When most chefs talk about the "dining experience," they're referring to the normal parameters -- how the decor complements the service, which complements the food. Craig Thornton takes that a quantum leap further. He wants his dinners to be transformative.
Up until now, he's been able to offer only samples of that experience, serving his Wolvesmouth pop-ups at private homes. But this fall he'll finally be able to unleash the full effect in a cooperative art project called "Cut Your Teeth" he's putting on with artist Matthew Bone at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. [UPDATED: This story originally said the dinners started this weekend; tickets go on sale then, but the dinners start Oct. 16]
"I want people to come out afterward and say this is a once-in-a-lifetime-type dinner that I won't forget," Thornton says. "That's what I'm after with what I want to do with food and art and this direction that we're headed in. I want to create a story."
Bone and Thornton have created an environment inside the museum and Thornton is designing the menu to complement it. As reported in the museum's news release, "For each meal, guests will come together to dine in a darkly wooded den…. Inspired by the relationship between predator and prey, Thornton and Bone have transformed the Museum's Main Gallery into an overgrown installation of organic, vegetal and skeletal forms. Their work explores the harvest, reproduction, and the cycle of life and death." [UPDATED: This story originally said Bone had created the environment; they worked together on it.]
"Cut Your Teeth" will be in residence at SMMoA for two weeks starting October 16. Dinners will be served Oct. 16-19 and Oct. 22-25, with two seatings each night. Tickets are $225 for the nine-course menu, including tax and tip. The exhibit will be open for touring, without the food, during the museum's normal hours.
It's the culmination of an interest Thornton has had for years.
"My goal when I very first started cooking, 11 years ago, was to figure out a way to bridge art and food in a non-gimmicky way," says the chef, who tends to speak in rushed essays. "You know how sometimes they're kind of forced together. 'Oh it's food and it's art!' But they end up battling with each other, not flowing with each other. Everything isn't coming from the same source.
"Over the course of time, I've been figuring out how to move on to the next stage. At this point, this project is more where Wolvesmouth is going than just a classic restaurant. I want to create a deeper immersion and story.
"My goal was to be able to talk to diners, not just in a conversation, 'Thanks for stopping in, good to see you', but to have a legitimate conversation so I can understand what they're after.
"It's not like some grand original discovery, but all life is a bunch of stories," he says. "Providing somebody with a good memory, a good story, that is my goal. Obviously I'm concentrating on my food, but at the same time there is another aspect of it that I want to create -- a deeper story through doing things like this art installation."
It all sounds esoteric, and it is – but no more so than any other art project. What Thornton says he's getting at is conveying feeling and emotion through the dinner plate.
"Color is a big thing in my food; there's always a lot of color going on," he says. "I like the idea of stuff being vibrant. When I see things that are vibrant and colorful it makes me think of life. I want that feeling throughout my food -- even though a lot of the food I do is also wrapped up in this darker stuff. It's kind of like the black cloud with the sun shining through. I live between both worlds in a more extreme way, I guess."
He offers as an example a pasta dish – squid ink noodles served with potatoes and mascarpone, clams, candied lemon jelly, pork sabayon and concentrated parsley oil.
"It's essentially my version of vongole, but pulled in a different direction," he says. "The idea behind the dish was darkness and light. Look at the dish and it has this murky black, deep dark feel, it looks like it's going to be super rich. But then you taste it and it's insanely light and bright. That candied lemon jelly cuts through the whole thing and makes it really vibrant tasting.
"Those are the kinds of things that are inspiring to me -- pulling from things that you might want to say and figuring out how to do it without it being overly gimmicky and kitschy.
"I'm putting everything on the line, but that's the only way to do it. Otherwise, what's the point? Rather than being comfortable, wondering whether people enjoyed what we do and can we just ride it out, I want to say OK now we're shifting into fourth gear."