When all was cooked and done, nearly 2,000 plates had been smashed to bits – flung against the wall in a far corner of a sprawling warehouse in Atwater Village where the latest incarnation of the dinner series "Cut Your Teeth," produced by Wolvesmouth chef Craig Thornton and artist Matthew Bone, took shape.
After a several-course tasting menu, two dozen diners pushed themselves away from the table, donned protective eyewear, wiped their dessert plates clean, walked them over to an already existing pile of broken ceramic and made their contribution to the art/detritus as fake fog filled the room and ersatz snow fell to the ground.
Wolvesmouth founder Thornton had accomplished what he has always set out to do ever since launching the supper club in his Arts District loft four years ago: create a participatory experience that was more than just about “feed me.”
And while a lot of other successful chefs who started with a pop-up or underground supper club might have had aspirations to open actual restaurants (Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor of Hart & the Hunter or Alma’s Ari Taymor, for example), Thornton has consistently eschewed the trappings of normal dining, to the glee of his following (there are now more than 14,000 people on the Wolvesmouth mailing list).
“I don’t want to do Wolvesmouth in a restaurant space,” Thornton said. “That was never the plan.”
Last summer, he and artist Bone launched "Cut Your Teeth" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, creating an environment that the museum referred to as a work exploring “harvest, reproduction and the cycle of life and death.”
This summer "Cut Your Teeth" evolved into a Thornton/Bone production with a new menu served in a constructed landscape of more than 800 real and faux trees, plants and flowers meant to represent spring, summer, fall and winter; a handmade 24-foot tiger wood table; several paintings by Bone; plenty of taxidermy, and a custom chandelier made with 7,000 coyote teeth.
“It’s more celebratory and bright, less aggressive,” Thornton said. For the next one he’s toying with the idea of focusing on one season.
“It’s been years of doing Wolvesmouth and building the trust of the audience, so that they know we’re going to do something worth going to," Thornton said. "I think that’s been really the main goal. Building trust with the audience we already have.
“I waited a long time before I did the art installation. Three years ago, people would think, what the hell is this guy doing?’ rather than ‘We’re going to go into this space, don’t know what the menu is going to be, but they’ve built a forest and we’re going to check it out.’ So when we do something, people are open to going. We’re lucky that we’ve essentially cultivated the best audience you can get. That’s the thing that’s the secret to the whole thing," he said.
“If you were to go on our mailing list and take it apart, it’s full of open-minded people who are open to new experiences. There’s no better demographic than that. You can’t buy it. That’s why we can do out-there stuff. They’re willing to support it. My job is to make sure I don’t mess up.”
So he and Bone and “an all-encompassing production team” that includes a small band of cooks who also run food to tables, conceptualized and built the forest. “So the cooks are cross training; they cook and some of them know how to hang a coyote tooth chandelier.”
Julian Fang, who handles the administrative work that makes the events happen and helps in the kitchen, remembers the first Wolvesmouth dinner to which he was invited. “Only five people showed up,” he said. “I thought it was a family dinner party, but Craig never sat down and kept looking at a menu taped on the fridge and I realized he was serving us an 18-course dinner. It was really inspiring to see what he was doing, and I wanted to figure out how I could help.”
That included helping to cook for the latest five-week run of "Cut Your Teeth" in a makeshift kitchen with a few metal work tables, a refrigerator, a fryer, a toaster oven, a single induction burner and a shaved-ice machine. That was it. Just outside the kitchen door was a small propane grill. Thornton seemed unfazed by not having a stove or oven, and dinner was no less elaborate for it.
Diners knew what they were in for as soon as the first course arrived. It was Thornton’s signature “Wolves in the Snow,” which looks like a feral crime scene of venison, pine gelee, cauliflower puree, cocoa coffee crumble, blueberry meringue, cabbage and hen of the woods mushroom. Blackberry gastrique is splattered across the plate, resembling blood. But this time they were instructed to eat with their hands, and no one hesitated.
A parade of dishes followed, timed to a soundtrack that included Kanye, Grimes and the “Twin Peaks” theme song. Dungeness crab with asparagus veloute, dehydrated strawberry, dill oil, sourdough and pickled beet. Halibut with pickled vegetables, jalapeno crema, poblano puree, candied lemon gelee and “tortillas” that were small spheres of masa. Rabbit croquettes. Pork belly and lobster with green apple gelee, sweet potato latkes and squid ink lobster sabayon. Spinach and cotija gnocchi with corn reduction and blistered corn salad with gajillo pepper. Fried quail with Surinam cherries, pickled green tomato and a pimento cheese sandwich.
One woman finished each dish by saying, “I’m so sad it’s the last bite.”
Many at the table were Wolvesmouth regulars. Some had been to the "Cut Your Teeth" dinner at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
“There was a big return of people who went to that. It’s cool seeing new people and so many faces from the last one,” Thornton said. “I like feedback. It’s how I learn and grow. For me I enjoy cooking more than anything. That’s obviously what drives me. But it’s not the only thing I’m interested in. There are other things inspiring my food than just food.
“That’s always the question: What can we evolve into?”
Meanwhile, what to do with thousands of pieces of broken dishes? “The original plan was to pack it up and build on it for the next event,” Fang said. “But the logistics of gathering and storing a ton of plates proved too difficult.” Luckily, someone from the neighborhood stopped in, saw all the broken plates and said he could use them -- for what, no one was sure. He came back with a wheelbarrow and wheeled it all off.