This Unforgettable L.A. Tasting Menu Is Cooked Without Recipes
The most satisfying tasting menu I’ve had in Los Angeles this year doesn’t involve modern technology. It doesn’t even involve recipes. What it does involve is all the food being cooked on a brick hearth while customers happily stay up past their typical bedtimes.
It’s 11:30 p.m. on a Thursday night when the carved-up suckling pig is brought to a communal table during the seasonal Fuss & Feathers dinner series at Culver City restaurant Hatchet Hall. Everyone is digging into luscious meat and fat and skin. Fuss & Feathers is an ode to old-school American flavors and cooking techniques, so the pork is accompanied by “three sisters,” a hearty and soul-stirring array of sides inspired by the food indigenous people cooked thousands of years ago.
There’s Hatchet Hall chef/owner Brian Dunsmoor’s “super super basic” acorn squash, with brown butter, salt, pepper, wood herbs, and brown sugar, that’s slowly roasted over coals. Dunsmoor and chef de cuisine Martin Draluck also prepare grits with Cherokee blue corn, milk, water, salt, pepper, and housemade butter in a Dutch oven that’s put on the hearth. “There’s no need to accent that,” Dunsmoor says. The third side is beans cooked in smoked pork stock with Broadbent’s country-ham scraps and lots of other porky goodness, including roasted suckling-pig bones.
“We don’t use a formula for stock, but we use everything in stock,” Dunsmoor says of Hatchet Hall overall. “It’s a money saver and a food saver. You don’t waste anything. That’s why we can run shit as tight as we do here.”
Timeless, essential cooking like this often seems like a lost art, which is one reason Dunsmoor is doing Fuss & Feathers and also writing a cookbook as a way to teach people important kitchen skills.
“You can’t just do shitty, sloppy food and be like, ‘Hey, bro, we do rustic food here,’” he says. “‘Rustic’ is a very slippery word because people can screw it up. We do things with care and intent. We do everything by hand, so that gives us more time because it’s slower and it gives you those moments where you can make decisions. I have really good knife skills. Here, when I cut a carrot, I think about how I’m going to cut it to make it look imperfect and natural.”
Dunsmoor likes to talk about celebrating imperfection.
“It’s our responsibility to make things consistently good,” he says. “Things don’t have to be consistent. I’m trying to give the food an opportunity to develop some imperfections but on purpose.”
That said, what’s most impressive about Fuss & Feathers is Dunsmoor’s combination of perfect cooking and perfect seasoning. Everything at Fuss & Feathers, despite the lack of recipes at Hatchet Hall, is executed with exceptional grace and thoughtfulness.
Consider a oyster dish that’s inspired by how Abraham Lincoln used to host oyster roasts and shovel oysters off the grill himself. Dunsmoor’s oysters with mullet-roe butter are roasted in tinder.
“We put on a wire rack covered with kindling, so the oysters and the butter sit up there over the coals until the kindling literally gets engulfed in flames,” Dunsmoor says. “They’re just in this inferno. We have to pull the rack off while it’s on fire and let it burn down. The flame swoops over the top, and it kisses the top and caramelizes the top. The technique itself is really what makes it good. It’s cool because I’ve always thought I wasn’t a perfectionist, but apparently I am.”
Perhaps the most insane thing about Fuss & Feathers, which Dunsmoor runs with Hatchet Hall owner/operator Jonathan Strader, is that the oyster dish is one of 11 savory courses before the suckling pig arrives. After that, there’s baked apple with sweet cream for dessert. You do not leave this three-hour-plus dinner hungry, which is something Dunsmoor wants to ensure. He hates that feeling of going to a fine-dining restaurant and then wanting to stop at In-N-Out Burger on your way home.
Before the suckling pig, I enjoy on-the-bone sand dab meunière amandine, which I eat with my hands. It’s a dish meant to showcase an excellent California fish, but it’s also a reference to how Thomas Jefferson went to France and then brought French food to America. And if you want to get into it with Dunsmoor, he can talk to you about how Jefferson’s slaves were taught to prepare French dishes and how there are so many other dark elements in American history that are difficult to research because nobody wants to discuss them.
Meanwhile, he’s finding it harder and harder to hire good kitchen staff because few people even know how to make a basic sauce. He says he’s lucky to have an A-team, mostly Latinx chefs, who can cook anything. One reason he’s writing his book, which he says will be “a manual for cooking,” is that he hopes more people will learn how to properly prepare food. Maybe there will be more cooks to hire in a few years.
“I fired every American kid that has walked in the door here,” Dunsmoor says. “Nobody knows how to work. Nobody remembers how to cook. They all want to work at Somni or Vespertine. But what they don’t get is they don’t know to cook. They can’t bake a biscuit or make a pasta dough or cut something properly. They can’t efficiently chop an onion.”
Dunsmoor, who grew up in Georgia, went to a private school that “was out in the country between Athens and Atlanta.” The school in Monroe was a way for him to get away from “the bad crowd” he ran with in elementary school.
“Parents have a good read; it’s funny,” he says. “All the kids I was hanging out with didn’t turn out great.”
Dunsmoor remembers his dad driving him to Walmart every morning because that was where the bus picked all the kids up for school.
“We had some real cooks at the school,” he says. “We’d have a fried chicken day. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, greens. It was awesome. I look back at it now and, damn, why don’t people cook like that now in schools? We’re too far gone to recover that anytime soon. That’s part of what we’re kind of trying to do here. I just miss real food.”
So Dunsmoor, who spent summers at family cattle ranches in Colorado, has a big collection of old cookbooks. He wants to do a tour of American taverns, including Philadelphia’s City Tavern, which was frequented by several Founding Fathers. He knows there’s still so much for him to learn.
He wants to open another restaurant, possibly next year, where he can do a version of Fuss & Feathers every evening, where customers can order à la carte and sit around a big bar that wraps around the kitchen. He wants his guests to see how everything is made in a hearth, to smell the coals and the almond wood, to watch how the food reacts to fire. He wants a restaurant without waiters. Right now, Fuss & Feathers is in a private dining room away from Hatchet Hall’s kitchen, which isn’t ideal for what Dunsmoor wants to accomplish.
In the meantime, Fuss & Feathers almost feels like a private supper club, a festive experience with the kind of meal you’ll remember for weeks, months, maybe your entire life. The beverage pairings, featuring hard-to-find spirits and indigenous varietals, might have you feeling tipsy by the time the suckling pig shows up. But then the pig comes, and you’re jolted by the feeling you get when you share a lot of good food with friends and strangers. Plates are passed. Conversations veer off into crazy directions. I end up eating three servings of the wondrous beans.
Fuss & Feathers is a nod to Old Fuss & Feathers, the nickname given to U.S. general Winfield Scott, who was a larger-than-life gourmand. A salted turkey broth Dunsmoor serves is a nod to how Benjamin Franklin thought that the turkey was a more deserving symbol of American values than the bald eagle, which the Founding Father once wrote was “a bird of bad moral character” who “does not get his living honestly.”
Dunsmoor can tell you so many other stories from American history, like how Squanto taught pilgrims to trap eels and prepare corn. That’s part of the reason Fuss & Feathers serves smoked eel and also has corn milk as a palate-cleanser.
Dunsmoor can explain how a Santa Barbara spot prawn cooked with seaweed atop rocks is in the style of a New England clambake, but also how Algonquins were preparing seafood like this long before New England became New England. To get the rocks for this dish, Dunsmoor rode his bike up into the San Gabriel Mountains, up the Cogswell dam. He pulled about 15 pounds of rocks out of the river.
Dunsmoor, who has the words "CAST IRON" tattooed on his fingers, puts these rocks along with red dulse seaweed from Big Sur in 15-inch cast-iron skillets. Then he steams the Santa Barbara spot prawns in the skillets. It’s a finicky dish. Once the steam starts going, the prawns might still be raw after four minutes but will be completely ruined if they stay on the hearth a minute longer. Like with so much of what Dunsmoor does, precision is everything.
The other day, Dunsmoor, who’s extremely paranoid about overcooking the prawns, grabbed two skillets off the hearth and popped his wrist.
“That was just me being a dumbass and trying to be tough,” says Dunsmoor, who knows it was stupid to clutch more than 20 pounds of cast iron and rocks the way he did.
He was worried that injuring his wrist might put him out of commission for a couple weeks. But a week later, he was ready for another round of Fuss & Feathers. There he was in front of the hearth with wood and a shovel, watching the sparks fly.