Interview with Los Angeles Rising Star Chef Jonathan Whitener of Animal

by Antoinette Bruno
May 2014

Antoinette Bruno: How did you get your start?
Jonathan Whitener: I wanted to buy a very specific car when I was a kid, that one of my neighbor’s had: a ‘66 Cadillac convertible. I wanted to get a really good job and there was a ROP program that sets people up to get jobs. They had a kitchen—Chef Shoddy trained you like the CIA would on basic knife cuts and sauce work and then throw you into a restaurant. I worked in a hotel for a long time to get money to buy that car. Then I ended up really liking it, and a line cook gave me The French Laundry Cookbook. I didn't know food could be made and cooked like that. I really got into it. A lot of the guys I worked with were CIA graduates. I went there and graduated and moved to L.A. I worked at Craft and then at Mirazur in the South of France. Back in L.A., I went to work at Patina under Tony Esnault. Then I came here after Mezze, which closed down.

AB: Who's your mentor?
JW: My CDC from Craft, Matt Accarrino and Tony Esnault. A lot of it has to do with technique and repertoire. Matt and I came up all the way from the bottom as cooks. He's a cool chef and took the time to explain things and talk to me about things. He really educated me.  

AB: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
JW: We're involved in a lot of charities. One of the things that Vinny [Dotolo] and Jon [Shook] feel strongly about is being involved in local charities. A lot of chefs aren't, but we're involved in a lot of charity work. I get to participate in events; nowhere I ever worked before took the time to do that. 

We go to three different farmers markets a week. We have a great relationship with Coleman Farms and Flora Bella Farm. The other one I'm really close with is Fairhill, that only grows for the Hollywood market. 

AB: What’s hardest thing you’ve had to do in your career?
JW: When I had to leave my fiancé behind for three months. 

AB: What's your five-year plan?
JW: To have my own place in L.A. and on this side of town. The food would be something very similar in philosophy to what Animal does. We make the food that people want to eat. People cry eating food. People actually connect with the food. We cook dishes that other people know—someone was crying eating the tres leches cake. A lot of people cater to themselves but at the end of the day, if there's no one sitting in your restaurant, what's the point? We do soulful cooking. It's one of the first places where we're not manipulating things and the ingredients tell you what to do with it. It is what it is. Something simple doesn't always have to be changed. 

My food is ingredient driven, by the quality we can find. It’s technical and fresh with childhood-inspired flavors and a bit of “DIRTY”!  It's spontaneous. We go to the market, see what we can find. We produce two to three dishes a week. You have to have thick skin to work here, we're constantly developing and evolving. 

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JW: I believe food should be prepared without over-manipulating the original ingredient. I feel that certain foods call out for a specific preparation with particular ingredients. I hate overdoing it. When it comes to dining, I think people in L.A. feel most comfortable in an environment that’s not pretentious and on par with the status quo of older restaurants. I find restaurants that evolve over the years more exciting, more exciting than the everyday restaurant that does what they’ve always done, day in and day out.

AB: What are you most proud of in your career?
JW: My protégés. Those few people that I’ve been able to mentor and help push towards the right path in their careers. Knowing that people can work for you and look up to you and, hopefully, strive to one day be in a position like mine, is a special feeling.