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.