Every Thursday in six-week bursts, Brian Dunsmoor builds a time machine on the outskirts of Culver City.
There are no contraptions necessary, unless you count the wood-burning hearth; time travelers need only book a seat at Fuss & Feathers, one of L.A.’s most intricate and astounding dinner series, and find themselves in the private dining room of Dunsmoor’s Hatchet Hall restaurant. There, surrounded by colonial antiques, taxidermy birds, feathers and tarnished silver, they’ll wind their way through early North American history in bowls of creamy grits, planks of rabbit schnitzel, and oysters—dotted with cured mullet roe—sitting rustic in a bowl of wood chips.
While Hatchet Hall leans wood-burning and old-American every night of the week, Fuss & Feathers—the restaurant’s quarterly dinner series, now in its final season—is an entirely different beast, one cooked without recipes and tied to specific moments in time, to quotes from Thomas Jefferson, to anecdotes and footnotes and hundreds of historical records and cookbooks that the chef-owner has pored over the last two years. Part of this is Dunsmoor’s personal obsession with food history. The other part is just as much due to the inclination he and owner-operator Jonathan Strader feel to challenge their restaurant, as it is the responsibility they feel to get diners talking about—and appreciating—what they’re eating, no matter how unsavory history might be.
“I feel like [American] cuisine as a whole is kind of a mystery. We asked ourselves, ‘Why do Americans not know anything about American food?’ And the more research we did, and the deeper we dug into it, I feel like it might be kind of a shame thing,” says Dunsmoor. “We have a very colorful past—you know how Americans are: We love to stick our head in the sand and pretend that everything’s peachy. But [this country’s] food is tied mostly to slavery and to Native Americans, which are super touchy subjects people don’t like to talk about. So we’re just trying to put ourselves out there and start the conversation.”
When you’re sipping candlelit colonial punches at a table with 11 strangers, Fuss & Feathers feels far from a history lesson—but there’s one in every dish if you’re open to learning. The purpose isn’t to chastise, but to reference, show reverence and enlighten.
The 15-course dinner isn’t inspired by any one era, style of cooking or event—the team likes to cover a broad range of topics, whether it’s the clear and enduring influence from West Africa, the contribution and understanding of the land from Native Americans, the French flourish gained from our Revolutionary allies or the trading with (and exploitation of) the Caribbean colonies. Some inspiration is difficult to confront, while others are the funniest things you’ll learn all day.
In April of 1865, George Pickett abandoned his post as general to the Confederate army and rode two miles from battle to attend a shad bake, of all things, taking an hours-long seafood lunch while Union troops charged thousands of his men. (The Union won.) In April of 2019, Dunsmoor manned his post at the hearth and whipped up a shad-roe bacon-and-eggs-inspired dish in ode to Pickett’s tremendous failure and excellent lunch. (Everyone wins.)
Dunsmoor’s been thinking a lot about shad the last few months, just like he’s been thinking a lot about oysters. And salmon. And foraged mushrooms. And any herb that Native American tribes could have plucked from the ground in the 17th century. If a night of Hatchet Hall’s regular dinner service is a single victory, Fuss & Feathers is the war—but it’s one that’s coming to a close, and, if the success of the past three installations is any indication, Dusmoor’s about to win it.
The next four Thursdays, through May 23, Dunsmoor’s menu will unfold over the course of four to five hours, 15 dishes each tethered to a quote or some other historical significance. You’ll begin with a bowl of luxury: a sort of potato and ramp vichyssoise, a plump, caviar-bedecked oyster island floating in the center of it. It’s in ode to the gold rush, when, as their own wealth increased, Californians developed the taste for oysters; not long after, Oysterville, Washington, had more gold per capita than any other city on the West Coast, outside of San Francisco—prospectors were demanding so many oysters, they raised the value of the town supplying their bivalves.
And you can expect the oyster nods to continue with the return of previous dinners’ wood-plated roasted oysters. The final installation will also see the return of corn—a Fuss & Feathers staple served fresh for the summer and autumn menus, preserved or as hominy in winter. For spring, Dunsmoor and his “A-team,” which includes chef de cuisine Martin Draluck, will plate a kind of grits patty with cultivated snails and wild asparagus, maybe with foraged wood sorrel. They’ll hot-smoke maple-cured salmon, an ode to tribes in the Pacific Northwest, processing the roe themselves and making a sort of a in-house dairy horseradish. They’ll go, for hours, working in the kitchen over a temperamental fire that needs almost constant tending. By Dunsmoor’s calculations, Fuss & Feathers means he’s worked roughly 85 12-hour days, many of them spent over that hearth.
But Dunsmoor isn’t ending Fuss & Feathers because he’s tired. He’s doing it because he wants to evolve the series into its own restaurant.
“We’ll see when it happens,” he says. “It’s always a slow burn, especially when you’re getting everything organically and yourself.” He and Strader envision a live-cooking space, one where guests can watch the oysters and threadfin sole almondines cook over the flames or in a potbelly stove.
“We would be able to rip out food,” Dunsmore muses. “Everything would be more efficient and everything would be better if we were set up for it. Who knows what will happen? I’m keeping my fingers crossed.” So are we.
Fuss & Feathers runs Thursday nights, now through May 23, at Hatchet Hall in Culver City (12517 W Washington Blvd). Tickets run $150 per person, or $225 with beverage pairings. Prices are inclusive of tax and gratuity, and tickets can be purchased now.