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.”
Squid Ink: It seems like once a restaurant becomes successful, people immediately begin talking about the chefs opening another one. There have been some rumors to that effect about you two. What's actually happening?
Jon Shook: Actually going on is nothing. Nothing as of now. Just talking to people. Obviously looking. But even if we were building something just next door, I wouldn't tell you.
Vinny Dotolo: Yeah, no deli. Though I'd love to have an awesome deli one day. Like a sandwich place. It's definitely in the wheelhouse of concepts. We are definitely looking for other spaces. As far as what's the lineup? Just to keep a general…I mean…it's not another Animal. But it could be anything from a BBQ restaurant to a seafood place to a sandwich shop…a general store. We've also thrown around some sort of Latin inspired thing too. Tacos maybe. Something like that. But nothing is in the front and nothing is in the back. Spaces really speak to us in a weird way. What might fit well. Stuff like that. But there are some butcher shops opening this year and I want to see how those play out. But any of it is at our fingertips. But like I said, nothing in the front, nothing in the back. We haven't found a concept. We're kind of just looking for a space that feels like something we could have. We're looking everywhere.
SI: You have been linked together as chefs for a long time. What are the differences between your cooking cooking and his?
JS: We actually have very similar styles. The biggest would be that he leans toward dairy more than I do, and a lot of the reason why is because I'm lactose intolerant. Even though I do eat dairy, I don't lean toward it. Though a lot of that is because we've been cooking together for ten years. But there are times I use dairy, I just find myself not pulling from it as much as he does.
VD: We definitely are different. I think I probably lean more into the more intricate stuff than he does. I just, I know my limits here. I do most of the creative here, he does more of the catering and business stuff. And it works. Neither one of us gets in each other's way. But I'm more of a perfectionist. That's just me. But I'm that way with everything. It's not just cooking. There's days when I miss fine dining and there's days that I miss the crazy mosh pit here. No fancy tools, no fancy gadgets, just four guys in a kitchen. We just hope that it tastes good. It's nice when you intertwine things that are usually found in fine dining and bring it here. To take stuff like sweetbreads and bring it down to somewhere more accessible. I can show the guys sometimes the different ways to plate a dish so that it looks more fine dining, way more refined, versus a simpler presentation. And when you do that kind of plating, people won't connect to it in this space. Flavor is really people's taking off point. The way it tastes when you put it in your mouth. It takes a lot of people to make food like that really work. I appreciate fine dining and I appreciate hole-in-the-wall too. I'm never out too bash anybody. I love those technical kitchens with 50 people around. I'd love to have a place like that, but we know where we are. We know what we're supposed to be doing. Not every day, but most of the time. It's been a great growing process. Taught us a lot.
SI: How did you learn to cook?
JS: I started as a dishwasher, and went to culinary school and all that good stuff. Worked for different chefs around the United States. Standard restaurant chef story I guess.
VD: I was around food as a kid a lot. Not in a restaurant, though. I remember being intrigued by it, but never thought about taking it as a career until I was 18. What am I gonna do? Go to college? So I figured I'd just give it a try. Professional cooking versus just doing it in your house. Definitely different. So I think the desire and sheer want to learn about food more. Not necessarily going into it knowing too much was certainly a good thing for me. Didn't have any bad habits. I didn't have any ways I was shown to do something. Everything was a learning experience and I was lucky to fall into some good hands and have a good opportunity. That's pretty much half the battle right there. Opportunity and desire. Then you've got to find the product. Those are our biggest challenges. You know, I think there are just so many talented people that never have the opportunity to have their own voice.
SI: How close is Animal to being your dream restaurant? If there were no constraints whatsoever, what kind of place would you open?
JS: I would say that it's only twenty-five percent of my dream restaurant. There's seventy-five percent more things that I'd do. But when I opened this place, it was my dream restaurant. But all the things that I'd do different, were things that I learned from experience. We don't have wine storage here, and that's something I never thought of. But now, our kitchen is so far from what I want, but back then, I dreamed of this. I guess you always want what you can't have.
SI [Follow-up for Jon]: What about in regards to the style of food itself?
JS: Well the food here is based here after the name somewhat. That it's meat-centric. There's a lot of our cooking style here, but when you have a lack of certain tools, you can only go so far with it. We have no molds, no ice cream machine, so there's only so far we can go with our desserts. But if I had more elements at my disposal, I'd be able to do more variety. One thing that will never change is our style, and this is our style. We use a lot of acid, we likes things full flavored.
VD: I'd probably open something like Blue Hill Stone Barns. But probably if you asked Dan Barber, he might say he dreams of a 45 seat restaurant. Everything seems better from the other side. It takes a lot to plan that, having a farm attached to a restaurant. You've got to know the harvests… But when you set foot on that property, you say “damn that must be nice.” And they don't get every single item on the menu from their property, but they do a damn good job. They're technical but they're not. They're local. It's a well rounded thought. Sustainability at its best. But right now, Animal is our dream restaurant. It's ours. We do own this place. I mean, if I could have the kitchen be the size of this whole restaurant, I would. But we can't. There was a time in my life when I thought, and Jon too, “I'm gonna have my own restaurant”, and I tell myself now “I'm gonna have all that one day. Farm and everything.” People can laugh at you, but what's gonna stop you? Money and opportunity. But dreams do come true. Ten years ago, somebody would have said those guys are dreamers…and we are dreamers.
SI: You were on Iron Chef America. How staged and fake is it really?
JS: I'm not allowed to answer that. It's really one hour of cooking. That's all I'll say.
VD: I don't know on the record if I can answer that question. But let's just say it's a T.V. show. You can't believe everything on TV. That's all I'm gonna say really.
SI: If you were offered, would you go back?
JS: I wouldn't say I wouldn't, but right now, we're not really into doing competition shows, so I wouldn't say yes or no. But it's not on the top of my list. I would do TV if it was stuff that I was interested in doing.
SI [Follow-up for Jon]: Such as?
JS: Traveling, eating, cooking. Everything kind of has its refrain to it. I would travel to Mexico for TV, but I wouldn't want to wear a f**king sombrero.
VD: No. I wouldn't do Iron Chef again. I just don't feel like I need to. I don't have that, like…I just don't need it for my ego. I don't need to beat somebody at their cooking. Cooking is not a competition to me. There's a lot of great people out there, a lot of people do things well, you've just got to appreciate it, not badmouth. It's hard to compare two people's different styles. I don't need it and I don't need to go back.
SI: Do you have a favorite ingredient?
VD: Foie gras. I say that a lot, but it's good.
SI: Any ingredients you really don't like?
JS: Nothing I don't like, to tell you the truth. I feel like it's not the ingredient, but it's the person who's preparing it. Like my mother's petrified chicken. I hope she doesn't read that. But I'll try anything again and again, even if I don't like it. I don't like green peppers. But I love sloppy joes and you can't have sloppy joes without green pepper. Tell me one person that doesn't like sloppy joes, because they need to die.
SI [Follow up for Jon]: So you're saying vegetarians need to die?
JS: No, not at all. I'm actually on a health food kick lately. Myself, I've been really kind of, I guess because it's spring, really into pea tendrils and other spring vegetables.
VD: We just did this radio show with Emeril and they were like “what food trends do you not like?” and I said frozen yogurt. Then I asked him and he said “bad food.” I thought that was a great answer. But there's nothing I won't try and there's nothing that I dislike, necessarily. I'm not crazy about salmon eggs. I've never gotten into the salmon egg sushi thing. That doesn't do it for me. That's about it, really. We were in Japan, and I got salmon eggs at an omakase and I was like, “f**k, I hate these things.”
SI [Follow-up for Vinny]: But if a vendor dropped them off in the back?
VD: I'd work with them. I know things that go with them. But is it the thing I'll be ordering tomorrow night? No.
Animal Restaurant, 435 N Fairfax Ave, L.A., (323) 782-9225.