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.
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.