Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo grew up in Florida, met in culinary school, then went on to start a successful catering business. They had a cookbook, a Food Network show called 2 Dudes Catering, and even battled Cat Cora on an episode of Iron Chef America. But then they opened Animal Restaurant on Fairfax and the city of Los Angeles quickly took notice. The restaurant was almost immediately met with heaps of praise and throngs of passionate fans. In 2009, Food & Wine Magazine honored them as some of the country's Best New Chefs.
Squid Ink sat down to interview Jon and Vinny, but since Vinny was in the back doing some work in the kitchen, we figured we'd just interview them each separately, asking them both the same questions. Unless specified in the interview, all of these answers were given without the other chef present. Sort of like the Newlywed Game, except without any questions about "making whoopie."
Below is Part II of their interview. Click here to read Part I.
Squid Ink: Favorite restaurants in the city right now?
Jon Shook: I think this city right now is the culinary mecca in the U.S. Tons of chefs are coming here to open, or are already here and have opened. Young chefs are coming up, butcher shops, everything under the sun. I'm excited to see where this city's going to be in another couple of years. Downtown is happening. So I would just say the city as a whole.
Vinny Dotolo: [A long pause] I gotta tell you man, I love Pizzeria Mozza. I f***ing love it, love it, love it. They come in here a lot, we go in there a lot. Good place, good energy, the food tastes good. It's kind of like here. Some things are always here, some things are different. I kind of like that. And I have to say...I wish I had the La Super-Rica Taqueria down here. It's like my perfect lunch. As much as we have a lot of Mexican food down here, authenticity is hard to find. But I have to say Mozza is my go-to restaurant. If someone asked me for one place to eat dinner before they left town, that'd be it.
SI: What percentage of the food that you put out comes from farmers market ingredients and what percentage comes from vendors?
[Vinny happens to walk in while this question is asked, so they answer it together.]
VD: For produce it's 98 percent. The only things we buy from purveyors are some herbs, limes. I mean, you can't buy milk and meat there. You can buy milk, but food costs would be through the roof.
JS: We love farmers markets. It's not cheap. But the quality is amazing.
SI: Your menu changes a lot based on the seasons. What's the process like for you when you create a new dish?
JS: Our problems here with new dishes is that people get really upset when certain dishes come off. So I always joke that the strong survive. The other day we didn't have poutine because we ran out of Bordelaise and people were like "where's the poutine?" So sometimes it just comes down to what we're able to do. Gets back to the dream kitchen. We may have a great idea, but execution during service would be impossible. We don't have a convi oven, we don't have circulators.
[Vinny happens to walk in again and chimes in.]
VD: But if somebody reads this and wants to send us a convi oven or ice cream maker, we won't send it back.
[Now back to Vinny's interview.]
VD: We hardly ever plan in advance. Sometimes I'll work on something, give it a shot. But I'm not planning summer dishes now. Planning never seems to work out well, because then you anticipate something being there and it's not there. Maybe when I get older I'll plan more, but I find that now I experiment more beforehand. Now I'll think of an idea, try it out, then think about it, then put it on. Rather than just going for it. Unless I feel like it's a well rounded thought. I just find that planning is hard. You could show up to the farmer's market and there's nothing there. But I like having a lot of ingredients. I'll get new stuff, then get it all in front of me and then start planning. Like, for that day, or for that night.
SI: All right. If you could have any chef in the world cook you a multi-course dinner, who would it be?
JS: Jeremy Fox. He's a friend, but I think that with him being gone from Ubuntu, I think Vinny and I are a little bummed that we never got to have his food there. So I miss that we never got to have his food in a restaurant setting. We're hoping that in a couple months we can get him to come down here and do some dinners. We call him the wizard around here. Someone recently asked him what his favorite cooking technique was and he looked them in the eye and said "cooking with stones". So he'd be my guy right now, I guess. I don't know.
VD: Anywhere in the world? Wow...f**k. That's a tough question. There's so many good people. I could have, like, seven people do one course each. I almost want to say somebody who's food I haven't had. But I've been to Alinea and I've had Grant's food before, and that's some of the best cooking I've had in a long time. So I'd have to say him. I'd have to say Grant Achatz or Jeremy Fox from Ubuntu. Those are my two.
SI: The world of food, and really, the average type of restaurant customer has changed a lot over even just the past few years. Do you think Animal could have been as successful ten, or even five years ago as it is now?
JS: Well, all food goes in circles. Livers and kidney and off cuts were popular back in the 50s and 60s. So it's just coming back around. So who knows? I think that people enjoy Animal because they get good quality product for their price, not because they're eating liver or ear. It's because they're getting quality for what they're eating, which is something we always think about. A lot of our training is from eating out. So you've always got to think about it from a diner's perspective.
VD: No. I don't. I think people want to pay for what they're getting right now. People want to pay for their food. They don't want to pay for your bullshit glasses, your linens, your forty waiters. If you're a fine dining place and you aren't amazing, you're screwed. Grant's not going anywhere, Alinea's not going anywhere. But say some new guy tries it and it's spotty, it's not gonna last. So I think places like this, they know what they're paying for. Food and ingredients and that's it. People are saying fine dining is dying, that this wouldn't work there. But the stuff we're serving has been around forever. We're not reinventing the wheel, we're just doing our interpretation.
You're noticing a lot of ingredient driven food now. The best local cod, the best arugula. People are leaning toward a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil rather than a four hour sauce. Chimichurri and salsa verde rather than stacked foods. You're seeing it less here, but more in fine dining. So it's like this opposite spectrum. People are going way intricate or way simple, and we're kind of somewhere in the middle. I don't know which one's gonna fade faster. I think fine dining is gonna make a comeback. And all these people that can just make a roast chicken and panzanella is gonna go out. How many people can keep doing that?
Mark Miller came in and really liked the restaurant. He said it'd been different than a lot of stuff he'd been seeing. He opened like 28 restaurants in his day, and he was talking about all this farmer's market, ingredient driven cooking. He said that's a shopping philosophy and not a cooking philosophy, and that really stuck with me. I'm trying to veer more and more from anything that you could read on a menu and think you could do it in your house. I don't want that feeling from people. My wife gets that feeling at restaurants. Not being cocky or arrogant, but sometimes people are getting away with murder. How many salads can be out there with balsamic vinaigrette?
SI: Do you feel restricted at all by what you can put out, from an ingredient standpoint rather than a technical standpoint? Do you ever come up with a dish you'd love to make and then think "No, customers wouldn't want that..." or do you feel like you can do anything?
JS: No. Here in this place? Never. I think it might not be able to stay on the menu for a long period of time-- because you may not be able to get the ingredient, but I think diner's come here looking for that. But I'd say no. At this place no.
VD: All the time. I make stuff all the time, and think, "this is not this restaurant. This is not what we're doing here." I do make stuff that's way too hard. I made a root vegetable and marinated mushroom salad and it just took way too much time. I plated every one of those, people loved it, but it was a f***ing ass kicker.
But I feel like we can put whatever on the menu. I keep trying to make things stranger. I'm gonna put veal testicles on soon and I think people will still go for it. I've been playing around with them. Well, not playing around with them. Not literally. But we've been testing a couple of applications of them, for lack of a better word. But as far as what are the boundaries with ingredients? There is none. I don't know of an animal part that didn't work. Some didn't last as long. It might not sell as much, like confit of chicken feet. We've got geoduck tonight. I guess bugs, but I don't want to eat bugs. I like making food that I want to eat. I love oysters, but I can't put them on the menu because we don't have room and nobody can shuck them fast enough. There's nowhere for them to set up.
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I went to Italy this year for my honeymoon. Was I inspired? Yes, but this isn't an Italian restaurant. You need to know the place and time for things. But soup never sells well here. So the chicken feet, the soup, they sold, but not that well. So it really comes down to what people want. You can tell from the clientele. I'm not doing marinated olives here. You know how many restaurants do marinated olives? I do know they'd play. Could I do a good burger? Yes, but I don't want to sell twenty-five burgers a night. Could I sell the f**k out of charcuterie boards here? Yes, but would I be proud of it? No, because I don't have space to do it. So you have to think of all of those things. A roasted chicken, a burger, oysters, all those things, they'll never work here. Because we either don't have space or it doesn't fit in. The thing with the burger world is everybody's got their favorite, but it gets to be too much. I'd rather only be compared to a few people. People compare our pig ear to Church & State and now Lazy Ox. I'd rather be compared to five guys than five hundred. But I'm not gonna keep bringing chicken feet in if it's not gonna sell. It's a lot of work. Duck tongues. Do you know how much work duck tongues are? Ten pounds of duck tongues is like a thousand tongues.
So when we run tongue, it's lamb tongue, pork tongue, beef tongue. It comes down to the sense of value. Why is a restaurant like this succeeding? The sense of value, honesty. Would the ticket average of the steak go up with a Béarnaise on it instead of escargot? It would. But I want something that's different and that tastes good. I've never seen a steak with snails on it. So in my head, garlic and butter, it all works. But some people are repulsed by it. A lady came in and said "I can't believe you have it on your steak, but you aren't selling escargot." But that's not what we're doing. If you want escargot go to to Church & State. It's awesome there.
But it is a psychological game. Would people eat the pig ear if I put crazy and challenging ingredients on it, like licorice and parsnip? Would people want it as much? They wouldn't. We want to take things that are challenging, and make them accessible. We've been making barbecued sandwiches with slaw on it for years. We always did it with shoulder. Always sauce it after, add coleslaw, it was with a cheaper bun, more slaw, more pork. But now, we use pork belly. Refine it enough so that we can do it here. Could we deconstruct the sandwich? À la minute brioche, slice the belly really thin, deconstruct the sauce, celery seed. Imagine it all scattered about. But we've got it all between a bun. It's all about knowing the back and fourth. That's what makes it fun for me.
Animal Restaurant, 435 N Fairfax Ave, L.A., (323) 782-9225.