Interview with Chefs Vinny Dotolo & Jon Shook of Animal – Los Angeles, CA

March 18

Antoinette Bruno: What is your division of labor?
Jon Shook: It changes every day depending what we’re working on. We lean towards our strong points. Vinny is more on the creative side and I am more on the business side. We have been cooking together for ten years and there was a time when we lived together and had one cell phone. Now I live with my girlfriend, he lives with his wife, and we have multiple cell phones. It’s constantly changing in terms of what’s going on. When we first started, Vinny did pastry and I did the hot side. Now we’ll both do both. It always switches. We try to have everybody here trained to work all the stations. We work with a smaller staff and they make a little more money, but work longer hours. Everybody works as a team.

AB: What was your first job in a restaurant?
JS: I started as a dishwasher. I just enjoyed the workplace
Vinny Dotolo: I started as a dishwasher too. I was in a family where food was around, but nobody did it professionally. I always loved eating and eating well. If I’m going to eat anything, no matter what level, even if it’s a cheeseburger in my home town, I would seek out a good one. I love eating as much as I love cooking.

AB: Where are you from?
JS: We’re both from Florida.

AB: Where did you two meet?
JS: We met in culinary school, the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
JS: Definitely. It costs a lot of money so you don’t have to go to a big name one. If you’re in a bad spot financially I wouldn’t recommend going into $80,000 debt.
VD: I would recommend it if you have the opportunity. That’s something about education; you need the opportunity, otherwise you go into the workforce. They make it one of those situations where you can only go if you can afford it. I think it’s a good foundation if you pay attention.

AB: What goes into creating a new dish?
VD: Sometimes it’s off the top of our heads and sometimes we play with it in between fine lines, a really small parameter. We don’t put Ahi tuna or chicken on the menu here because it’s common fare. We could do great dishes with those ingredients but we’d rather serve you tongues and ears. We wanted this place to have a message and make a statement in Los Angeles. We never had a restaurant that served multiple things in this manner. Animal from the start had a smaller menu. As we grow the depth of the kitchen, the base clientele learns to accept those things.
JS: People come here expecting some of the off-cuts even though the basic stuff is really good too.

AB: What’s your philosophy behind the menu?
VD: We weave our way though common things and different flavors. This restaurant isn’t arugula with Parmesan cheese. Going to Italy was inspiring and awesome but we’re not going to turn Animal into an Italian restaurant. We don’t try to push Asian ingredients after going to Japan. It’s allowing ourselves to have a lot of diversity here and worldly American fare flavors.
JS: When we first started showing people the menu of what we were going to do here they said it would never work. Even tonight with a Dodgers game, it’s still full.
VD: We run this place like we want to be in the dining scene, but it’s also just a neighborhood restaurant. We have sustainable ingredients but we never wanted to push that because there’s so much of that in California. The philosophy here is meat centric, a little over the top but you can still find yourself here a few times a month. We’re not fine dining; we have fine dining ingredients, but we play it down. No white tablecloths here. All of that was considered when we designed this place.

AB: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?
VD: Acid is my favorite. Fluke and concord grapes is a new dish.
JS: Grapes and fish is a great combination.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do?
VD: A television show.
JS: That was one of those things every chef seems to want to do. We came in a different light because we came from there into the restaurant world. We did it and it was good but neither one of us are in a rush to do it again. We’re selective about what we do. We had cameras around here for six months. And then the public perceives you however the network wants to make you out. We had a cooking show and they showed one recipe. We’re really trying to move away from that.

AB: What is one thing you wish you could redo or do over?
VD: Maybe work a little longer in other places. I jumped around a lot as a young cook and then we fell into just doing our own things and never worked somewhere else for a few years.
JS: Neither one of us were ever sous chefs. We were house painters who started a catering company and it took off. Catering is how we got onto Iron Chef America and then got a TV show. This is all our own thing. It’s good and bad. It gave us the means to go out there. A lot of chefs follow a path for a few years, then move up, then move to another restaurant and start to build relationships.

AB: What has been your proudest accomplishment?
JS: Winning a Food & Wine award.
VD: Getting a James Beard nomination. We didn’t win, but just to be on that list. Those are pretty well respected awards or accolades. It felt good. We’ve only been back in this world for one and a half years. Catering, even if you’re doing it at the highest level, is always different then a long term restaurant.

AB: How involved are you in your community?
JS: We keep trying to give students jobs but they don’t work out.
VD: As far as hiring interns, this kitchen doesn’t really allow for much nurturing or babysitting and I think it’s better for kids to go into other kitchens with lots of line cooks, chefs de cuisine, etc. Here you have to be ready to go.

AB: Where will the two of you be in five years?
JS: Where you’ll find us in six months nobody knows, probably still cooking together. I think we have a good understanding of how to work as a team and stay a team. We’ll probably have a couple more concepts maybe here, or New York, or San Francisco. As a chef you obviously want to be able to expand.
VD: I want to get a James Beard award one of these days.

AB: Will there be more Animal’s?
JS: Maybe. A lot of people are after us right now and talking with us. Whatever our next move is we don’t want to publicize it. Critics were here the second day we were opened and we really didn’t get to fix the kinks.