'Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers.
On a cool spring night in April of last year, the kitchen crew of the L.A. catering company Carmelized Productions crowd around a packed table in a dark corner of the Tiki-Ti, endeavoring, for no obvious reason, to shove 3-inch cocktail toothpicks up their noses. Some are having more success than others.
"A Filipino guy I used to work with taught me how to do this," says line cook Zach McGowan, toothpick 2 inches deep into his right nostril, the blue, frilly plastic end tickling the tip of his nose. "Well, actually, he didn't really teach me. He held me down and hammered it into my nose with a wrench or something. He broke my seal. You gotta break the seal."
While McGowan explains the finer points of seal breaking to his buddy Lou, the pair's boss, Jon Shook, co-owner of the indifferently spelled Carmelized Productions, arrives at the table with their fourth round of drinks. Short and scruffy, with a long brown mane of wavy matted hair and a Jeff Spicoli smile, Shook takes one look at the scene unfolding before him and unleashes a staccato battery of laughter.
"Oh, dude," he says, watching Lou struggle through several cringe-inducing stages of toothpick insertion. "Every time we come to this place, we get too fucked up."
With that said, Shook takes a hefty swig of whatever rum-based, tropical concoction he's drinking and plops down in a chair next to his fellow chef and business partner of four years, Vinny Dotolo. Leaning back in his seat, with his massive brown beard, long straight hair held back by a headband, and donning a beige corduroy blazer, Dotolo could be a stand-in for Luke Wilson's tennis-playing, sister-loving character in The Royal Tenenbaums. Shaking off a cigarette offering from Shook, Dotolo turns to me and says with a smile, "I don't smoke — it ruins the palate."
"Whatever, dude," Shook responds with audible skepticism.
Dotolo pauses for a second before clarifying: "Cigarettes, anyway."
Known collectively as the "Food Dudes," the 26-year-old Shook and the 28-year-old Dotolo don't much look, or act, like the successful businessmen they are. Nor do they especially look like people who should be handling food. They look and act like, well, stoners.
But while both maintain certain stereotypical chemical affects — heavy lids, goofy smiles and incessant use of the word dude — neither of them suffers from a THC-induced lack of ambition. Shook and Dotolo built Carmelized Productions from the ground up in 2004, when they were 23 and 25 respectively. "We were pretty much flat broke when we started," says Shook. "That's why we did catering instead of opening a restaurant. We'd spend three hundred bucks on groceries for an event and then charge double that."
Over the next three years, working two, sometimes three events a day, the duo turned Carmelized Productions into one of L.A.'s hottest catering companies — boasting a celebrity clientele and feeding some of the wildest parties in Hollywood.
"We worked this one party where a guy just handed us a syringe of liquid Demerol," remembers Dotolo. "He was just like, 'Here, take this.' I think he told us he was a doctor. We didn't take it — that guy was fucking crazy."
In 2006, the duo parlayed their catering success, unorthodox looks and erratic behavior into an Iron Chef appearance on the Food Network — taking on Cat Cora in an eggplant battle before losing a close decision. "We want a rematch," says Shook. "We'll fucking take her out."
If things go according to plan, Shook might just get his wish — and then some. This night, crazy as it's been thus far, is no mere after-work social gathering, and is not without its tensions. Carmelized Productions is about to change forever. After years of trying to land a show, the Food Dudes have gotten the green light from the Food Network for the five-episode reality-TV run that will go on to become 2 Dudes Catering.