Chef Craig Thornton Blurs the Line Between Dinner and Art Installation
This living, breathing art instillation takes sensory cooking to a new level.
This piece originally appeared on Wallpaper.com.
Of the chefs that have taken the dining experience – be it a supperclub, omakase-style tasting menu, or plain old dinner – and transformed it into something resembling art, Craig Thornton has taken it perhaps further than any other. His "Wolvesmouth" supper clubs, run from his Arts District loft in Los Angeles, are still one of the hardest reservations to get in a famously food-obsessed city and have rapidly become the stuff of legend. Though the chef has always been candid about his approach and ideas, breathless descriptions have nevertheless cemented the event’s underground status as something resembling the culinary equivalent of a night in Berghain.
His latest residency, at the Geffen Contemporary branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA), takes his approach to a new level. Dubbed "Wolvesmouth: Taxa", the residency is a full-sensory dining experience that explores the interface between food and art, and attempts to summarize what Thornton is striving to achieve. He's described it as an artist-driven experience somewhere between a high-end supperclub with elements of an avant-garde art project.
Thornton started cooking 14 years ago with the intention of marrying all five senses together, and the menu at Taxa is intended to form only one part of a wider audience interaction. "The missing link when I was younger was taste", he explains. "So I quit art to focus on food. It took about ten years of only focusing on cooking that I felt comfortable adding in the other elements back in."
These elements are immediately apparent at the installation, which includes large-scale environments constructed to convey nature in all its beautiful, grotesque glory, something the chef has spent the last several years creating. Additionally, sound devised for the installation’s entrance adds a sonic element, which gives way to a relaxed interplay between the audience, a playlist and the activities of the kitchen.
As is de rigeur in the world of contemporary cutting-edge gastronomy, menu items are introduced with minimal fanfare, often with an abbreviated list of ingredients providing the only clues to each dish – though to say that the concepts are cerebral is to undermine the research undertaken. For example, Thornton’s lamb course riffs on ideas of divinity; illuminated glass rods from the installation cast aggressive shadows on the table, while the dish itself – plated with the chef’s signature eye for form and color – has been visually presented to resemble a bloody sacred heart. "This dish was based around observations of religion, so the starting point was lamb, red wine and bread because of [their] religious significance," he says.
While his ideas are ambitious, it’s also worth noting that his years behind the stove have given the chef a perspective the average diner can relate to. While the physical installation was a major factor in deciding the menu, he always sought his suppliers to score the best produce. "The farmer’s market is always number one. What’s the best quality and in season that I can get, period."
A self-professed control freak, he also admits that chef colleagues haven’t necessarily had the most influence on his technique or ideas, but he draws inspiration from their discipline and work ethic: "Jeremy Fox, Ori Menashe, Thomas Keller, David Kinch… the list goes on of these people who are about upholding excellence daily."
"At MOCA, we’re rebuilding the kitchen every day and tearing it down every night. With this in mind, there are many things to take into account. Everything is all about timing in seconds, so you have to be present all the time. There’s no time to really be out of the moment, even when the dinners are over – this is a living and breathing installation day in and day out."