'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.
"We'd pretty much given up on trying to land a show and were actually all set to take off around the world," says Dotolo. "Expand our culinary horizons. But this came along instead."
Shook, slightly more enthusiastic, sells the show a little better. "We had the best time doing Iron Chef, and everyone we meet tells us we need our own TV show. We've been trying to get one since we got out to Los Angeles. So even though the timing wasn't perfect, we weren't about to turn it down."
Shooting an entire reality series, however, is a whole lot different from shooting an episode of Iron Chef. It's a full-time job — a fact that seems to be settling in uncomfortably with the guys.
The show's producer, Helen Lee, an attractive, seemingly capable young woman whose previous TV credits include HBO's Cathouse, has been milling about cautiously on the outskirts of the table for the entire night.
"So, about this week ... ," she says, trying to get the attention of the group.
"No business tonight," Shook says, cutting her off with a dismissive wave. "Let's just have a good time."
With the show set to start filming the next day, Lee looks less than thrilled at this pronouncement, but doesn't push any further. The talent is jittery. It's too late to recover the evening, though — the mood has soured quickly, and Shook and Dotolo decide to bail with their crew in tow.
As the group head out the front door onto Sunset, they suddenly spot Lou, already outside, standing under the lamplight, pants partially pulled down and his flaccid penis in hand. "Check this out," he announces proudly, before shooting a thin stream of urine upward toward his open mouth. His tongue extends out, flailing into the night air, trying to snatch as much of the awful fountain as possible. Despite his best efforts, he can only manage to land a few drops. Still, it's a disgusting and hilarious display, and the stress of the past few minutes has snapped.
"My pressure's off tonight," a disappointed Lou says, holstering his pistol.
"Aww, his pressure's off," Shook repeats, shaking his head. "Normally he can do much better."
Normally? This happens often?
"Oh, dude, don't worry," Shook says, clearly sensing my fear of an impending hepatitis epidemic. "Lou just does our graphic design."
Behind the group, producer Lee smiles nervously, perhaps wondering what she's about to get herself and the Food Network into.
Vinny creates Kabocha Squash Pancakes with foie gras and Jon makes potato pancakes.
It's hard to think of the Food Network without thinking of Emeril Lagasse — the man whose penchant for Louisiana spice and nonsensical monosyllabic utterances pretty much single-handedly created the explosion that propelled the foodie universe to the doorsteps of millions. Last November, though, the Creole chef with the Boston accent and his show, Emeril Live, were unceremoniously dropped from the network he helped to put on the map. The move, though bold, was only mildly surprising for those who have been following the network's recent dealings.
In 2004, the network sacked Mario Batali and his highly regarded show, Molto Mario. Generally regarded as one of America's greatest chefs, and a well-spoken, witty authority on food, Batali has yet to land his own new show on the network — though it continues to retain his services for its popular culinary smackdown, Iron Chef — where, as Food Network expat Anthony Bourdain hilariously put it on Michael Ruhlman's food blog last year, "Like a great, toothless lion, fouling his cage, [Batali] hangs on — and on — a major draw (and often the only reason to watch the show). How I would like to see him unchained, free to make the television shows he's capable of, the Real Mario — in all his Rabelaisian brilliance. How I would love to hear the snapping bones of his cruel FN ringmasters, crunching between his mighty jaws! Let us see the cloven hooves beneath those cheery clogs! Let Mario be Mario!"
Perhaps thinking the same thing, Batali recently proposed a new series — a culinary tour of Spain, with Gwyneth Paltrow at his side. Food Network passed, and the show will instead appear on public television in the fall.
"The [Food Network] has decided they are mass-market and they are going after the Wal-Mart crowd," Batali told The New York Times in December. "So they don't need someone [like me] who uses polysyllabic words from other languages."
Meanwhile, with her huge personality and microwaving ways, culinary hack Rachael Ray has blossomed into the face of the network — this, the same starlet who nearly sliced her fingers off chopping up vegetables on her very first show. (Without a hint of irony, she now encourages her viewers to buy them presliced.) Ray's contract was renewed by the Food Network in December.
Two years after Batali's departure came the emergence of the Food Network's first food-oriented docudrama — Ace of Cakes. The show, which follows the day-to-day travails of cake builder Duff Goldman, became one of the network's highest-rated shows — with Goldman, the affable, tattooed baker, and his crew credited with giving the notoriously conservative network a much-needed "edge," and providing it with a model for a potentially successful new paradigm.
Despite the success of Ace of Cakes, however, the network's recent programming choices have left many critics wondering where the food has gone. In particular, Bourdain, host of the Travel Channel's wildly popular food show No Reservations, has practically built his career bashing the Food Network's programming trajectory.
"Mesmerized at the ascent of the Ready-Made bobblehead personalities," Bourdain wrote, "and the not-so-subtle shunting aside of the Old School chefs, I find myself de-constructing the not-terrible shows, imagining behind-the-scenes struggles and frustrations, and obsessing unhealthily on the Truly Awful ones.
"Where the saintly Julia Child sought to raise expectations, to enlighten us, make us better — teach us — and in fact, did, [Rachael Ray] uses her strange and terrible powers to narcotize her public with her hypnotic mantra of Yummo and Evoo and Sammys. 'You're doing just fine. You don't even have to chop an onion — you can buy it already chopped. Aspire to nothing ... Just sit there. Have another Triscuit ... Sleep ... sleep ...'"
With Shook and Dotolo's derelict-sheik looks and Jackass ways, a Food Dudes television show would seem like prime fodder for enough Bourdain trash talk to shoot a decade's worth of his books to the top of the best-seller list — allowing him to further reveal the cynical plot to dumb down America in the name of capturing the coveted 18-to-35 male demographic. Here's the thing, though: While they may not be Mario, Shook and Dotolo can actually cook; they have the pedigrees to prove it.
They met while studying culinary arts at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and less than two months after graduating in 2002, they were both scooped up by South Florida culinary hotshot Michelle Bernstein and put to work in the kitchen of her South Beach institution the Strand.
"She fucking hates us," Shook says of Bernstein with a laugh. "She was kind of bringing us up, and I guess she thinks we bailed on her, but we just kind of wanted to do our own thing."
Though the gig lasted less than a year, the duo honed enough skills to land a brief stint in the kitchen of one of Food & Wine magazine's "America's Best New Chefs," Mark Militello, at his seminal South Florida restaurant, Mark's Place. Again, though their time at the restaurant was short, Shook and Dotolo left an impression. When Mark's chef de cuisine, Ray Roach, left the restaurant later that year to run the Wildflower Restaurant at the Lodge at Vail, he brought the Dudes along with him. With their assistance, Wildflower won a Golden Spoon Award and was listed among the top resort restaurants in the nation.
By 2004, the Dudes' wanderlust returned, and the pair headed to Los Angeles, where they landed yet another coveted kitchen job, in Govind Armstrong and Ben Ford's Chadwick Restaurant. Soon after, with only 300 bucks in their pockets, but with the support of Ford (and Ford patriarch Harrison's then-girlfriend Calista Flockhart), Shook and Dotolo started Carmelized Productions. The company was an immediate success, and, within months of opening, Christine Lennon wrote a glowing piece about it for The New York Times.
Then there's the nature of catering itself, which, while it may lack the prestige of running a restaurant, poses its own unique challenges — ones that your average hack with a set of Ginsus wouldn't be able to handle.
"Catering isn't like having your own restaurant," says Dotolo. "If you hire us for a barbecue, I'll try to turn you on to rabbit or pork instead of something a little more pedestrian like beef and chicken. But it's your event, so in the end, if you ask for it, we've got to give it to you."
In other words, to make a catering company work, Shook and Dotolo have to be able to prepare any dish, from any style of cuisine, often on short notice. Traditional New England clambake? Sure. Roasted suckling pig later that afternoon? Fine. California-Asian fusion for brunch? Whatever.
"We take food very seriously," says Dotolo.
"Our number-one priority at the Food Network is food," vice president of programming Allison Page told me shortly before the Dudes' show aired. "Despite their appearance, and the fact that they're a lot of fun, Jon and Vinny are extremely skilled chefs, and the show will highlight that."
Makes perfect sense. Take two young chefs outrageous enough to get the MTV set to flip over from The Real World but talented enough to get the kids hooked on foodie culture. That's the idea, right? ... Right?
"Ace of Cakes brought in a new audience but was also extremely popular with our regular viewers," Page told me. "We expect 2 Dudes Catering to do the same."
Whoa, now. Ace's star, Goldman, may have a couple of tattoos, listen to punk rock and have a staff with a gift for hip, ironic snark, but the guy is like Mother Teresa with a pastry bag. Every episode, he's donating cakes to an orphanage, or to New York City firefighters, or healing lepers. Not too much of a stretch for him to lure in the stay-at-home moms in the flyover states.
The Dudes can cook, but was the Food Network really suggesting that they hired a pair of stoners and their toothpick-shoving, urine-drinking staff to win over the same milquetoast, baby-boomer audience that watches Rachael Ray stick things in the microwave? How in the hell was that going to work?
Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo
It's 8 p.m. at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions gallery in Hollywood, and the natives are getting restless — and by restless, I mean hungry and bitchy. LACE's fund-raising auction, its biggest event of the year, is well under way, and hundreds of L.A.'s most eccentric have spent the past few hours boozing, blowing cash and showing off their Flock of Seagulls haircuts. Now they want some food, and it's the Dudes' job to give it to them.
One small problem, though: "Pretty much everyone bailed on us," Shook says, face full of stubble — clearly exhausted but with his goofy smile intact. "Our cooks, our interns — they never showed. We're pretty much fucked."
And the Food Network cameras are rolling.
The theme of the evening's fare is cafeteria-gourmet, a highbrow-lowbrow concept in concert with contemporary art trends. At a makeshift prep table at the front of the gallery, Dotolo, complete with his grizzly-man beard and tattoos blazing up and down his forearms, and chef de cuisine Frank Anderson are the only other cooks besides Shook to actually make it. Both wearing shorts and T-shirts, not a hairnet in sight, they scramble to take out pan after pan of Dotolo's original bacon-infused chocolate from a nearby oven. They're clearly overwhelmed and looking so desperate that the associate producer has dropped her camera and is helping to slice and plate the chocolate. Producer Lee floats around the room, capturing the scene with her camera, before asking Anderson what dishes are left to complete.
"We've got some tuna sashimi to slice, and I need to start making a whole load of tartar sauce," Anderson says through gritted teeth.
Shook, in the process of frying some unusual-looking nuggets, is the only one in the group smiling. "These are made out of sweetbread," he says of the nuggets, unable to control his giddiness. "Most people have absolutely no idea what that is. I'm sure if all those hungry people knew they were about to eat the thymus gland from a cow, they'd completely freak out."
Sweetbread nuggets, tuna sashimi, bacon-infused chocolate — eclectic, to say the least.
"That's all Miguel," Shook explains. "He came up with this gourmet-cafeteria theme. He lets us get as crazy as we want to."
Before I can ask who Miguel is, a tall man in impeccably tailored slacks, a pink-collared shirt and the thickest '70s porn-star mustache I have ever seen storms into the prep area, asking for an ETA on the food.
"Almost there, dude," Shook assures him nervously.
This is definitely Miguel, event planner extraordinaire — and he is on a rampage. Spotting a group of distinguished-looking suits pooling at the entrance door to his "cafeteria," Miguel strides up to them and asks with raised eyebrows, "What do you think you're doing?"
A silver-haired gentleman among the group replies, "We're actually on the board of directors here at LACE. We're just saying hello to our guests."
Now, a lesser man might have backed down — perhaps even apologized for being inadvertently bitchy to his clients. Miguel is not such a man.
"You're blocking my doorway," he says with all the sass he can muster, setting off a several-minute back-and-forth over the definition of professionalism. In the end, Miguel and his mustache have their way, and the board of directors abandon their salutations and hop into the middle of a burgeoning and impatient food line.
Just as it appears as if Miguel is going to have to begin ritualistically slaughtering his guests to keep them at bay, the food finally makes its way out of the prep area, and the crowd slowly begins to filter into the room. Each person is given a pink cafeteria tray complete with visual key indicating which hors d'oeuvre goes where. The entire process is painfully slow, but despite the long wait, with several people having to endure a tongue-lashing from Miguel for taking too many (myself included), no one is complaining. The sashimi is delicious, the chocolate bacon is clever, and the sweetbread nuggets are gone in minutes — which absolutely delights Shook. "You can put just about anything in nugget form and people will polish it off," he says, laughing.
As the celebratory drinks are passed around and the guys start to clean up, a frenetic, gay black man with a Hitler mustache and what appears to be a curly toupee suddenly breaks away from the party and corners Anderson next to the fryer. "I'm an artist," he says, edging closer, "and I really think we need to collaborate on a project. The combination of art and food and body energy could be a really potent medium for something special ..."
It isn't entirely clear if the man is making a move or just mildly insane, and Anderson looks confused and slightly terrified. The cameras are eating up every second — with Lee and the rest of the production crew doing their best to hold back their laughter.
I'm no expert, but if there's one thing I've learned from watching Bravo, it's that crazy gay men make for great television. Between the tension of getting everything ready, Miguel's freak-out, Anderson's ongoing saga with the gay, black Hitler, and, of course, the creativity of the food, I find myself convinced that the Food Network is sitting on a gold mine.
As it turns out, the network thinks otherwise.
Three months later, with cameras following his every move, Shook stands in the kitchen of the former T on Fairfax, proudly surveying his future.
"Check it out," he says of the cavernous but empty space, of which only the kitchen is functional. "This is ours now. It's our restaurant-to-be."
The future is still a ways off, however, and the present is beckoning. He points to Anderson, standing nearby, who opens the oven to reveal a whole suckling pig roasting inside. Dotolo, meanwhile, is occupying himself with some braised rabbits.
"It's the feast of the dead baby animals," Shook says with a smile.
Meanwhile, two cameramen cover the scene, asking Dotolo and Anderson to explain each step as they cook.
A lot has changed since the LACE event. Aside from the not-insignificant purchase of this restaurant space, the show's producer, Helen Lee, has been replaced. Perhaps even more strangely, the Dudes are clean-shaven. Grizzly man Dotolo in the kitchen is practically baby-faced.
"I guess the Food Network didn't like what they saw," says Shook.
"The Food Network thought they looked disgusting," one of the camera people mutters.
Apparently, shortly after the LACE shoot, production was shut down for a time so that the Dudes, who had been cooking out of their East Hollywood apartment, could get a more aesthetically pleasing space to serve as a backdrop for the show. A mandatory, preshoot shaving policy was also enacted — assiduously enforced by the new producer.
Of course, anyone who has ever met the Dudes knows they're pretty ragged — why their facial hair came as a surprise to anyone at the network is confounding.
"I mean, I get it," a diplomatic Dotolo says, popping out of the kitchen. "They want us to look cute and everything."
With the camera crew suddenly stopping to get lunch, Shook, Dotolo and Anderson exit the kitchen area and take a much-needed break in the front section of their restaurant-to-be. Of course, by break I mean they smoke prodigious amounts of weed.
"Check it out," says Shook, handing me a medical-marijuana card. "I'm sick."
"Me too!" chimes in Dotolo, lighting up a tightly packed bowl — although he fails to produce a card. "Dude, I would love to have this place become, like, a weed dispensary slash really great restaurant," he says. "I mean, think about that. You could come in here, smoke some chronic and eat some really great food. How perfect would that be?"
"People would never leave," agrees Shook.
As the Dudes continue to brainstorm their utopian hash house, I notice the production team isn't filming a single word of the conversation. Isn't this supposed to be reality TV? It dawns on me, though — if the Food Network flips out over facial hair, it's pretty obvious what it'll make of this scene.
Invigorated, and high as kites, the guys finally finish their session and head back to the kitchen, cameras in tow.
"We were out late partying last night, and I'm completely hung over," Shook tells the cameraman, who abruptly stops filming and asks Shook if he can say the same thing again without mentioning his drunkenness.
Shook thinks for a moment before announcing: "I was burning the candle at both ends, and I got waxed."
The cameraman cracks up before saying, "Let's try that again."
Shook groans audibly.
On October 16, 2 Dudes Catering (so called because Food Dudes was already taken by a British show) premiered in the Food Network's 10:30 p.m. time slot, right after Ace of Cakes. Replete with quick, MTV-style cuts, a rock soundtrack and plenty of scripted voice-over to drive the narrative, the show was pretty much what you'd expect of a conservative network's efforts to go young and hip. Lots of attitude but not too much (no cursing, weed smoking, boozing or urine drinking), the occasional petty fight and a soft focus on food — every client happy, every meal delicious without much detail over the preparation process. Still, by Food Network standards, it was clearly the most cutting-edge show on the channel. But despite the change of pace and the lead-in from the popular Ace of Cakes, the show generated little buzz, and the limited number of reviews it garnered were mixed.
David Tischman of the L.A. Times described the Dudes as "a pair of best-friend chefs with a three-day growth of beard as their primary asset." It got worse from there: "Nothing ever really happens on this show, and it feels like I'm punching a time clock every time I watch it. On the episodes thus far, their skill and creativity — especially compared to other chefs on the Food Network — is too clever by half. And where are the hair nets?"
Mr. Henry, on the other hand, editor of the popular food blog Manolo's, called the show "riveting," and wrote that "The 2 Dudes can cook like nobody's business, [and] as reflected by their palaver and the upkeep of their clothes and hair, they appear utterly incapable of doing anything else."
Ironically, when I catch up with Shook and Dotolo last week inside their newly remodeled restaurant-to-be on Fairfax, the Dudes are freshly shorn and looking far more groomed than they ever did when the Food Network was sending out memos about their facial hair.
"Everyone gave us a ton of shit for our hair," says Shook, reflecting on the response to the show. "We were growing that out for Wigs for Kids. The show never mentioned that. We both just donated 12 inches."
Despite some tough criticism, the Dudes have weathered the past few months well. In their downtime since the show stopped filming, they've devoted their full efforts to getting their restaurant up by spring to capitalize on any lingering publicity from the show.
"We actually just came up with a name for this place," says Shook. "Animal."
"It's not a steak house," Dotolo quickly clarifies.
"No, definitely not that," Shook agrees. "We will have a lot of protein, though."
Though the restaurant's concept still sounds a little vague, the Dudes will have plenty of free time to think it through. The Food Network recently informed them that it won't be renewing their contract for the next season — effectively ending the show after only five episodes. "They said we were 'too wild' for them," says Shook. "I guess that was kind of obvious, though."
For their part, the Dudes don't seem too disappointed by the decision — perhaps even a little relieved. "I definitely don't think the show captured our personalities," Shook says.
"You'd need to put us on Showtime to really see what we do," Dotolo weighs in. "I mean, you obviously can't show Lou whipping out his dick on the Food Network. And we knew that going in. But we were psyched to do a show with them, because we're approachable guys and we thought we'd be able to teach people about food and show them, in a way everyone can understand, how to make really great food. Food is what we care about most."
Shook nods in agreement. "Vinny and I spent 150,000 bucks last year going out to eat. We are definitely into food. I don't think that came through as much as it should have."
For a personality-driven program limited in the scope of what it could show, Dotolo suggests, the producers tried to find "edge" in ways that simply didn't exist.
"They were all about having me and Jon fight over the price of fish," he says, referring to a scene in the show he implies was largely manufactured. "But we're not really like that."
"You don't work with someone for almost nine years if you fight all the time," says Shook. "That's not reality — you can't run a business that way. We'd love to do a show of just us being us. Not some corporation's idea of how we're supposed to be."
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That isn't outside the realm of possibility. Both Shook and Dotolo feel their days in the entertainment business are just beginning. The Dudes have already parlayed their brief Food Network stint into a semiregular gig giving cooking demonstrations on Carson Daly's late-night show.
"Those guys over at Carson are totally cool," says Shook. "I was dropping f-bombs all over the place, and they were laughing their asses off. They just bleep everything out."
For now, though, the Food Dudes are focusing on getting their restaurant going. Animal is on track for a soft opening in May, and the Dudes' first cookbook is due out this summer.
"No matter what happens with all this stuff, we'll be good," says Shook. "Vinny and I built this thing from scratch, and we can do it again if we have to. We know how to cook."