ways of expanding (Wolvesden), but to me, expanding doesn’t necessarily mean feeding more people. I’m hoping to teach people to be able to do the kind of stuff I’m doing. I really like the idea of having a smaller group together, where it’s more about the experience as a whole. Food is a very big part of it, but I really enjoy having people walk up and talk to me while I’m cooking. Or when I’m over hanging out after the dinner, they’re talking about a dish, or somewhere that I need to go try. I like those exchange more than I do feeding 200 people. It’s just a deeper kind of connection than just a surface “Hey, how’s it going, oh great, have a good night, see ya.” I want to find out more about people. I’m an extremely curious person. I ask people questions all the time, because I just want to know.
Backtracking a bit. What are your musical influences?
I’m a huge fan of Tom Waits. Joy Division. I listen to Philip Glass quite a bit. My musical tastes go all over the place, just like my food does. My top three bands, if I had to name them, would be Tom Waits, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and Joy Division. It’s three completely different styles of music…
But they were all at their best when they went outside conventions, when they strived.
Definitely. Someone like Tom Waits—I love his music, but the thing I like the most about him is that he’s very good at telling stories, just like Bob Dylan was. He has a lot of abstract stuff going on, but at the same time, it all makes sense. But if you just glance over it, you might think, what the hell is this? I really like that kind of surrealism.
And you put it on a plate.
When I make a plate, it’s very aggressive-looking. I don’t do right angles most of the time. When I do, it’s on purpose. I don’t like the idea of everything being perfectly square and symmetrical. I don’t like that organization. My stuff looks more raw, more organic, more aggressive. That’s what I’m trying to get across—that feeling of movement, of energy. When I see perfectly-cut lines on a plate, it makes me think of type. That’s just how I see it; obviously, everyone’s not going to see it that way. They want a perfect, consistent portion where everything is exactly 1.5 ounces. I like the idea of everything not being exactly the same.
When people come here to eat, I want them to leave feeling they’ve had a one-of-a-kind experience, and it’s fleeting. They’re here, and then it’s gone, but that experience stays as what it is. That’s why I try not to repeat a ton of dishes. If I do repeat, it’s because I’m trying to refine the dish—to find a better way of cooking and serving it. But I also like the idea that every time we do a dinner, they have that experience to share with that group. And that’s the only time they’re going to experience it. The next group has a different experience. I like that idea of going in and it’s all handmade.
I’m really just taking food back 50 years. That’s all I’m doing, regarding the experience. The food itself doesn’t date back to the 1950s, but I guess that the ideal, the connection to where people are sitting around… If you came to a dinner and were just a fly on the wall, you’d see weird stuff happen. People come in here and I can immediately tell who’s more timid and shy and feels lost and doesn’t know what to expect. What’s funny is that, by course three or four, those people are the loudest and having the best time. That’s what I strive for.
What kind of mark do you hope to leave on your profession?
Mostly, I’d like to show people that if you really want to do something—whether it’s cooking, painting, being in a band, being a journalist—you have to sacrifice your time, you have to love what you’re doing and you have to work your ass off.
I didn’t have my early 20s. I literally chose to just cook. Had I waited for someone to get what I was doing, I would still be doing nothing. I would never have progressed. Instead, I figured out what I wanted and I worked toward my goals and I saved up every penny and put it all back into cooking. That’s all I’ve done since my early 20s—I didn’t go partying, didn’t do any of that stuff. Wasn’t even interested in doing any of that stuff. I didn’t take the normal path of working a nine-to-five and partying it up on the weekends. You keep doing that, and then all of a sudden, you’re pissed off about what you’re not doing.
I just kept saving up, kept buying the equipment – and as soon as I felt like I had enough time and enough equipment to not do it half-assed, that’s when I decided to let loose. To me, that’s a big part of it—leaving mediocrity at the doorstep. If that means that you’re not gonna sleep for 32 hours, then you’re not gonna sleep for 32 hours, and you’re not gonna bitch and cry about it. You’re just gonna do it because you love it so much.