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Los Angeles Chef Pushes Boundaries Of Taste In Art Installation


Now a work of art.

CRAIG THORNTON: There's beef tongue, Asian pear, a squid ink dumpling skin.

SIEGEL: A rococo menu is part of a room-sized art project by a chef at the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA, in Los Angeles. The artist is Craig Thornton, a cult figure in LA's booming food scene. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: You walk into what looks like a dystopian Disney film - stuffed deer, stuffed wolves, cherry trees - some of them burnt. This pop-up experiment at MOCA has been running since spring. It's the most recent iteration of a roving restaurant Craig Thornton's run for years - sometimes in warehouses, sometimes in apartments, but usually with more amenities than here.

THORNTON: We're cooking in the middle of a museum, you know, with no running water. I mean, we have to know exactly how much water we're using.

ULABY: Funny that a guy behind some of the most coveted reservations in Los Angeles has to finish each night lugging and emptying gallons of water in a tiny painter's sink in the back of the museum.

Angelino foodies have just one more weekend to buy tickets for $225 to experience Thornton's multi-sensory meal. One sculpture, a 2,000-pound styrofoam iceberg is supposed to compliment chili-seasoned shrimp.

THORNTON: The spice being kind of this metaphor for heat melting glaciers.

ULABY: Thornton wants his guests to contemplate nature and decay, what it means to consume. Right by the long table where guests sit twice nightly, thrice weekly, he's built an oil spill sculpture with taxidermied animals caught in the muck.

THORNTON: You have all these ducks. Some of them are dead. They're crawling out of it. Some of them are trying to get the oil off of them.

ULABY: A bit much? Carolina Miranda agrees.

CAROLINA MIRANDA: It's a lot to take in as a viewer and as an eater.

ULABY: Miranda reviews art for The Los Angeles Times. She loved how Wolvesmouth, as it's known, dishes up radical colors and flavors.

MIRANDA: I think if you could think of a crazy action movie on the palate, I think that's almost what he's going for.

ULABY: The nine-course experience could be described as overstuffed. But Miranda says in a city known for cutting-edge food and contemporary art, it's smart for MOCA to lure patrons with an over-the-top immersive experience. Still, she finds all the gelees and oils and ragus overwhelming, especially when they're consumed next to a fairytale sculptural forest where the ground is a carpet of coyote skins.

Chef Craig Thornton wants guests to talk about greed and a world out of whack. But many did not notice the dead coyotes until they were pointed out.

JOYCE LI: Oh, my God - really, really?

SAXON NOWOTKA: I hope that wasn't in the meal (laughter).

ULABY: Joyce Li and Saxon Nowotka said overall Wolvesmouth gave them plenty to digest. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.