For the past two years, in a loft apartment in downtown Los Angeles, Craig Thornton has been conducting an experiment in the conventions of high-end American dining. Several nights a week, a group of sixteen strangers gather around his dining-room table to eat delicacies he has handpicked and prepared for them, from a meticulously considered menu over which they have no say. It is the toughest reservation in the city: when he announces a dinner, hundreds of people typically respond. The group is selected with an eye toward occupational balance—all lawyers, a party foul that was recently avoided thanks to Google, would have been too monochrome—and, when possible, democracy. Your dinner companion might be a former U.F.C. heavyweight champion; the chef Ludo Lefebvre; a Food Network obsessive for whom any meal is an opportunity to talk about a different meal; or a kid who saved his money and drove four hours from Fresno to be there. At the end, you place a “donation”—whatever you think the meal was worth—in a desiccated crocodile head that sits in the middle of the table. Most people pay around ninety dollars; after buying the ingredients and paying a small crew, Thornton usually breaks even. The experiment is called Wolvesmouth, the loft Wolvesden; Thornton is the Wolf. “I grew up in a survival atmosphere,” he says. “I like that aggressiveness. And I like that it’s a shy animal that avoids confrontation.”
Thornton is thirty and skinny, five feet nine, with a lean, carved face and the playful, semi-wild bearing of a stray animal that half-remembers life at the hearth. People of an older generation adopt him. Three women consider themselves to be his mother; two men—neither one his father—call him son. Lost boys flock to him; at any given time, there are a couple of them camping on his floor, in tents and on bedrolls.
Thornton doesn’t drink, smoke, or often sleep, and he once lost fifteen pounds driving across the country because he couldn’t bring himself to eat road food. (At the end of the trip, he weighed a hundred and eighteen.) It is hard for him to eat while working—which sometimes means fasting for days—and in any case he always leaves food on the plate. “I like the idea of discipline and restraint,” he says. “You have to have that edge.” He dresses in moody blacks and grays, with the occasional Iron Maiden T-shirt, and likes his jeans girl-tight. His hair hangs to his waist, but he keeps it tucked up in a newsboy cap with cutouts over the ears. I once saw him take it down and shake it for a second, to the delight of a couple of female diners, then, sheepish, return it to hiding. One of his great fears is to be known as the Axl Rose of cooking.
For a confluence of reasons—global recession, social media, foodie-ism—restaurants have been dislodged from their traditional fixed spots and are loose on the land. Established chefs, between gigs, squat in vacant commercial kitchens: pop-ups. Young, undercapitalized cooks with catchy ideas go in search of drunken undergraduates: gourmet food trucks. Around the world, cooks, both trained and not, are hosting sporadic, legally questionable supper clubs and dinner parties in unofficial spaces. There are enough of them—five hundred or so—that two former Air B-n-B employees founded a site, Gusta.com, to help chefs manage their secret events. The movement is marked by ambition, some of it out of proportion to talent. “You’ve got a lot of people trying to be Thomas Keller in their shitty walkup,” one veteran of the scene told me. If you’re serving the food next to the litter box, how else are you going to get people to pay up?
At Wolvesmouth, Thornton has accomplished something rare: above-ground legitimacy, with underground preëminence. In February, Zagat put Thornton on its first “30 Under 30” list for Los Angeles. “Top Chef” has repeatedly tried to get him on the show, and investors have approached him with plans for making Wolvesmouth into a household name. But he has been reluctant to leave the safety of the den, where he exerts complete control. “I don’t want a business partner who’s like, ‘You know, my mom used to make a great meat loaf—I think we should do something with that,’ ” he told me. “I don’t necessarily need seventeen restaurants serving the kind of food I do. When someone gets a seat at Wolvesmouth, they know I’m going to be behind the stove cooking.” His stubbornness is attractive, particularly to an audience defined by its pursuit of singular food experiences. “He is obsessed with obscurity, which is why I love him,” James Skotchdopole, one of Quentin Tarantino’s producers and a frequent guest, says. Still, there is the problem of the neighbors, who let Thornton hold Wolvesmouth dinners only on weekends, when they are out of town. (He hosts smaller, private events, which pay the rent, throughout the week.) And there are the authorities, who have occasionally shut such operations down.
Getting busted is not always a calamity for the underground restaurateur, however. In 2009, Nguyen Tran and his wife, Thi, who had lost her job in advertising, started serving tofu balls and Vietnamese-style tacos out of their home, and within a few months their apartment was ranked the No. 1 Asian fusion restaurant in Los Angeles on Yelp. (Providence, a fantastically expensive restaurant with two Michelin Stars, was No. 2.) When the health department confronted Nguyen with his Twitter feed touting specials and warned him to stop, Thi was unnerved, but Nguyen insisted that the intervention was a blessing. They moved the restaurant, which they called Starry Kitchen, into a legitimate space, and burnished their creation myth. “It increased our audience,” he told me. “We were seedy, and being caught validated that we really wereunderground.”
Dining at Wolvesmouth is a dramatic event: nine to twelve elaborately composed courses prepared in an open kitchen a few feet from the table. Thornton stands over a saucepan with his head bowed intently, his hands quick and careful, a sapper with a live one. Between maneuvers, he darts over to the refrigerator, where he posts the night’s menu and, next to each course, the time it was served. Every so often, he steals a glance at the diners, and makes a small adjustment on his iPhone, turning up the volume on the music to make people lean in if they seem hesitant to talk, and turning it down once the social mood has been established.
The first time I went to Wolvesmouth, there was half a roasted pig’s head, teeth in, glistering fiendishly on the counter: a conversation-starter for the guests. Understatement, however, is one of the key production values. Thornton introduces his courses with minimal fanfare, rattling off the main components. “This is rabbit, with poblano pepper, Monterey jack, sopapillas, apple, and zucchini,” he announced at a recent dinner. Later, he told me, “We say ‘apple.’ But we took butter, vanilla, lemon juice, and cooked it at one twenty-eight—at that temperature, you’re just opening up the pores to give it a little punch—then we took it out, cooled it, resealed it, compressed it. When you put it on the plate, it’s just an apple. And then you’re, like, ‘Holy crap, this is intense.’ ”
Thornton’s menus are three-dimensional puzzles that remain in pieces until the final hours before the guests arrive. “Cooking is creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it,” he says. He is known never to prepare a dish the same way twice, an ideal conceit for the age of Twitter. From above, the food—smeared, brushed, and spattered with sauces in safety orange, violet, yolk yellow, acid green—is as vivid as a Kandinsky; from the table’s edge, it forms eerie landscapes of hand-torn meat, loamy crumbles, and strewn blossoms. Being presented with a plate of Thornton’s food often feels like stumbling upon a crime scene while running through the woods. A recipe for Wolves in the Snow, a dish of venison with cauliflower purée, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, beet-blackberry gastrique, and Douglas-fir gelée, which Thornton published inL.A. Weekly, instructs, “Rip venison apart with two forks, which will act as sharp teeth. . . . Attack the plate with your blackberry beet ‘blood.’ ”
For someone who is known to make beautiful-looking food—at a recent dinner, I heard an architecture student say that she’d based models for her thesis on dishes from Wolvesmouth—Thornton treats appearances as beside the point. Last year, when he felt that too much emphasis was being placed on the visuals, he instituted a brownout. “I started making ugly plates on purpose,” he says. “Potato purée with a nicely cooked scallop.” The dish that lingers for me is one of his unloveliest, a puce-colored pile of rabbit meatballs and mushrooms, leaning sloppily against a folded crêpe, in a puddle of yellow sauce: a briny, cool, and sour-sweet concoction made from lobster shell, shallot, vermouth, and tarragon, with a rich zap of lemon-lime curd. The rabbit still had the whiff of trembly, nervous game.
The pressure involved in long-form, dinner-party-style cooking is extreme. “That food has to go out,” Miles Thompson, a twenty-four-year-old alumnus of Nobu and Son of a Gun, who staged at Wolvesmouth while figuring out his own underground concept, said. “You promised twelve courses, and you only have that one striped bass. There’s no server error, no cook error, no ‘Here, I’ll buy you a cocktail.’ ” But limitations serve as a goad to Thornton. At a dinner last winter, when he learned that one of his regular guests was about to turn forty, he proposed cooking him a forty-course meal to celebrate. It was a typical Wolvesmouth dinner, miniaturized and quadrupled, and served in four hours. (Course No. 24: “chicken liver mousse, pickled pear, watermelon radish, brioche, fleur de sel.” No. 31: “lobster, celery root remoulade, black sesame, cherry-white soy vinaigrette.”)
Many of the guests that night were members of a circle who call themselves the Panda Clan and Team Fatass, referring to their panda-related Twitter handles and their appetites. They approach their meals competitively. Kevin Hsu noted on his blog, KevinEats, that he ate more courses at the “40 at 40” than at Alinea, Grant Achatz’s restaurant in Chicago. “Only à la carte marathons at Picca and The Bazaar have produced higher course counts,” he wrote. Thornton didn’t sleep for three days before the event. “I could’ve designed the menu differently, but I was, like, I gotta prep everything at the very last minute,” he told me. The hardest part was trying not to repeat ingredients, given that each course had four or five components and each component had four or five elements. “All of a sudden, you’re going through four hundred things,” he said.
For a long time, it has been clear to Thornton that he has to bring Wolvesmouth into the light. His kitchen has three functioning burners and one small oven. Once, when the gas went off in the building, he prepped an entire Wolvesmouth dinner in a pair of pressure cookers. He has a dehydrator, an ice-cream maker, good knives, and, aside from a new, three-thousand-dollar Cryovac machine, nothing beyond what a moderately ambitious hobbyist might own. His crew is made up mostly of non-professionals; he would like to be able to provide them with full-time work, and health insurance. Matthew Bone, a sweet, lugubrious man of six feet four, with tattoos up to his chin, is a painter; he and Thornton like to talk color theory while their girlfriends go out dancing. Andy Kireitov is an out-of-work heavy-metal guitarist from Siberia. John Cortez is a high-school friend of Thornton’s. Caleb Chen and Julian Fang came to Wolvesmouth as diners; so did Garrett Snyder, a twenty-three-year-old food writer for L.A. Weekly. Thornton has taught them all to cook, after his painstaking example, slicing padrón peppers open with a razor blade and tweezing out the seeds. (Lacking restaurant lingo, his crew members have evolved their own patois: “ramp,” for a gentle-sided bowl that looks good for skating, “lifesaver” for one with a broad outer ring.) Only Greg Paz, a quiet, catlike Filipino-Puerto Rican former skateboarder who serves as sous-chef, has professional experience. He went to cooking school and then worked at “turn and burn” joints before apprenticing himself to Thornton. Snyder likened Wolvesmouth’s stature in the underground-dining scene to that of Kogi, the Korean-barbecue food truck that started in L.A. and instigated a national craze. “There was nothing like it before and there’s been nothing like it since,” he said. “So many people want to be part of it.”
Running a tiny operation with a set menu allows Thornton to buy, in small quantities, ingredients that are impractical for most regular restaurants: too expensive (watershield, a kind of Northwestern lily pad), too weird (oak leaves, which he salted and served with pine broth and matsutake mushrooms), too fleeting (fiddleheads, ramps), or too labor-intensive (cured bonito loin, which he shaves by hand). Ideally, diners will try three or four things they’ve never had before. Sourcing takes days, and Thornton does almost all of it himself.
One rainy day this spring, a few hours before a Wolvesmouth dinner, Thornton stood over a tilefish, a dour, square-headed creature with a mosaic of silvery and mustard-yellow scales along its back. He wasn’t yet sure what to do with it. The fish had come from a sushi wholesaler that supplies Nobu, and ships choice specimens to Las Vegas and Aspen. “This morning, they called and said, ‘Hey, we just got in some tilefish that’s insane,’ ” Thornton told me. “They know with me I don’t care what something costs.”
The apartment was quiet and dimly lit. Small pelts were draped here and there; a preserved rat bobbed in a jar—a gift from Thornton’s girlfriend, Eva Card, a dark-haired actress who models for women’s magazines. Over a long dining table hung a mobile that Thornton fashioned from deer ribs and a jawbone he found in Oregon, and some lichen-covered pieces of apple wood he once used to make ice cream. (He burned it, cut it, and soaked it in milk for a couple of days to make the base; finished, he said, it tasted like a campfire.) Paz, who, like Thornton, was dressed in dark, slim-fitting clothes and a black apron, cleaned vegetables. “People have this distaste for vegetables,” Thornton said. “They’re a lot more work. That’s why I like cooking them.”
After Thornton finished breaking down the fish, he and Paz made a produce run, a fifty-mile round trip to a two-acre farm near the Long Beach airport. Thornton and a chef friend, Gary Menes, had persuaded the farmer to grow fava beans for them. By the time they arrived, it was pouring. Thornton jumped out of the car and spent the next hour ignoring lightning while picking the beans and a few handfuls of kale—only the smallest, purplest leaves closest to the heart. “Rather than getting it at the farmers’ market, this is still alive,” he said. “It will have that sweetness. This is what the diners want to hear about.” He paused. “You couldn’t do it in a restaurant.” A patch of bronze fennel shivered in the wind. Thornton picked some and, a few hours later, served it with the final savory course: a tender piece of lamb half-buried under snippets of cat grass, periwinkle-blue borage blossoms, yellow-foot mushrooms, and “cocoa soil.” One side of the plate was devoted to a splat of beet-rhubarb verjus, darkly clotting. He called it Spring Slaughter.
Thornton rarely has a chance to test dishes, and much of what he makes he has never eaten before. The education of his palate happened paradoxically: exposure to poor food made him hypersensitive to quality. Growing up, in Bullhead City, Arizona, he shopped for government-supplied groceries in the back room at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop. “The peanut butter came in a white jar and had the stamp of a peanut on it; we had powdered milk, powdered eggs, canned meat,” he says. “I had a lot of bad, so I can detect bad quickly. I can taste it. I know when a piece of meat has been sitting and reheated, because it has the same flavor as that canned meat.” The first meal he remembers making, in his grandmother’s kitchen, was a turkey-pickle quesadilla, which he sold back to her for seventy-five cents. On Sunday nights, she made chicken-fried steak, fried okra, and collard greens, or white beans with ham hock and yeasty biscuits. In her honor, he sometimes pickles green strawberries or intentionally adds too much yeast when he bakes.
At Thornton’s own house, a boarded-up travel trailer in a part of town that his cousin described to me as “the slum of Bullhead,” there often wasn’t any food at all. His mother, Elesa, and his stepfather, Emmett, would sell their food stamps to buy drugs. When they cooked, it was meth in the back room. In addition to being an addict, Thornton says, Elesa was mentally ill, and susceptible to drug-induced paranoia. He remembers that one time when a social worker made her regular visit to the trailer Elesa was naked on the couch repeating the sentence “I cut up and chop the hamburger meat”—the only thing she said for several weeks—while he watched “Dennis the Menace” on a TV set with the back torn off to expose the wires, in case they housed surveillance equipment. After thirty minutes, the social worker said, “O.K., see you next month!,” and left. “Why I have such a hard time with ‘authority figures’ who want to come in and tell me what to do is that they don’t do anything,” Thornton told me.
Emmett, who was covered in neo-Nazi tattoos and boasted to Thornton about having served time in the penitentiary, was violent and cruel. For fun, he would fill a Super Soaker water gun with gasoline and douse Thornton, threatening to light him on fire. He also hit, dragged, and pepper-sprayed him, and zipped him into a sleeping bag, which he filled with cigarette smoke. (Elesa denies that Emmett was abusive, and that she and Emmett used illegal drugs—though he has an arrest record for drug-related infractions.) At fourteen, Thornton, four feet eight and nicknamed Pudge, started lifting weights for baseball. One summer, he grew a foot. He thought about killing his torturer; instead, he planned his getaway.
Waiting till his mother was coming down from a binge and in need of cash, he paid her fifty dollars saved from his lunch money to sign a form, which he told her was a baseball permission slip. In fact, her signature transferred power of attorney over Thornton to his cousins, Evangelical Christians in Riverside County, California, who had offered to take him in. He left the house with his bike and the clothes on his back, pretending that he was going to stay at a friend’s. “See you Sunday,” he told his mother, and never saw her again.
In 2003, Emmett died, from blunt-force head trauma and a possible overdose of methamphetamine, after he and Elesa had been fighting. She was not charged with a crime, but, according to the death investigation, she was “wishy washy” about what had happened, and asked the firemen who responded to the scene if she had killed him.
Thornton’s California cousins lived in a tract home in Menifee, which locals call Dirttown. To Thornton, it was a deliverance to middle-class normalcy. He rode his BMX, bleached his tips, and had a crush on a neighbor girl. When he went over to friends’ houses, he spent his time talking to their parents and grandparents. After high school, he took classes at a local community college and worked at a skate-and-snowboarding shop, where he met Paz. He snowboarded at Mammoth, and worked the night shift at Costco; because he didn’t have a car, he ran to work four miles on the shoulder of the freeway.
Painting was his primary interest, and he considered going to art school, but he changed his mind and applied to Western Culinary Institute, a branch of the Cordon Bleu, in Portland, Oregon. Wendy Bennett, a chef who taught him there, remembers him as being instinctive and original. “There are very few students that come through culinary school that get it on that level, that don’t just rotely re-create what the chef made,” she told me. “It’s like going to a museum and you see a piece of art and it inspires you to make your own art piece. He wasn’t afraid of anything.” When class let out, in the late afternoon, he jogged forty blocks to Serrato, a Mediterranean restaurant where he’d landed a position after offering to work for free, and learned to prep in one hour what took the other cooks three.
After graduating, Thornton got a job on the line at Bouchon in Las Vegas, where he worked eighty hours a week for minimum wage. A few months later, his student-loan debt became overwhelming and he left. Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles, and in 2007, through an agency, got a job working for Nicolas Cage and his family as a private chef. While with the Cages, he began to assemble the pieces to build Wolvesmouth: the table, the chairs, china, glasses, and flatware. “I didn’t want to do it janky,” he told me. He held his first dinners in an apartment near Larchmont Village, where he lived at the time, and then at a house in the Hollywood Hills belonging to Shaun White, the Olympic gold medalist, a friend from his snowboarding days. (He cooked White’s meal the night before he won the half-pipe in Vancouver, in 2010.) Two years ago, he left the Cages, moved to the loft downtown, and started working on Wolvesmouth full time.
A hundred years ago, before Progressivism introduced food-service regulations to cities, all restaurants were essentially underground. (As soon as there were regulations, people skirted them: Jacob Riis wrote about a sandwich, “two pieces of bread with a brick between,” that sat on the bar at a drinking establishment to prove that it was a restaurant and therefore exempt from blue laws.) At the low end, there were taverns, frequently run out of people’s houses, where strangers drank and dined communally on whatever the proprietor was making that night. The rich, on the other hand, entertained in formal hotel restaurants, working with the steward to devise intricate meals with musical and literary interludes. The underground restaurant in the twenty-first century reclaims features of both: the raucous dinner with random tablemates, and the self-conscious staging of an elevated social interaction. Michael Hebb and Naomi Pomeroy were pioneers of the movement, starting a restaurant in their house in Portland, in 2001. Hebb said that he saw an opportunity to “reinvigorate the convivial in this country.” Thornton often finds himself still playing host at two in the morning, hours after the last dish has been served and the burners cleaned in full view of the guests.
Pomeroy and Hebb were inspired by an article that Michael had read aboutpaladares in Cuba, and Family Supper, their event, had something of that subversive air. “It was challenging the notion of the restaurant and the limited number of responses to this basic idea of cooking for people and taking their money,” Hebb told me. “It wasn’t a middle finger to the health department so much as an indie-rock, anybody-can-do-it, D.I.Y. call to arms.” He designed collapsible tables out of hollow-core doors, and later, when he and Pomeroy moved their catering business to a commercial kitchen and started holding dinners there, built Murphy tables that could disappear into the walls during the inspector’s visits. “We’d get sloshy with our guests and do dishes in the morning,” Pomeroy said. “It became a thing, like, ‘Ooh, I got invited to Michael and Naomi’s for dinner.’ ” Eventually, they had ten thousand names on their e-mail list and were open for business five nights a week.
With the success of Family Supper, Pomeroy and Hebb founded two restaurants in Portland; in spite of their popularity, food costs got out of control and they were forced to sell, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars of their investors’ money. Pomeroy recovered by starting another underground, which she ran out of her back yard. There, Pomeroy, who has become a cooking-world star—a Food & Wine Best New Chef, a contestant on “Top Chef Masters”—perfected the ideas for her next restaurant, Beast, a twenty-six-seat place where, five nights a week, she cooks whatever she wants. “When major chefs hear about the way I run Beast, they say, ‘You’ve created a chef’s dream restaurant, because you don’t have to compromise,’ ” she told me. “What happens when you do a million-dollar build-out is that you have to be open seven days a week, be really high end, and have a million choices, and that may not work in today’s economy.”
The lessons of the underground are spreading. “Suddenly, diners are along for the ride. You’re paying for insight into one very specific idea of what food should be,” Kaitlyn Goalen, an editor at the food newsletter Tasting Table, says. “Now it’s ‘If you don’t want what we’re offering, you can leave.’ ” Little Serow, in Washington, D.C., was recently named one of the country’s ten best new restaurants by Bon Appetit; there are no choices and no substitutions, and the menu changes every week. Everybody who goes there knows that the food will be super spicy and the music very loud, and it’ll cost forty-five dollars a head. Payment, the moment in the restaurant ritual which embodies the emotional drama at its core—you please me, I pay—is also being upended. At Grant Achatz’s Next, in Chicago, and at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, you reserve your seat and buy your meal in advance. You pay me, I cook.
The goal of this kind of dining is not seduction; it is experience. In the underground, that can mean the experience of being served undercooked chicken by a couple of Southern gals in a little Spanish house in Laurel Canyon. (My husband vomited when we got home, though it could have been the full jar of homemade pickles he ate to kill time before the first course came out.) You can pay for a meal in a West Hollywood apartment that belongs to a cook who is by day an assembler of mystery boxes on “Master Chef” and whose only oven is of the toaster variety. In New York, there are dinner parties on subway trains. In Austin, they hunt and field-dress wild boar. Often, you prepay for your “ticket” on PayPal. In most cases, these restaurants are underground in name only. Many of them have Web sites. A few have “underground restaurant” in the URL.
Several weeks ago, I went to pHeast, an itinerant underground restaurant that bills itself as “live art.” The chef, Isaiah Frizzell, is an amateur molecular gastronomist and a grandson of the honky-tonk singer Lefty Frizzell. “A lot of people claim to be the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of Lefty, but I have his ring in my pocket,” he told me. We were standing at a tiny counter in the tiny kitchen of an architect’s apartment in Santa Monica. On the floor was a sweating cannister of liquid nitrogen. On the counter were deli cups filled with Seussian blobs of green-pea purée that had been spherified with sodium alginate and calcium lactate. “The skin on it creates a gusher inside,” he said, depositing them into bowls. They kept bursting. “It’s O.K., it’s O.K., if it’s gone it’s O.K.,” he said nervously. “You still get the effect ’cause you get the gel for the skin.”
Frizzell went out to the patio, where the guests were assembled at a long table. “This is nose-to-tail eating, in a vegetable fashion,” he said, presenting the peas. Several courses followed, meagre and mainly protein-free. At a certain point, even the hostess’s enthusiasm seemed to be growing forced. “It is totally amazing what you can do with my tiny kitchen!” she chirped, over a plate of red-cabbage juice that had been turned into what Frizzell described as a “fluid gel” thickened with ultratex, a tapioca starch. When a tray of bacon-infused whiskey cotton-candy pops, made by the bartender, came around, the diners snatched at them desperately. Then it was time for “nitrogen play.” Frizzell decanted the liquid nitrogen into a small bottle with red-bell-pepper coulis and whippets inside, and shook it wildly before shooting the contents into a bowl. Cold smoke tumbled out and rolled down the long table. “Red-bell-pepper Dippin’ Dots!” Frizzell announced triumphantly, spooning a pile onto every plate. They melted on my tongue—the ghost of nourishment. I thought of something the founder of the Web site Gusta had said about underground dining: “We liken it to going to a doctor. You don’t say, ‘This is the medicine I need.’ They tell you what you need. The chef tells you what you should be eating.” In this case, I was able to self-diagnose: what I needed was some food. I saw a gourmet truck on the way home, and stopped for a hot dog.
The traditional restaurant business—expensive lease, fickle clientele—can be unforgiving. In the spring of 2007, Gonpachi, an izakaya place popular in Tokyo—scenes from “Kill Bill” were filmed there—came to Beverly Hills. It had three buildings and a large garden with a koi pond, and occupied thirteen thousand square feet on a stretch of La Cienega Boulevard. The build took three and a half years and cost more than eighteen million dollars. (The beams in the main space, a two-story room meant to evoke a traditional village during a festival, were from a nineteenth-century house in Japan.) Gonpachi offered sushi, yakitori, and sumiyaki, and had a glass-walled room where patrons could watch a soba master making noodles by hand. This past winter, it closed.
It was still sitting vacant one Thursday in June when Thornton and his crew found themselves with twenty-five hundred servings of food and nowhere to serve it. An event that Dos Equis had planned to throw in an old Bank of America building downtown, with Thornton cooking (and belly dancers, Chinese acrobats, and Brazilian Carnival dancers performing), had been cancelled that morning because of a problem with a permit. With half a day’s notice, Thornton decided to pop up at Gonpachi.
When I arrived at Thornton’s apartment in the late afternoon, I found him in an inside-out green Army shirt and a camouflage cap, counting and quartering grilled peaches for a pork-belly dish. “This is a good opportunity to make some people happy who have never eaten the food,” he said. The menu—eight courses, designed for a broader spectrum of the beer-drinking public and meant to be consumed in just twenty minutes—was the diffusion version of Wolvesmouth. “I’m trying to appeal to foodies with the technique and consistency but also to have a hook to bring in a mass audience,” he had told me earlier. He went over to the fridge, where a menu was posted, and crossed out items that were completed. “Peach done,” he muttered. “Tuna done. Tomato relish done. The rib eye we might be able to cook whole. Strawberry. Tres leches done. Done done done done done. Finishing fritter. Relish done.”
At the dining table, Julian Fang, a heavyset Chinese-American man who is the slightly forbidding keeper of the Wolvesmouth e-mail list, leaned over an Apple computer. Beside him was another computer, a Dell, for his day job, as a strategic-account manager at A. T. & T. He was trying to multitask, and his forehead was covered in sweat. He had written an e-mail to alert the list to the change of plans: the first two hundred to respond would be let in to Gonpachi, starting at seven o’clock. The food would be free.
“Is that e-mail sent out?” Thornton asked.
“I can’t get anything out of my out-box,” Fang said. “It’s 3:58 P.M. For the love of God, get this thing out!”
The e-mail finally sent, and ten minutes later Thornton peered over Fang’s shoulder and said, “We’re already half full. Crap.” He laughed.
By six, Thornton and his crew had convened at Gonpachi, and were exploring the kitchen, with its array of burners, ovens, fridges, sinks. Amid the bounteous wreckage, they set up a survivalist kitchen: a fryer to make Cheddar fritters, a circulator to sous-vide the pork belly. Thornton ran his hand along the omakase bar, disturbing a thick layer of dust. “If I had just this, like, permanently, I would be the happiest guy on the planet,” he said.
Thornton showed Caleb Chen how to assemble his dish: corn soup with mole, lime gelée, and cotija cheese, designed to change from sweet to salty to sour to spicy in your mouth. To Fang, he said, “Tuna, lingonberry, lime, black sesame, bok choy.” He taught Garrett Snyder how to fan a stack of paper cocktail napkins with the back of his wrist.
The sky darkened and the smell of searing meat filled the garden. Lights came on in stone lanterns and the koi gulped at bubbles on the pond’s surface. When the diners started to arrive, Thornton was still putting plastic forks out on the tables. He stationed himself behind the omakase bar and started slicing pork belly. “That gelatinous texture you sometimes get with pork belly doesn’t necessarily translate, so I wanted to do a more porky texture that people are used to,” he said. A crowd of spectators gathered around. Matthew Selman, a writer on “The Simpsons,” leaned toward the bar and told Thornton, “I almost offered you our back yard.” Selman is responsible for an episode of the show in which Marge and the kids become thrill-seeking food bloggers. “I wish there was a word other than ‘foodie,’ ” he said. “How about ‘super food asshole,’ or ‘pretentious food jerk’?” The first trays of food went out and disappeared three seconds later. “Are these the guys that cook at Wolvesmouth?” a woman asked her date. “No,” her date replied scornfully. “Wolvesmouth is not a restaurant.”
A hundred and fifty people came out. At the end of the night, Chen said, “That felt like ‘Top Chef.’ You’re thrown into a space and it’s, like, ‘Now find some stuff to use.’ We’re so used to a home kitchen that we’re, like, ‘Oh, my God, what do you do with all this equipment?’ ” Thornton emerged from behind the bar. He looked a little stunned. “All I had was part of a sandwich today,” he said. “I’m wiped.” But he was happy. He’d talked to someone who’d been trying to get into Wolvesmouth for two years.
The last night of August, Thornton held a Wolvesmouth dinner at his apartment. Fang had his hands in a bowl of bitter steamed black-sesame cake, as porous as volcanic rock. He ripped it into pieces, which he placed on lifesavers lined up along the counter. “Smaller,” Thornton said, looking over his shoulder. “We want one big one and one small, so it looks like two mountains.” Thornton added chunks of compressed melon; they glowed like moonstones. He walked the length of the counter flicking lime curd from a metal bowl so that it pooled at the base of each mountain. “Saucing takes a confident stroke,” he said. “It’s messy without being messy. There’s a feel you have to have, like being able to paint.”
Matthew Bone stood nearby, moping. He was on Day 10 of a two-week raw vegan cleanse. He watched a plate sail past. “It kills me that he’s making something and I don’t know how it tastes,” he said. He wrapped two cherry tomatoes in a piece of lettuce and took a big bite. “He never makes the same fucking flavors twice,” he said. “They’re rainbows. You can’t catch them.”
At the beginning of September, Thornton found a place where he could re-create Wolvesmouth, undiluted but legitimate: open kitchen, communal seating for twenty-four, with room for a takeout counter. It was in a failing Korean barbecue joint in a Little Tokyo shopping center, a few blocks from his apartment. He pledged all his savings, and found the perfect financial partners: Fang, Chen, and Chen’s girlfriend, Sandra Kim, who sometimes works at dinners. He plans to offer one seating a night, with eight to ten courses for a set price of a hundred and ten dollars, and to sell tickets in advance. Opening might be as soon as January. “Wolvesmouth has been the idea lab,” he said. The crew will stay the same, with the possible addition of a trained cook, a friend of Thornton’s from Bouchon.
But already in August there was a sign that Thornton’s operation had become something a little closer to a traditional restaurant. His friend Gary Menes, whose pop-up at a restaurant downtown had just concluded, was at Wolvesmouth helping out with dinner, adding daubs of lime whipped cream to the melon-and-sesame-cake dessert. It was the first time I’d seen another chef in Thornton’s kitchen. He was getting acquainted with the space, because the following weekend he was going to hold his own pop-up there. ♦