Best New Chefs 2009: Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook

Best New Chefs 2009

Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook

Animal, Los Angeles

Born: Jon: South Miami; 1981. Vinny: Clearwater, Florida; 1979.

Education (both): The culinary program at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

Experience (both): The Strand, Miami Beach; Wildflower, Vail, CO; Chadwick, Los Angeles.

We loved: Quail fry with slab bacon, chard and maple jus.

When they met: The first day of cooking school.
Jon: “There was a lecture about the rules at cooking school, and we both started laughing at the same time. We’re from the same beach-community lifestyles, and we both loved surfing, loved girls. We’ve been cooking together ever since.”

How they got into cooking:
Vinny: “I wasn’t the four-year-old who says, ‘I’m going to be a chef.’ But I was getting close to graduating high school, and my dreams of being a professional surfer, skateboarder and punk rocker were fading. And I realized that whenever there was a party, I was always the one barbecuing. I decided to go to school to see if that would work.”

How they opened Animal:
Jon: “Ben Ford and Govind Armstrong hired us to cook lunch at Chadwick. But the restaurant went out of business. Ben hired us to paint his house—we hated painting, all we cared about was what we were going to eat for lunch. His friends would come over, and we’d cook for them. Then we started cooking for his dad [Harrison Ford] and for other people. We’d go shopping and cook and then get $200 each.”

Vinny: “Our catering company got bigger and bigger. But I was burning out on catering—I needed a restaurant, I needed to do food that was ours, not what someone else wanted us to do.”

On the L.A. food scene:
Vinny: “People out here eat like kids: hamburgers, hot dogs, doughnuts. You can tell: So much fast food started out here.”

Equipment obsession:
Vinny: “I love my mortar and pestle: It’s old and it’s big, I bought it at a Pasadena flea market. I make aioli in it. I’m the only one in the kitchen who makes aioli by hand. I don’t make anyone else do it—it’s too frustrating to watch people work it so hard. It’s all in the wrist.”

Favorite childhood dish:
Vinny: His grandmother’s meat ragù. “She made it with pork shoulder and country ribs and added sausages and meatballs. She made it in a 25-gallon stockpot, literally, and she was four-foot-10-inches. She’d stand on a stool to mix the sauce.”

Favorite value dish:
Jon: Grilled bread topped with mashed potatoes and gravy. “That was one of the things I ate as a dishwasher. Some of those dishes I ate back then are on the menu at Animal, but refined.”

Vinny: “That mashed potato sandwich is his touchstone, he always says that.”

Cooking philosophy:
Don’t overuse black pepper.

Jon: “We feel that American cooks are trained to salt-and-pepper everything. We don’t feel pepper is needed everywhere.”

What keeps them going:
Jon: “My nightmare, that I have to move back to my parents’ house, keeps me going. My dream is to wake up without an alarm. When people say I’m successful, I say, ‘No, I wake up with an alarm between 5 and 6 a.m. every day.’”

Humbling moment:
Jon: “I was catering a party at Benedikt Taschen’s house, Chemosphere [Taschen is a noted art book publisher; Chemosphere is a spectacular glass building]. Matt Groening, who created The Simpsons, was there. We have never worn chef’s jackets, we’re all about the food. The first thing Benedikt said was, ‘Where is your uniform?’ I said, ‘I’m here to work.’ And he said, ‘Oh, are you?’ Things got worse—the drain overflowed, then the toilet overflowed, a tree had wrecked the pipes. But I got a plumber and put the event on. At the end, Benedikt said, ‘If you ever want to do a restaurant, let me know.’ Now he’s one of our partners at Animal.”

Most memorable meals (both): Alinea, the avant-garde Chicago restaurant.
Jon: “When we ate there, they said they’d never seen anyone eat the 24 courses so fast. They brought us a dish of pine needles with kobe beef chunks in the bottom. You had to forage for the beef. I looked over at Vinny, and he had needles all over him.”

Vinny: ”There were a lot of needles on the plate, and one cube of beef under them. I ripped through the dish looking for more meat.”

Fantasy splurge:
Vinny: To have Martin Picard of Montreal’s meat-centric Au Pied de Cochon and Fergus Henderson of London’s nose-to-tail St. John battle each other to feed him.

Jon: “In Argentina, there are kids who are taking whole gutted cows and cooking them over a giant wood fire. The equipment looks like a forklift. Man, I’d love to see that.”

Favorite cheap eats:
Vinny: Soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung near Los Angeles. “It’s super-popular but really good.”

Guilty pleasure:
Vinny: “I snack on Cape Cod salt & vinegar chips—I’ve been eating them since I was three years old. I’m an acid freak. I make my vinaigrettes with three parts acid to one part oil. But I’ve learned to back off it a little bit.”

What their next restaurant would be:
Vinny: “I’d like to open a barbecue restaurant, a sandwich shop and a good coffee shop/breakfast place. But not all in one. I’m not into confusing people. I don’t want to have one of those weird restaurants where you don’t know what to order.”

Favorite food show:
Vinny: Charlie Rose’s chef interviews.

Advice to future cooks:
Jon: Eat out. “When we were 22, 23, we went to see our accountant, and he said we’d spent $150,000 on dining. Imagine, 22-year-old kids spending that much money eating out. It’s worth it—you can’t imagine what products you’ll get turned on by.”

Animal, 435 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles; 323-782-9225.

Best New Chef Recipes & More:

Smoked Salmon Crisps
Thomas Keller's salmon cornets (tuiles shaped into tiny cones and topped with crème fraîche and fresh salmon) are a famous kickoff to his luxe and whimsical meals. The original recipe appears in The French Laundry Cookbook. Shaping the tuiles into cones is tricky and involves working very quickly with a cornet mold. Instead, leave the tuiles flat, like crackers, and top them.

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Summer Radishes with Chèvre, Nori and Smoked Salt
© Anna Williams

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Past Best New Chefs

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