The Salt

At LA's MOCA, A Celebrated Chef Serves Up Dinner As Art Installation


Diners were urged to contemplate what it means to consume. Near their dinner table, a sculpture depicts an oil spill — the taxidermied animals are depicted struggling in the muck.
Myles Pettengill, Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Diners were urged to contemplate what it means to consume. Near their dinner table, a sculpture depicts an oil spill — the taxidermied animals are depicted struggling in the muck.

Many chefs think of themselves as artists in the kitchen. Craig Thornton has taken it to another level: For the past five months, he's been serving up multi-course meals as part of a room-size installation at the prestigious Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Thornton, 34, is a cult figure in LA's booming food scene. And for this pop-up dining experiment, he whipped up a rococo menu. A typical dish — if typical is a word that even applies — might be a mélange of grilled rib-eye, creamed kimchi, beef tongue, Asian pear and crispy shallot arrayed under a surprisingly purple, squid-ink dumpling skin.

That was just one of nine elaborate dishes served within MOCA's Geffen Contemporary location, in what looked like the set of a dystopian Disney film — a space replete with taxidermied deer, wolves and peacocks arranged in a forest of cherry trees, some of them burnt. Wolvesmouth: Taxa, as this unorthodox eating experience was called, just closed after a five-month residency. It was the most recent iteration of a roving restaurant that Thornton has run for years — sometimes in warehouses, sometimes in apartments and usually with more amenities.

"We're cooking in the middle of a museum with no running water," Thornton said ruefully during a recent dinner. "I mean, we have to know how much water we're using." (The answer: 75 to 85 gallons per night.)

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It's funny to think that for the past several months, Thornton — a chef behind some of the most coveted reservations in Los Angeles — has had to finish each night lugging and emptying gallons of water into a tiny painters' sink in the back of the museum.

Ordinarily, dining on Thornton's carefully curated meals means months of languishing on waitlists. But at MOCA — two seatings a night, three days a week — Angeleno foodies could pay $225 for a multisensory experience in which art and food were intended to be one seamless experience. For example, one massive sculpture, a 2,000-pound iceberg sculpted from Styrofoam, was planned to complement a dish of chili-seasoned shrimp — "the spice being this kind of metaphor for heat melting glaciers," Thornton explained.

Along with silverware and napkins, diners were furnished with a manifesto of sorts that laid out the chef's thoughts about greed, nature and decay. They were urged to contemplate what it means to consume, and to discuss those thoughts with each other and with the staff busily plating their dinners. Nearby, a sculpture depicts an oil spill and the taxidermied animals are depicted struggling in the muck.

"It's a lot to take in as a viewer and as an eater," says Carolina Miranda, an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. "I think if you could think of a crazy action movie on the palate, I think that's almost what he's going for."

In a city known for both cutting-edge food and contemporary art, Miranda says it's smart for MOCA to lure patrons with an over-the top immersive experience. Wolvesmouth:Taxa was Part 3 of a planned series of nine culinary installations taking place over the next few years. Thornton says the 10th will combine elements of all of the dinners that preceded it.

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