Today, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are at the head of a growing restaurant empire that has played a major role in driving a food renaissance in Los Angeles. But in their early 20s, they were just a pair of young cooks, tumbling westward from Florida. They’d met at culinary school in Fort Lauderdale, and imprinted on each other like a pair of high-fiving turtle doves. They worked together in Miami, lived together and moved to LA together with just $500 in their pockets.
But the food scene they encountered when they arrived in California was still maturing. Celebrity has long been a currency in Los Angeles, and for years the city had a reputation for restaurants that put the scene ahead of the cuisine. Which isn’t to say the town didn’t have a lot of raw potential. Los Angeles has always had some of the most bountiful farmer’s markets in the country, and a healthy handful of high-end chefs recognized for making the most of them—people like Nancy Silverton, Matt Molina and Suzanne Goin. LA has a street-food culture that is absolutely unmatched in the United States, and immigrant populations that produce the best ramen outside of Tokyo; the best fish tacos outside of Baja; the best galbi outside of Seoul. LA has also had Jonathan Gold chronicling it all for 30 years—he’s the only food writer to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.
So there was no shortage of inspiration in Los Angeles; Jon and Vinny simply brought in a new way of looking at it. In California they hooked up with chef Govind Armstrong at a restaurant called Chadwick. Later they launched a catering business and eventually found themselves feeding party-goers at the home of legendary art book publisher Benedikt Taschen and his wife Lauren. “Food was changing when we met the Taschens in 2006,” says Vinny. “They saw something in us; they loved that we were not falling into the mediocrity of what everyone wanted chefs to be at that time.” It was the Taschens who encouraged the guys to expand beyond their catering operation, and whose guidance and investment gave Jon and Vinny the opportunity to open their first restaurant, Animal, in 2008.
At Animal, Jon and Vinny channeled the ideals of the people and places they admired in LA. They saw integrity in the way Benedikt Taschen published only projects he personally liked, and so at Animal they cooked only the kind of food they’d want to eat. They saw the value of accessibility in LACMA’s commitment to public art, and so Animal was an all-comers kind of place. They cultivated relationships with local farmers and other purveyors that continue to supply their restaurants today. They also looked for inspiration outside state lines: With its bubbling crocks of P'tit Basque cheese studded with chorizo, and devotion to the church of pork belly, Animal kept pace with the “lardcore” movement trending in the US at the time—it was radical for ascetic LA diners.
“2008 was a pivotal moment in LA. The city was frustrated with getting snubbed by the food scene,” says Jon, reflecting on a year that saw the arrival of not only Animal, but also restaurants like Gjelina and Osteria Mozza. These places were proofs of concept for a new generation of ambitious cooks, and they helped kick off a boom period in LA. Over the next few years, more young chefs like Kris Yenbamroong (Night + Market), Ari Taymor (Alma) and Ori Menashe (Bestia) emerged with deeply personal, idiosyncratic projects that were new to the city’s cultural landscape. As the community blossomed around them, Jon and Vinny grew too, opening a fish restaurant, Son of a Gun, and exploring the Italian-American playbook at Jon & Vinny’s. The new wave of dining that the chefs had helped realize came full circle as they began to step into a more curatorial role. Impressed with the star power Ludo Lefebvre had cultivated via his pop-up series, LudoBites, Jon and Vinny convinced the chef to lay down some roots. They linked up with him to open Trois Mec in 2013, followed by Petit Trois and Trois Familia. Chefs Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson caught their eyes next with Madcapra, a cultish falafel stand in Grand Central Market. The four will open the Middle Eastern-inflected Kismet as partners this fall.