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Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo a.k.a "The Animal Guys", Part 1

Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook
Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook
Geeta Bansal

The two young partners and their restaurants Animal, Son of a Gun, and their latest, Trois Mec with Chef Ludo Lefebvre are currently at the pinnacle of the LA dining scene. These two Florida transplants have brought a renewed interest and energy to the oft ignored dining scene of the West Coast. Coming soon are two more restaurants from this dynamic duo: Petit Trois, adjacent to Trois Mec, and an operation across the street from Animal. Both of these additions to their burgeoning empire are awaited with much anticipation from their infatuated diners which include numerous celebrities. A lot of information is already out there about their favorite dishes to cook, eat, their choice spices, their training at the Culinary Institute in Ft. Lauderdale, their initial entry into the business as caterers, and other facts about their lives. To get know who they really are and what makes them so brilliant in their work we had a couple of informal conversations recently in Mexico City.

Our initial meeting was while we attempted to speak over the decibel level of the speakers backstage at Mesamerica where they later went on stage to talk about street food in LA. Thankfully the next time we met in the serene patio of the Condessa DF hotel in Mexico City and spoke about their varied interests in art, music, community, family, and of course, food. They have distinctively different personalities. Vinny is more articulate and expansive in his communication, while Jon is more reserved and introspective, but together they are a great team transitioning to meet the requirements of their evolving roles from cooks and caterers to big time entrepreneurs. Like a great couple, they occasionally finish each other’s sentences or thoughts.

Have you guys ever been on stage at an international event like this before?

Vinny: No, this is our first one where we have spoken on stage.

Recently chefs are seen more at such food events than in their kitchens, so are you planning to travel to more of these events in the US or overseas?

Jon: We both do travel quite a bit, we are going to Aspen as we have done the last couple of years but we have never been presenters there. We also go to the Southern Food Alliance in, Oxford, Mississippi, that is a big one we love to go to in the South. We say no to a lot of stuff and make choices that keep us close to home.

So have you guys been to Mexico before this visit?

Jon: It's my third time in Mexico, first time in Mexico City. I’m coming here more frequently than before when I was going to NYC almost every other week. Our schedules are fluid; it could be one place one day and another next. We are both communicating constantly about our schedules trying to accommodate everything.

Vinny: It's my first visit though.

Anything in particular in Mexico that struck you about the food?

Vinny: I have to say not just in the food world but our images of Mexico in the bigger media need to change. It's a beautiful country with amazing people and lots of culture. The street food is good as anywhere in the world and we have been to some great restaurants as well like Taqueria Califa and Rosetta, and we going to Quintonil tonight. Curiosity about food never ends, I never feel like I know enough.

So what's coming ahead in this year for you guys?

Vinny: We have two more restaurants opening as you know. The one with Ludo next door to Trois Mec opening in next couple of weeks and one we are opening in our location across from Animal. Other than that we don't have any more projects coming up.

Usually people have a hard time working as a team so how do you make it work for you?

Vinny: We really believe in team work and we have believed in it from the beginning and it has allowed us to conquer our dreams together. We know that for some people it seems odd that we work together for so long but it helps that we have similar goals though we are very different people. We have yet more goals that are bigger and we know how to work together to achieve them.

So Ludo came in to this equation later. How does that play in?

Jon: Sure he has come in later and we have other people down the road that we will also be working together with and partner with as well. We believe in working as a team and Ludo is a new part of the team.

Vinny: Ludo has amazing talent and he was not in a restaurant space ten years ago, and he is one of the most talented chefs in United States. With his talent he deserved to have that space and we did everything we could to help achieve that goal.
Jon: He didn't want to work for a boss or a huge organization and didn't want to have a huge restaurant either.

Your restaurants are more casual setups, but do you feel there is still a market for more elaborate formal restaurants?

Jon: I think that clientele will always exist and at the end of the day those added expenses of linens, extra waiters have to be passed on to customers and when we first opened Animal we really wanted to have a place where we could do away with this expenses and reduce costs for our customers. We want to have a restaurant that people can afford to eat at once a week and not once a year that's the idea for us to still serve quality food at reasonable prices.

Whether you guys are there or not it's always a great experience to dine at your restaurants, but do people come to the Trois Mec expecting to see you as well as Ludo?

Jon: Yeah they do but they see Ludo who has the same beliefs that we do especially as we all work together. We do stuff at Animal that we like to do and he does stuff that he likes to do.

What is your opinion about restaurant rating systems like Michelin, 50 Best List etc. and how it plays into bringing in more guests?

Vinny: I think it's great to be on any list, it's amazing to have that happen and that brings more attention. There are so many of these lists out there now. These lists appeal to different people as there are different groups that make up lists like the Michelin Guide and the 50 Best and their own people who make those lists up.

There is lobbying for those positions on these lists. Does that make them less significant?

Vinny: We do not get involved in any of that. For us the most important thing is that guests should be happy when they walk out the door of the restaurant every day and seriously that is all we care about. We hit our numbers, we get our clients

Jon: We concentrate on other things that are more important to us and a lot of our time is spent concentrating on the arts. Our belief is in supporting the arts around us with all the museums like LACMA close by and we try to support them. We are also big believers in giving back to kids, we give a lot of donations to foundations that are working in that area, and that is our interest more than the 50 Best List. Not that one list is better than the other, but our clients are coming to the restaurant day in and day out for what we provide and that's where our business is. We support what our clients are interested in and the fields that they come from and we support those interests.

So you are involved in community issues?

Jon: We love teamwork and working on community issues and if we didn't love doing this we would not be here. We do what we love and enjoy doing it.

How do you pick people to work on your team? Is it performance based, resumes or where they have staged?

Jon: We have a couple of different criteria and we are always searching for good people to come join our team. We hire people based on what the position is and are aware that every employee we hire is not going to work out for us. Sometimes they can start at a base job and work their way up and sometimes we hire based on what the position is. We invest time and money to train them and hope they can work within the system and our beliefs that we are trying to foster.

Do you hire people with a culinary school background?

Jon: We hire people actually based on their attitude. We have them come in and try out for jobs at an entry level and see how they fit in. We want to see how they go in the direction of the job that they are hired for and how their boss evaluates them. We let the boss of that team make the decision as we don't try to be everyone's boss. Sometimes we will take a shot at somebody we see not because of their training but because we think they are capable.

Is there another cuisine that you guys are interested in besides your own?

Vinny: Japanese is interesting to me, and I am constantly fascinated by it year in and out. Japanese is always at the top.

Any plans of traveling with your team like Noma is going to Japan for two months next year?

Vinny: We have talked about it, and if we do then Japan will be something we will look into. When we do open another restaurant outside of United States we might look at Tokyo.

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