Cookbook: Alex Pardee Interviews Wolvesmouth

May 15, 2014

Originally published in the Alex Pardee-curated January 2014 "Imagination Issue" of Juxtapoz Magazine. All photography by Chloe Rice.

A few times a month, Craig Thornton invites 20 of his closest friends to gather and enjoy the new private collection of artwork that he spends a grueling amount of hours preparing to unveil. Only this art show is a little more unique than the typical private gallery show at a secret downtown Los Angeles loft. You see, upon gazing into Craig’s artwork and practically getting hypnotized by the spiraled colors, the angrily splattered textures that shouldn’t exist in this world, and the sound of Craig’s gentle voice as he recites a loose interpretation of what is so mesmerizing to his guests, an aroma wafts up from the porcelain canvas, and every single one of Craig’s friends then proceed to eat his artwork. And they love it.

For years, Chef Craig Thornton, (AKA Wolvesmouth), using the best hand-picked ingredients he can unearth, has been experimenting like a nomadic alchemist by creating edible gourmet combinations of flavors, textures, and arrangements that have never been done by other chefs, partly because these combinations can be purposely confusing. A dish that includes squid ink noodles, pork and candied lemon looks dark, murky and rich, but actually has a very light and refreshing taste. In addition, this chef has a trained artistic background in oil painting, bolstered by a passionate need to step far outside of the box and strike a forward path from an unhappy childhood.

Craig and I share an aesthetic that may not translate to anyone outside of ourselves. Each of us creates art from our emotions combined with a need to tell a story; neither of us really know what we are creating until we actually throw our ingredients as hard as we can onto the canvas. And we’re both unapologetic about our imaginations.

Because of this shared aesthetic, we finally found an excuse to collaborate on some artwork.
Fitting our confusing approach to creating art, we didn’t execute the project with a definitive plan, but what came together was something organic, gross, aggressive, colorful, fun, messy, and, according to my taste buds, “fucking delicious.” The loose idea was for me to create two paintings of monsters and pass the paintings to Craig. He would then interpret this narrative in his head, and continue those stories within his own separate culinary concoctions.

While setting up his recent collaborative art and dining experience Cut Your Teeth at the Santa Monica Art Museum with longtime friend, artist Matthew Bone, Craig and I set a little time aside to make a mess in his kitchen, The Wolvesden. -Alex Pardee

Alex Pardee: We talked a little about what we were going to do ahead of time, but after I gave you these paintings, did you have any clue what direction you were going to go with these dishes?
Wolvesmouth: Actually, I knew exactly where I was going to go. Immediately, I saw both of these paintings as creatures that were struggling, but moving in opposite directions. The Digested Brain was moving in a direction away from us, like it was crawling away to die, like it was deteriorating. So I wanted to make a dish that I imagined would be the remnants of what that monster would leave behind if its flesh, muscles and brains were falling off its bones. And for The Babysitter, I wanted to convey this “darkness vs. light,” where the darkness would be the color and the light would be the flavor. I love creating contradictions like that. I thought your painting looked like that monster was doing the opposite of the Digested Brain, where this one is taking this creature who it’s “babysitting” and pushing it downward, into an abyss, while the smaller creature struggles. I wanted to imagine all of this wet, fleshy, dark black oil that would have exuded and leaked off of the babysitter and this other creature as they descend back into this inky well in the plate. The fun part was figuring out how I was going to do that and what ingredients I was going to use.

Do you alter the color of the ingredients in order to create a specific look to match your vision of the bright, saturated hues in the dish?
I do, but it’s all natural. There’s no artificial coloring. If I want to make something bright pink I’ll paint it with a little bit of beet and lemon juice, or blend kale into something if I want a green hue. But I won’t just do it for color; the taste has to go with it, so it’s like an alchemy project. I won’t add a color if it’s going to counteract the taste. But I will fuck with the alkalinity levels so that I can create this battle in your mouth, as silly as that sounds.

Does your background in painting come in handy when you’re creating a dish?
Yes, definitely. When experimenting with paint, I can learn what happens with certain types of paints, like oil and watercolor, which would separate from each other if I mixed them. I can apply that knowledge to certain foods that have an oil base, and I can use that to my advantage at the trial stage.

The artistic side of cooking is surprisingly similar to painting, but there’s an additional level of cooking because temperature will physically change the food’s surface. Temperature is like an another set of tools, like mediums for paint. But cooking is something that is so temporary. You create something that’s meant to be ingested immediately. It’s weird.

Do you still find a lot of time to paint?
I haven’t actually painted in a long time because cooking has taken over everything. I rarely even sleep. But now what I personally get out of cooking now is the same thing I got out of painting in the past. I’m still just having fun.

For more information about Wolvesmouth, visit wolvesmouth.com