“I like people coming up and talking to me while I’m cooking,” says chef Craig Thornton. People interest him as much as food does, which is why he started Wolvesmouth, an unconventional, multi-course, serial eating event. “It’s not a restaurant; it’s a dinner party,” states Wolvesmouth’s understated website. Thornton wants guests to arrive and feel at ease, to comment on the music he’s playing and the art on the walls, and to watch as food gets made and arranged on each plate. “Being able to expose them to all these layers that they don’t normally see changes the whole dynamic,” Thornton says.
He announces his dinners through his mailing list, chooses guests at random from those who respond to the email and hosts the meals in an informal, domestic setting. The undercover location of the dinners has come to be known as “Wolvesden,” and Thornton embraces the term, though it originated with his diners, not with him. Only those on the guest list know where dinners will be held and there is no price—diners pay what they choose and often choose to be generous. The first time they dine with Wolvesmouth, most arrive as strangers, knowing maybe one other person. This is never a problem. “For the most part,” says Thornton, “these people are already connected through the love of food or social experiences.
Otherwise they would never have signed up. ”Thornton, who is just past 30, graduated from the Western Culinary Institute. He has worked in a wood-fire restaurant in Portland and as a line cook at Bouchon in Las Vegas, the restaurant of perfectionist Thomas Keller. “I think with any chef you work with, you take away less about actual cooking,” he reflects. “You learn more about yourself than anything.” Whether they meant to or not, the chefs he has worked with propelled him to start Wolvesmouth. They helped him “build that confidence to put it all on the line and trust my instincts.”
Thornton has exquisite instincts. Food bloggers have praised him for the perfect taste textures of his dishes. His composition also always look weirdly aggressive, and seductive. One from 2011, called “Wolves in the Snow,” combined venison, cauliflower purée, and beet and blackberry gastrique splattered across the plate like blood.
When he first started hosting his own, renegade dinners around six years ago, he lived in San Diego. Over the past two-and-ahalf years, since he’s relocated to L.A., Wolvesmouth has become a fulltime endeavor. Thornton visits farms and farmers markets and designs dishes based on what tastes best at the time. “We only want the best, so it takes a lot of sourcing which is half my battle,” he says. He used to only debut new dishes at his dinners. This meant he was creating 70 to 80 new dishes a month. Now, he’s slowed down, and develops maybe 30 to 40. That sounds like a lot, but since his dinners have upwards of 13-courses each and he holds 6-8 a month, there’s plenty of room for “oldies but goodies,” which excites diners who have seen photos of certain hit dishes on his blog or in magazines. Says Thornton, “Now
I am more focused on refining down dishes and making them as good as I can.” He’s refining the social environment too. For instance, he’s become good at composing dinner playlists that loosen up the mood. “There’s a balance to it all,” he observes. “It’s something so simple yet it took me years to fully realize.”