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Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo a.k.a "The Animal Guys", Part 2

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

Yesterday you guys were up on stage talking about street food in LA .What else are you passionate about food-wise in LA?

Jon Shook: Obviously our other peers that have restaurants or chefs who inspire us. Guys like Ludo, Nancy Silverton, Michael Chimariski, Michael Voltaggio, Josiah Citrin, people just off the top of my head are serious influences. Vinny and I besides having a love for food are also enamored by the arts. We are really into museums and galleries as well as other forms of art outside of traditional arts like fashion. We find ourselves gravitating towards that kind of information and those kinds of people.

Are you going planning to introduce those aspects into your food as a mixed media presentation like the Roca brothers in Spain?

Jon: We are just starting to dabble into some of this mixed media stuff but we are not trying to have a big multimedia platform. That does not really intrigue us and what does intrigue us is to make our actual overall restaurant experience better. Whatever that might involve from a chair, to lighting, sound down to the music that's playing, what servers are wearing. All those elements play in as factors for us.

Vinny: I think that there are a lot of interesting things out there that we can possibly get into but it’s how we go about doing this is what we are trying to take our time deciding. We want to be smart about the decisions we make as we have grown so fast in the last few years. I don't know what percentage that is.

Jon: It's about 35% every year since we opened Animal six years ago.

Vinny: By the end of 2015 we plan to have five restaurants and that is a lot. We are sort of trying to grow into our business and as I always like to compare as I have a two and half year old and I try to buy clothes for a three year old. I feel like we have those pants that we are still trying to grow into so we are trying to grow into what we have already started. It's amazing because this realization keeps us on our toes constantly and we are never complacent with what we do. To get into other things like clothing design or a collaboration with an artist on something , there are a lot of such things out there for chefs to get into and it's a decision about how you put yourself out there. Basically it’s how you want to be perceived. You have to be smart about it since you can be a spokesperson for Velveeta cheese or you can go out to learn to make cheese in an artisanal manner. There are chefs out there who go from one extreme to the next as you can do something that makes you a ton of money or give you huge exposure but it might not be the right brand or not give you the expected exposure.

Jon: We do have some relationships going now like our partnership with Lexus, which is an unbelievable relationship to have with a luxury brand corporation. They are a premium product and when they approached us we were very glad to be part of it.

This brings me to ask that when you opened Animal, it was at a price point that almost everyone could enter and enjoy. So when you are linking with luxury level brands are you moving away from your initial approach and are you still connected to that part of the clientele?

Jon: Not at all, and luxury does not have to be expensive. Some people might not consider Animal expensive but some people do. What drives our company is that we try to buy the best possible product out there that we can get. We then sell it to the customers at the lowest possible price we can. When you speak to people from Lexus and see what you get in comparison to what you pay you see that their prices are totally fair against other brands like Mercedes, BMW, Rolls Royce, and other luxury vehicles. The Lexus Company as a whole it really parallels great with our beliefs.

Vinny: I think the original goal with Animal as we touched on in our conversation yesterday was to have something we wanted to have for ourselves to be able to go to and for it to be there for us to being able to walk in to. There were certain things we wanted to do when we opened Animal like if we said we are open till 11pm and we will serve you if you came in at 10:59 and not close at 10:45. Jon will agree that it drove us crazy when we would get out of work and we could not find a place that was still open to go to. We thought we don't need the tablecloths and all these other costs we would have to pass on to customers and we used the money on things that you can touch. We did Animal as minimalist as possible.

Jon: We decided to buy nice tables!

Vinny: And now we are putting in a lot more into our design and construction. When we opened Animal we had no idea where it would go, if we would close in a week or stay open for ten years and it was a decision about how much money we could put in to have a place that we wanted to go to ourselves.
It is the same with Ludo's project where we could easily charge $150 per head instead of what we charge now. We just want you to pay the lowest price that we possibly can and still give the best product. At the same time we are not trying to jack up prices because we are popular now.

So you are staying true to your original philosophy?

Vinny: Totally, what we are doing is for LA and for the community. It’s the thought that we want to buy the same product that Spago (Wolfgang Puck) does but we are not charging the same prices. I know it's not the same setting but to us it's about the integrity of the product and quality of ingredients. At the end of the day it's about the food and service. When people come to our restaurants they are really blown away by the service as we really do care about service just as we care about our food. Service really outweighs food sometimes.

Are there other young chefs that you fraternize with as part of a community?

Jon: I think there is a great community in the LA chefs but since it's LA it's not so visible and their schedules are so busy, but peers like Michael Voltaggio, who is a friend of ours, we bounce off ideas like yesterday we were texting about closing on Fourth of July. We have our own opinions and are not always in the same place like I am in Mexico right now and he is leaving shortly for Africa or some other random place. We all might not meet face to face or dine together and we all have personal lives outside of work as well, so the chefs community does exist but maybe we are not out there drinking beers together every night.

Do you think this business is hard on the families of those in this profession?

Jon: It's really hard, and we both have some awesome wives who understand this job. Vinny's wife has seen us grow and mine is good friends with her and both our ladies have incredibly busy schedules themselves. Mine [Shiri Appleby] is in Austin, Texas shooting a movie right now for the next seven weeks and I can't be there often enough. I am flying there to pick up my daughter since my parents are coming to LA so we are always trying to juggle things.

Are you involved in day to day operations, product sourcing, menus etc. while you are away, and does it help to get away once in a while?

Vinny: Totally! We are always in touch but it's great to see other things, understand the world and know what other people are doing in food as opposed to what we are doing in LA or the US. We don't want to be closed to cuisines outside our area and we would love to get out more internationally but it requires a lot of time and money. Yesterday Mario Batali spoke about how even when you are away from your restaurants you are essentially still there every day no matter what. Your name is out there on the menu and the restaurant and we take pride in that and try to instill that in our teams.

Wherever we are, however we are, our teams uphold our vision. There are mistakes, something happens every day but that how we improve. It’s amazing to be able to put trust in people and every chef will say that to be a great chef it takes a great team. In the first few years we were so deeply involved that we did not see that process, like if I was working on the line and Jon was prepping or catering. It's good to take a step back and reflect on our work, and now we can see what we can improve. There are many things that can take up time. Jon once spent six months battling a wedding company.

Jon: Only because they were charging us $30,000 more than another company!

Vinny: So little things like that we are deeply involved in every day, whether it's a new dish or other things across the board.

With the rise of social media, how long does creativity last since things are out there instantly?

Jon: I think nothing's new really; it's been around in some form or the other. Food is like fashion and goes around in circles like polka dots may not be in right now but could be back next year.

Some things are more iconic to a certain chef's work. Do you feel flattered when someone copies your idea, and they should give you credit in some way?

Vinny: It is flattering, but I think they should know where it began.

Jon: On the reverse side I feel like my one beef would be that I think that some reporters aren’t well enough versed on food knowledge, because of the internet, and they might credit somebody for a dish that they had nothing to do with. They just start knocking it off from someone else. So they have to understand the history. It’s like if it’s the first time seeing an Evian glass bottle and they say, “Oh man, this is amazing! Evian has glass bottles!” but first, they’re not the first person to bottle water in glass, and second, that’s maybe the first time you’ve seen it but it’s been around for years, you know what I mean? So they might write a story about how amazing it is that this restaurant has Evian in a glass bottle, but at the end of the day, were they really the first? When did that come out? So you battle that thing sometimes, the misinformation.

Vinny: We try not to really concern ourselves with it though.

Jon: If we came up with something unique on the LA dining scene and someone copied it I would be flattered. We work with the idea of what we like and would work on our own menus and our restaurant rather than going after what is selling now or trending. That approach has really paid off for us at the end of the day. When we opened Animal we existed in our own little world as we had not worked in restaurants for years. We were catering in our insular bubble in LA cooking what we were inspired by and we had no money and barely ten cook books. Now we have hundreds but we referred to those ten much more.

Where did the inspiration come from?

Vinny: The inspiration came from desire to learn more, it came not so much from who we were but more from what we wanted to do. We were not copying, in those days we didn't even have a computer. The first time Eater came to interview us we had no idea what that even was and it was an eye opening moment because we found there was this whole other world about food out there. There were people on the Internet talking about food and now we understand and see all that. Our outside influences are greater now than they were before. Sometimes we don't get to process all of the stuff out there about us. When I go home I don't go on the Internet or read what is written about us, I engage with my family, cook dinner, etc. We are very normal people.

Which established chefs around the world you guys look up to?

Jon: We like different people for different things.

Vinny: One of my biggest heroes just in the US is Paul Kahn, the way he thinks about restaurants: the design, the aesthetic, the quality of food, the service. Every restaurant of his is different and I love that. He has a fine dining modern restaurant, a Spanish-driven one, wine bar, taqueria, and now an Italian seafood restaurant. I love that he thinks about so many different avenues. Just like us he is interested in so many different things and cuisines.

So you have a global view?

Vinny: Exactly. I’m interested in so many things, like I’m not just French and I’m not just Italian, I’m kind of everything. We are now taking on that aspect like Jon was saying earlier and working on sound and design and making those kinds of choices in our restaurants. You get to a certain point where you make choices like “Well, we can only afford this kind of lighting.” We just don’t have that kind of money to put in to the restaurant, and we adapt our ideas for what is economically feasible for us to do. We are interested in so many things that make up a restaurant.

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