You may not think Mad Men’s redheaded star Christina Hendricks, the ultra-liberal Santa Monica Museum of Art, and maggot-covered coyotes would have much in common. But they all came together during one bizarre Southern California dining experience last fall.
The occasion was prompted by the launch of Johnnie Walker’s Platinum Label 18 Year Old ultra-premium scotch, and as it happens, Christina Hendricks is the brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker. So to herald in this newest blended whisky, I was invited to join Ms. Hendricks for dinner prepared by underground chef Craig Thornton of Wolvesmouth fame, whose techniques are, shall we say, more than a little bizarre.
It’s not so much what Chef Thornton serves, it’s how he serves it. In The New Yorker, journalist Dana Goodyear likened the thin, bearded chef’s creations to coming across a crime scene in the woods and recalled the chef’s venison recipe in which he instructed guests to, “Rip (the) venison apart with two forks, which will act as sharp teeth… . Attack the plate with your blackberry beet ‘blood.’ ”
I experienced this primeval gourmet dining firsthand, but to keep everything in perspective,Wolvesmouth is not a restaurant; it’s a state of mind in which the imaginative and sometimes outlandish
chef’s creations are privately served in homes, businesses, and even on occasion, in actual restaurants. The nine- to twelve-course foodfests consist of textures–some of them gross–and colors–almost all of them vivid–splattered, splashed and stacked with apparent abandon, but actually composed with the same care as in a five-star restaurant–only different.
Although Hendricks had never experienced a Wolvesmouth dinner, the hype was high among Hollywood friends who had attended one of Thornton’s theater-on-a-plate meals. Thus, everything came together as part of the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s “Cut Your Teeth” exhibit between Thornton and the appropriately named artist, Matthew Bone. Dining in what the museum referred to as, “a darkly wooded den…Inspired by the relationship between predator and prey,” the evening did not disappoint.
A long communal dining table and an open kitchen occupied the main gallery, which wasmisted in fog. Suspended ravens hovered overhead and elk skins covered the chairs. A black and white video
on a wall graphically depicted wildlife in various stages of decomposition, flies buzzing around their eyes, coyotes gnawing on entrails. And in one corner was a taxidermal deer carcass, entrails exposed with the abandon of a carnivorous victor.
“The whole point of this is how it all connects together,” said Thornton. “The diners are the connection, all the way to consumption. It’s like you’re accepting the fact that you’re this predator, by consuming, which every living thing has to do. But we tend to push (that concept) away, or neatly package it. We ignore the grotesque and just embrace the beautiful, but the problem is, without the grotesque you can never be fully informed of what is
actually beautiful. That is what I’m really into. Along with people getting together and enjoying themselves and being a part of this consumption. Because at the end of the day, we all end up there,” he said pointing to the deer carcass.
To prove his point, Thornton encouraged everyone to eat the first course–venison pine gelée–with their hands, to, “subconsciously put you in this primal state.” Needless to say, some of the “foodies” in the group had a hard time getting into the spirit of things, not knowing whether it was better to look at the video or stare at their plates. As for me, I found the cherried butterscotch overtones of the Johnnie Walker Platinum a fitting accompaniment to our dessert of Black Sesame Steamed Cake with lime cured blackberries–which looked a lot like mud, blood and broken bones. I decided to eat it with my hands.– Richard Carleton Hacker