Welcome to L.A. Week 2016. To celebrate the rich culinary life of Los Angeles, we’ll be running special features all week that explore the city’s ever-evolving food scene—from its classic tacos, to its offbeat icons. Follow along on Twitter @firstwefeast.
Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have never played by the rules—and for Los Angeles diners, that’s a blessing. Instead, the trailblazing tag-team have paired their crackpot sensibilities with fine-dining chops to help redefine what’s cool in the food world for L.A. and beyond.
From their beginnings as Hollywood caterers, Dotolo and Shook were disruptors, adopting a decidedly punk attitude that informed the uncompromising ethos of their first restaurant in 2009. At the meat-focused spot on Fairfax, aptly named Animal, the chefs unleashed in-your-face dishes like foie-gras biscuits and gravy on a corridor of Los Angeles brimming with Supreme snapbacks. The rest of L.A. quickly took notice.
For two guys reared in Florida’s culinary backwaters, that type of high-low inventiveness is part of their cooking DNA. “I was one of those kids who, if I was into something, I wanted to know how to do it,” says Shook after recounting his obsession with a Bordelaise-sauced mashed-potato sandwich he ate as a young dishwasher. “It started like that, and it kept snowballing, and now it’s become this crazy thing.”
If staying true to themselves has helped Shook and Dotolo build a successful empire, so has their willingness to collaborate—first with each other (the two met in culinary school and have been inseparable ever since), and then with companies and celebs like Vans, Shake Shack, and Jon Favreau. When Shook and Dotolo teamed up with superstar L.A. chef Ludo Lefebvre in 2013 to open Trois Mec, a 24-seat menu with one set menu each night, it sealed their fate as key players in the upper echelons of L.A. dining.
Since then, Shook and Dotolo have continued branching out and partnering with people they admire: The “Animal guys” have joined forces with Lefebvre on two more spots, and they’re now helping Madcapra chefs Sara Kamer and Sarah Hymanson open a Mediterranean restaurant in Los Feliz later this year. In true L.A. style, Dotolo and Shook are as much creative directors as chefs, embracing new concepts that place them at the cutting edge of L.A. dining’s latest evolution.
From the mashed-potato sandwich Shook loved to eat while working as a dishwasher, to an unforgettable first meal at Prune in NYC, these are the 10 food experiences that have helped shaped Jon and Vinny’s culinary vision.
Shook says: “Whenever I see fried chicken on the menu, I always gravitate to ordering it. I grew up eating a lot of fried chicken; I always love a good cutlet or drumstick. I used to visit Chick-fil-A a lot, and I still eat there. I usually order the number one, which is just a fried-chicken sandwich. It’s a big reason why we serve a fried-chicken sandwich at Son of a Gun. It tends to finds its way on most of our menus because it’s a form of comfort—not just for me, but for other Americans as well.” (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Grilled steak with mashed potatoes
Dotolo says: “A meal that I looked forward to most often as a child was grilled steak and mashed potatoes. I probably ate that once a week growing up, and it still conjures feelings of nostalgia every time I eat it, whether at a restaurant or my own house. Now I’m building that same sort of memory pattern with my own children by cooking steak at home. There were no professional cooks in my family, but there was always good food around. The steak we were making was ribeye or New York strip. Back then, it wasn’t the culture of hangar steaks and flat irons that you see now.” (Photo: Flickr/Ralph Daily)
Shook says: “A mashed-potato sandwich doesn’t sound all that interesting, but as a young cook, I used to love eating it at this restaurant I was working at. It [consisted of] a really nice plain baguette, housemade mashed potatoes, and Bordelaise sauce. It wasn’t available on the menu. It was literally just one of the line cooks who asked, ‘Hey dishwasher, what do you want to eat?’ At the time, I was working as a dishwasher. And I said, ‘I have no clue.’ I didn’t grow up eating at fancy restaurants. So he said, ‘Let me make you one of my favorite snacks.’ I thought it was the best thing, and I knew that I wanted to learn how to make it. I was one of those kind of kids who, if I was into something, I wanted to know how to [master] it. For me, that sandwich instilled a curiosity in me.” (Photo: Flickr/Ernesto Andrade)
Yellow wax beans at Barbuto (New York, NY)
Shook says: “Vinny and I went to Barbuto together when we were in culinary school, and I remember how there were these seared yellow wax beans that Jonathan Waxman was making, with crushed red chili, arugula, and lemon juice. It was awesome and fresh. It was different too, especially around the time when I was eating it. I still make that same dish for myself at home.” (Photo: Flickr/See-ming Lee)
Dinner at Prune (New York, NY)
Dotolo says: “One of the early influencers for me was Gabrielle Hamilton. When I went to New York in the early 2000s, Prune felt like such a personal experience for a chef. It was something so different from the grand dining rooms that were in [fashion] at the time. It was this small but ambitious neighborhood restaurant that someone with a passion and a love for food put together. It had its own sort of sensibility rather than feeling cookie-cutter. It felt hand-made, and I loved the perfect imperfections of it. In terms of the food, she was cooking whatever she wanted to eat, or whatever she wanted to make. It wasn’t this structured menu that everybody did because it sells. I thought: I would love to have a place like this one day. I hope Animal can have that kind of run that Prune had. And that’s kind of how we put Animal together—it was back to the basics of what we needed to be as a restaurant. We were going to try to make some really good food for the neighborhood. The rest is history. (Gabrielle actually ended up doing the food at my wedding, which was obviously a dream come true.)” (Photo: Prune)
Mise En Place (Tampa, FL)
Dotolo says: “There’s a place in Tampa that I went to for some celebration when I was growing up; I think it was my 16th birthday or something like that. The name of the restaurant is Mise En Place. The way the chef was combining flavors was something I had never really experienced before. I grew up in an Italian-American family, but still ate a lot of straightforward food. I remember there being [a dish at Mise En Place with] corn and pork and strawberry; he also used spice combinations and ingredients that weren’t in my repertoire [at the time]. I would say that that restaurant really opened my eyes to a range of what food could be, depending on where you grew up and what you’ve been influenced by.” (Photo: miseonline.com)
Foie gras biscuits and gravy at Animal
Shook says: “The gravy itself is inspired by one that I used to make back in the day with Jimmy Dean sausage when I was in high school. (Obviously we make it with our own sausage at the restaurant.) And foie gras is one of my favorite ingredients of all time. Foie gras and cream pair well—that’s a classic combination—and you get spiciness from the sausage. There’s also maple syrup in the gravy, which adds a nice sweet component to the foie gras. When Animal opened and we put that dish on the menu, there weren’t a lot of people pushing that indulgent, over-the-top flavoring. This was a really personal dish, and it also kind of summed up how we were expressing ourselves as chefs, and Animal as a whole. That one dish really set it apart.”
Margherita pizza at Jon & Vinny’s
Dotolo says: “Earlier in our careers, I don’t know if we were necessarily interested in the margherita-pizza game. But right now, I love it. There’s a lot of great pizza out there: Pizzeria Bianco in Arizona, Motorino in New York, Delfina in San Francisco. Everyone has a fucking margherita pizza, but the one that we make is the one that we like the most. Our pizza dough is a form of a sourdough-style crust. We like a heavy char on it, and we’ve elected to cook it in a gas oven. We use Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes and cook the pizza without the cheese on it and finish it with mozzarella at the end. We like to brush the crust with oil. Those are all personal preferences.” (Photo: Yelp/Travis I.)
Oil and vinegar
Shook says: “I’m talking about oil and vinegar on the table in, like, a shitty little diner. I love vinegar; I fucking put that shit on all kinds of stuff. I love the punchiness. I always did, even when I was a kid. And we use a lot of acid in many of the dishes on the menu. You know, I was the kind of guy that when I would go get French fries, I had to get all the condiments.” (Photo: wayfair.com)
Dotolo says: “I think I had a lot of shitty Americanized versions of it growing up, like at Italian diner-style restaurants in Florida with big portions. Looking back on it, I was probably happy as hell eating it as a child. That was probably more of a meat ragu rather than what a traditional Bolognese is, with milk and tomato paste and whatnot. I wanted to know how to make Bolognese myself and find the exact ratios that we liked for the restaurant.” (Photo: Yelp/Phoebe W.)