Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo a.k.a “The Animal Guys”, Los Angeles

Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook
Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook

The two young partners and their restaurants Animal, Son of a Gun, and their latest, Trois Mec with Chef Ludo Lefebvre are currently at the pinnacle of the LA dining scene. These two Florida transplants have brought a renewed interest and energy to the oft ignored dining scene of the West Coast. Coming soon are two more restaurants from this dynamic duo: Petit Trois, adjacent to Trois Mec, and an operation across the street from Animal. Both of these additions to their burgeoning empire are awaited with much anticipation from their infatuated diners which include numerous celebrities. A lot of information is already out there about their favorite dishes to cook, eat, their choice spices, their training at the Culinary Institute in Ft. Lauderdale, their initial entry into the business as caterers, and other facts about their lives. To get know who they really are and what makes them so brilliant in their work we had a couple of informal conversations recently in Mexico City.

Our initial meeting was while we attempted to speak over the decibel level of the speakers backstage at Mesamerica where they later went on stage to talk about street food in LA. Thankfully the  next time we met in the serene patio of the Condessa DF hotel in Mexico City and spoke about their varied interests in art, music, community, family, and of course, food. They have distinctively different personalities. Vinny is more articulate and expansive in his communication, while Jon is more reserved and introspective, but together they are a great team transitioning to meet the requirements of their evolving roles from cooks and caterers to big time entrepreneurs. Like a great couple, they occasionally finish each other’s sentences or thoughts.

Have you guys ever been on stage at an international event like this before?

Vinny: No, this is our first one where we have spoken on stage.

Recently chefs are seen more at such food events than in their kitchens, so are you planning to travel to more of these events in the US or overseas?

Jon: We both do travel quite a bit, we are going to Aspen as we have done the last couple of years but we have never been presenters there. We also go to the Southern Food Alliance in, Oxford, Mississippi, that is a big one we love to go to in the South.We say no to a lot of stuff and make choices that keep us close to home.

So have you guys been to Mexico before this visit?

Jon: It’s my third time in Mexico, first time in Mexico City. I’m coming here more frequently than before when I was going to NYC almost every other week. Our schedules are fluid; it could be one place one day and another next. We are both communicating constantly about our schedules trying to accommodate everything.
Vinny: It’s my first visit though.

Anything in particular in Mexico that struck you about the food?

Vinny: I have to say not just in the food world but our images of Mexico in the bigger media need to change. It’s a beautiful country with amazing people and lots of culture. The street food is good as anywhere in the world and we have been to some great restaurants as well like Taqueria Califa and Rosetta, and we going to Quintonil tonight. Curiosity about food never ends, I never feel like I know enough.

So what’s coming ahead in this year for you guys?

Vinny: We have two more restaurants opening as you know. The one with Ludo next door to Trois Mec [Petit Trois] opening in next couple of weeks and one we are opening in our location across from Animal. Other than that we don’t have any more projects coming up.

Usually people have a hard time working as a team so how do you make it work for you?

Vinny: We really believe in team work and we have believed in it from the beginning and it has allowed us to conquer our dreams together. We know that for some people it seems odd that we work together for so long but it helps that we have similar goals though we are very different people. We have yet more goals that are bigger and we know how to work together to achieve them.

So Ludo came in to this equation later. How does that play in?

Jon: Sure he has come in later and we have other people down the road that we will also be working together with and partner with as well. We believe in working as a team and Ludo is a new part of the team.

Vinny: Ludo has amazing talent and he was not in a restaurant space ten years ago, and he is one of the most talented chefs in United States. With his talent he deserved to have that space and we did everything we could to help achieve that goal.

Jon: He didn’t want to work for a boss or a huge organization and didn’t want to have a huge restaurant either.

Your restaurants are more casual setups, but do you feel there is still a market for more elaborate formal restaurants?

Jon: I think that clientele will always exist and at the end of the day those added expenses of linens, extra waiters have to be passed on to customers and when we first opened Animal we really wanted to have a place where we could do away with this expenses and reduce costs for our customers. We want to have a restaurant that people can afford to eat at once a week and not once a year that’s the idea for us to still serve quality food at reasonable prices.

Whether you guys are there or not it’s always a great experience to dine at your restaurants, but do people come to the Trois Mec expecting to see you as well as Ludo?

Jon: Yeah they do but they see Ludo who has the same beliefs that we do especially as we all work together. We do stuff at Animal that we like to do and he does stuff that he likes to do.

What is your opinion about restaurant rating systems like Michelin, 50 Best List etc. and how it plays into bringing in more guests?

Vinny: I think it’s great to be on any list, it’s amazing to have that happen and that brings more attention. There are so many of these lists out there now. These lists appeal to different people as there are different groups that make up lists like the Michelin Guide and the 50 Best.

There is lobbying for those positions on these lists. Does that make them less significant?

Vinny: We do not get involved in any of that. For us the most important thing is that guests should be happy when they walk out the door of the restaurant every day and seriously that is all we care about. We hit our numbers, we get our clients

Jon: We concentrate on other things that are more important to us and a lot of our time is spent concentrating on the arts. Our belief is in supporting the arts around us with all the museums like LACMA close by. We are also big believers in giving back to kids, we give a lot of donations to foundations that are working in that area, and that is our interest more than the 50 Best List. Not that one list is better than the other, but our clients are coming to the restaurant day in and day out for what we provide and that’s where our business is. We support what our clients are interested in and the fields that they come from and we support those interests.

So you are involved in community issues?

Jon: We love teamwork and working on community issues and if we didn’t love doing this we would not be here. We do what we love and enjoy doing it.

How do you pick people to work on your team? Is it performance based, resumes or where they have staged?

Jon: We have a couple of different criteria and we are always searching for good people to come join our team. We hire people based on what the position is and are aware that every employee we hire is not going to work out for us. Sometimes they can start at a base job and work their way up and sometimes we hire based on what the position is. We invest time and money to train them and hope they can work within the system and our beliefs that we are trying to foster.

Do you hire people with a culinary school background?

Jon: We hire people actually based on their attitude. We have them come in and try out for jobs at an entry level and see how they fit in. We want to see how they go in the direction of the job that they are hired for and how their boss evaluates them. We let the boss of that team make the decision as we don’t try to be everyone’s boss. Sometimes we will take a shot at somebody we see not because of their training but because we think they are capable.

Is there another cuisine that you guys are interested in besides your own?

Vinny: Japanese is interesting to me, and I am constantly fascinated by it year in and out. Japanese is always at the top.

Any plans of traveling with your team like Noma is going to Japan for two months next year?

Vinny: We have talked about it, and if we do then Japan will be something we will look into. When we do open another restaurant outside of United States we might look at Tokyo.

Yesterday you guys were up on stage talking about street food in LA .What else are you passionate about food-wise in LA?

Jon: Obviously our other peers that have restaurants or chefs who inspire us. Guys like Ludo, Nancy Silverton, Michael Chimariski, Michael Voltaggio, Josiah Citrin, people just off the top of my head are serious influences. Vinny and I besides having a love for food are also enamored by the arts. We are really into museums and galleries as well as other forms of art outside of traditional arts like fashion. We find ourselves gravitating towards that kind of information and those kinds of people.

Are you going planning to introduce those aspects into your food as a mixed media presentation like the Roca brothers in Spain?

Jon: We are just starting to dabble into some of this mixed media stuff but we are not trying to have a big multimedia platform. That does not really intrigue us and what does intrigue us is to make our actual overall restaurant experience better. Whatever that might involve from a chair, to lighting, sound down to the music that’s playing, what servers are wearing. All those elements play in as factors for us.

Vinny: I think that there are a lot of interesting things out there that we can possibly get into but it’s how we go about doing this is what we are trying to take our time deciding. We want to be smart about the decisions we make as we have grown so fast in the last few years. I don’t know what percentage that is.

Jon: It’s about 35% every year since we opened Animal six years ago.

Vinny: By the end of 2015 we plan to have five restaurants and that is a lot. We are sort of trying to grow into our business and as I always like to compare as I have a two and half year old and I try to buy clothes for a three year old. I feel like we have those pants that we are still trying to grow into so we are trying to grow into what we have already started. It’s amazing because this realization keeps us on our toes constantly and we are never complacent with what we do. To get into other things like clothing design or a collaboration with an artist on something , there are a lot of such things out there for chefs to get into and it’s a decision about how you put yourself out there. Basically it’s how you want to be perceived. You have to be smart about it since you can be a spokesperson for Velveeta cheese or you can go out to learn to make cheese in an artisanal manner. There are chefs out there who go from one extreme to the next as you can do something that makes you a ton of money or give you huge exposure but it might not be the right brand or not give you the expected exposure.

Jon: We do have some relationships going now like our partnership with Lexus, which is an unbelievable relationship to have with a luxury brand corporation. They are a premium product and when they approached us we were very glad to be part of it.

This brings me to ask that when you opened Animal, it was at a price point that almost everyone could enter and enjoy. So when you are linking with luxury level brands are you moving away from your initial approach and are you still connected to that part of the clientele?

Jon: Not at all, and luxury does not have to be expensive. Some people might not consider Animal expensive but some people do. What drives our company is that we try to buy the best possible product out there that we can get. We then sell it to the customers at the lowest possible price we can. When you speak to people from Lexus and see what you get in comparison to what you pay you see that their prices are totally fair against other brands like Mercedes, BMW, Rolls Royce, and other luxury vehicles. The Lexus Company as a whole it really parallels great with our beliefs.

Vinny: I think the original goal with Animal as we touched on in our conversation yesterday was to have something we wanted to have for ourselves to be able to go to and for it to be there for us to being able to walk in to. There were certain things we wanted to do when we opened Animal like if we said we are open till 11pm and we will serve you if you came in at 10:59 and not close at 10:45. Jon will agree that it drove us crazy when we would get out of work and we could not find a place that was still open to go to. We thought we don’t need the tablecloths and all these other costs we would have to pass on to customers and we used the money on things that you can touch. We did Animal as minimalist as possible.

Jon: We decided to buy nice tables!

Vinny: And now we are putting in a lot more into our design and construction. When we opened Animal we had no idea where it would go, if we would close in a week or stay open for ten years and it was a decision about how much money we could put in to have a place that we wanted to go to ourselves. It is the same with Ludo’s project where we could easily charge $150 per head instead of what we charge now. We just want you to pay the lowest price that we possibly can and still give the best product. At the same time we are not trying to jack up prices because we are popular now.

So you are staying true to your original philosophy?

Vinny: Totally, what we are doing is for LA and for the community.  It’s the thought that we want to buy the same product that Spago (Wolfgang Puck) does but we are not charging the same prices. I know it’s not the same setting but to us it’s about the integrity of the product and quality of ingredients. At the end of the day it’s about the food and service. When people come to our restaurants they are really blown away by the service as we really do care about service just as we care about our food. Service really outweighs food sometimes.

Are there other young chefs that you fraternize with as part of a community?

Jon: I think there is a great community in the LA chefs but since it’s LA it’s not so visible and their schedules are so busy, but peers like Michael Voltaggio, who is a friend of ours, we bounce off ideas like yesterday we were texting about closing on Fourth of July. We have our own opinions and are not always in the same place like I am in Mexico right now and he is leaving shortly for Africa or some other random place. We all might not meet face to face or dine together and we all have personal lives outside of work as well, so the chefs community does exist but maybe we are not out there drinking beers together every night.

Do you think this business is hard on the families of those in this profession?

Jon: It’s really hard, and we both have some awesome wives who understand this job. Vinny’s wife has seen us grow and mine is good friends with her and both our ladies have incredibly busy schedules themselves. Mine [Shiri Appleby] is in Austin, Texas shooting a movie right now for the next seven weeks and I can’t be there often enough. I am flying there to pick up my daughter since my parents are coming to LA so we are always trying to juggle things.

Are you involved in day to day operations, product sourcing, menus etc. while you are away, and does it help to get away once in a while?

Vinny: Totally! We are always in touch but it’s great to see other things, understand the world and know what other people are doing in food as opposed to what we are doing in LA or the US. We don’t want to be closed to cuisines outside our area and we would love to get out more internationally but it requires a lot of time and money. Yesterday Mario Batali spoke about how even when you are away from your restaurants you are essentially still there every day no matter what. Your name is out there on the menu and the restaurant and we take pride in that and try to instill that in our teams.

Wherever we are, however we are, our teams uphold our vision. There are mistakes, something happens every day but that how we improve. It’s amazing to be able to put trust in people and every chef will say that to be a great chef it takes a great team. In the first few years we were so deeply involved that we did not see that process, like if I was working on the line and Jon was prepping or catering. It’s good to take a step back and reflect on our work, and now we can see what we can improve. There are many things that can take up time. Jon once spent six months battling a wedding company.

Jon: Only because they were charging us $30,000 more than another company!

Vinny: So little things like that we are deeply involved in every day, whether it’s a new dish or other things across the board.

With the rise of social media, how long does creativity last since things are out there instantly?

Jon: I think nothing’s new really; it’s been around in some form or the other. Food is like fashion and goes around in circles like polka dots may not be in right now but could be back next year.

Some things are more iconic to a certain chef’s work. Do you feel flattered when someone copies your idea, and they should give you credit in some way?

Vinny: It is flattering, but I think they should know where it began.

Jon: On the reverse side I feel like my one beef would be that I think that some reporters aren’t well enough versed on food knowledge, because of the internet, and they might credit somebody for a dish that they had nothing to do with. They just start knocking it off from someone else. So they have to understand the history. It’s like if it’s the first time seeing an Evian glass bottle and they say, “Oh man, this is amazing! Evian has glass bottles!” but first, they’re not the first person to bottle water in glass, and second, that’s maybe the first time you’ve seen it but it’s been around for years, you know what I mean? So they might write a story about how amazing it is that this restaurant has Evian in a glass bottle, but at the end of the day, were they really the first? When did that come out? So you battle that thing sometimes, the misinformation.

Vinny: We try not to really concern ourselves with it though.

Jon: If we came up with something unique on the LA dining scene and someone copied it I would be flattered. We work with the idea of what we like and would work on our own menus and our restaurant rather than going after what is selling now or trending. That approach has really paid off for us at the end of the day. When we opened Animal we existed in our own little world as we had not worked in restaurants for years. We were catering in our insular bubble in LA cooking what we were inspired by and we had no money and barely ten cook books. Now we have hundreds but we referred to those ten much more.

Where did the inspiration come from?

Vinny: The inspiration came from desire to learn more, it came not so much from who we were but more from what we wanted to do. We were not copying, in those days we didn’t even have a computer. The first time Eater came to interview us we had no idea what that even was and it was an eye opening moment because we found there was this whole other world about food out there. There were people on the Internet talking about food and now we understand and see all that. Our outside influences are greater now than they were before. Sometimes we don’t get to process all of the stuff out there about us.  When I go home I don’t go on the Internet or read what is written about us, I engage with my family, cook dinner, etc. We are very normal people.

Which established chefs around the world you guys look up to?

Jon: We like different people for different things.

Vinny: One of my biggest heroes just in the US is Paul Kahan, the way he thinks about restaurants: the design, the aesthetic, the quality of food, the service. Every restaurant of his is different and I love that. He has a fine dining modern restaurant, a Spanish-driven one, wine bar, taqueria, and now an Italian seafood restaurant. I love that he thinks about so many different avenues. Just like us he is interested in so many different things and cuisines.

So you have a global view?

Vinny: Exactly. I’m interested in so many things, like I’m not just French and I’m not just Italian, I’m kind of everything. We are now taking on that aspect like Jon was saying earlier and working on sound and design and making those kinds of choices in our restaurants. You get to a certain point where you make choices like “Well, we can only afford this kind of lighting.” We just don’t have that kind of money to put in to the restaurant, and we adapt our ideas for what is economically feasible for us to do. We are interested in so many things that make up a restaurant.

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