It’s minutes into dinner service at Hatchet Hall, and the kitchen’s custom brick hearth is already ripping hot. Brian Dunsmoor, the restaurant’s wiry, beanie-clad chef, looks on approvingly. “I spent the first six months here working the fire by myself,” he says as the small inferno of almond wood pops and crackles. “I wouldn’t let anyone touch it.”
For the past three years Dunsmoor’s Culver City dinner house has been known for a certain style of rustic cooking, one that worships at the altar of open flame. Much to the chagrin of the 35-year-old Georgia native, though, Hatchet Hall’s food—country ham, smoked trout, stewed greens—was often categorized as Southern, a label he found limiting. “I would tell people we cooked American food,” he says. “But then the question became, ‘Well, what’s American food?’ ”
Dunsmoor has long been fascinated by the roots of American food ways, from the influence of Native American eel trapping on the early pilgrims to Thomas Jefferson’s promotion of French cuisine and the cultivation of benne seeds by Carolina slaves. “If you’re eating corn bread or gumbo, out of respect you should know where it originates from,” he says. “The stories delve into less prideful parts of our history, but they’re important.”
In July Dunsmoor launched an outlet for his obsession in Hatchet Hall’s cozy 12-seat “family room”: a weekly dinner series called Fuss & Feathers, a nod to the nickname of 19th-century military hero and noted gourmand General Winfield Scott. The parameters of the $150, 13-course tasting menu were simple: All food would be cooked on the wood-burning hearth with no assistance from modern conveniences. The ingredients would be seasonal and indigenous; the techniques, historical (imagine if Lewis and Clark brought along a wide-eyed chef on their journey west).
After a brief hiatus, the series returned in autumn—dishes like venison carpaccio and kelp steamed spot prawns were served by candlelight on a table strewn with antlers. The meal crescendoed with a three-day-brined roast suckling pig flanked by a hillock of sides (pickled melon, cranberry beans with ham hocks, roasted acorn squash, and Cherokee blue grits). Each course was accompanied by a preamble from the waitstaff, an attempt to wade into the food’s complex historical context. That everything was wildy delicious helped make the lesson lively.
Dunsmoor and his crew plan to expand Fuss & Feathers soon, with the eventual goal of opening a dedicated restaurant, maybe something cabin-esque like the Old Place in Agoura Hills. In the meantime, with a new winter menu arriving in January, Dunsmoor has found renewed purpose. “We locked up all the machines over a year ago—we even churn the ice cream by hand,” he says with a grin. “It’s not efficient, but it keeps us honest.”
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