Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are the unshaven chef-owners of Animal restaurant in L.A. Benedikt Taschen is the impeccably dressed publisher of the Taschen art-book empire; his equally stylish wife, Lauren, organizes VIP events for the prestigious Art Basel Miami Beach. It's impossible to imagine a more incongruous set of people. Yet, Lauren observes, "Together, we're a dream team." The Taschens are investors in Animal; Jon and Vinny (F&W Best New Chefs 2009) cater most of the Taschens' parties, including a marvelous New Year's Eve dinner at their landmark Chemosphere house.
© John Kernick
Chemosphere, built in 1960 by architect John Lautner, looks like a spaceship that landed near the top of the Hollywood Hills. Accessible by an inclined tram the Taschens call the "hillavator," the octagonal building is a source of fascination for architecture fans, who drive by and take pictures. The first time Jon saw the place, when he came to cater a party a few years ago, his jaw dropped. "Jon called me from Chemosphere and told me, 'I'm at the coolest house,' " says Vinny. "And we've been to a lot of cool houses; this is L.A." A few hours later, Jon called again: The sewers were overflowing. He took charge of the plumbing emergency. Benedikt, who hadn't been impressed when Jon showed up to work in a black T-shirt with no chef's jacket ("I said, 'Where is your uniform?' and Jon said, 'I'm wearing it' "), was won over. "Jon worked so hard," says Benedikt. "After he cleaned up, I said, 'Now I know why you're dressed like that.' " Benedikt later offered to back Jon if he ever wanted to launch a restaurant.
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Jon and Vinny opened Animal on Fairfax Avenue in 2008. "We called it Animal because the food is indulgent and over-the-top," says Vinny. He and Jon had already been working in the space for a year, filming the Food Network show 2 Dudes Catering, producing the Two Dudes, One Pan cookbook and catering for Twitter phenomenon Soleil Moon Frye. They were also perfecting their cooking styledelicious, rustic and unapologetically carnivorous. They spent a month working on the recipe for their buttery chicken-liver mousse, topped with a jam of sweet sautéed shallots and balsamic vinegar.
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Even when they cooked with fish, Jon and Vinny treated it like meat: For a smoked-trout salad with avocado and grapefruit, they baked the trout skin in the oven to make it supercrisp, like pork cracklings. The pair, who met at the culinary school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, found inspiration everywhere, from the beach shacks they used to frequent after surfing to the lemonpoppy seed muffins Vinny often ate for breakfast and dessert when he was growing up. Eventually, these morphed into his lemon-curd cakes with poppy-seed whipped cream.
The Taschens are known for throwing marvelous parties that often revolve around the artists they work witha wide array of personalities. Their books range from an $8 pocket-size Monet softcover to, more famously, the Helmut Newton volume Sumo, which weighs about 66 pounds, costs $15,000 and is sold with a Philippe Starckdesigned stand. To celebrate the publication of Valentino: A Grand Italian Epic, the Taschens threw a dinner party at which an opera singer serenaded the iconic fashion designer with arias; Jon and Vinny braised short ribs and spiked Sardinian fregola with truffles.
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For New Year's Eve, the Taschens decided on a low-key (for them) celebration with some close friends, along with Jon and Vinny. Lauren decorated the oval dining table with burgundy dinner-plate dahlias and orange gloriosa lilies. She then topped each plate with a copy of one of Taschen's best sellers, Keel's Simple Diary, a colorful compilation of witty page-long questionnaires by artist Philipp Keel. Vinny made an effort to get dressed up, wearing a button-down shirt over his tee, but Benedikt urged him to take the button-down off and be himself.
When the guests arrived, the chefs began running back and forth between the kitchen and the patio overlooking Universal Studios (it's not unusual to see an explosion during the filming of an action-movie sequence), bringing Champagne, beer and glasses of water with ice cubes shaped like naked girls. "That's why we love coming to the Taschens," said Jon. (The real reason he values the partnership: "They understand artists.")
When it got dark and the valley began to light up, everyone moved to the dinner table. Over tiny potato pancakes topped with seared scallops and a luxurious caviar butter sauce, Benedikt made a little speech with Sans Souci, his beloved French bulldog, in his arms. "Souci," he said, "is very excited because we have two of the country's best new chefs with us."
© John Kernick
"More latkes please," requested Lauren, then recounted a story she'd heard about Jon and Vinny's recent trip to Tokyo: After an incident in a bar, the chefs had to go to the local police station. But the chief of police recognized Vinny's rimmed glasses and tattoos from an episode of Iron Chef America and asked for a photo with the boys.
For the party's main course, the chefs grilled skirt steak, then cut it into thin slices and topped it with smoky paprika butter. They served it alongside a vibrant, wintry hash of sunchokes, oyster mushrooms and farro. Jim Heimann, Taschen's executive editor, began describing an upcoming project: a book of menus based on his 4,500-strong collection. One possible highlight: the menu Jim designed for Animal.
Benedikt's final salute to Jon and Vinny came just before dessert: those sweet-tart lemon-curd cakes. "Two thumbs up for the two dudes," he said. But Jon wasn't there to hear it: He had snuck outside for a smoke. "Bad dude," said Benedikt, and sat down to his lemon cake.