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On the Block :: A Conversation with Chef Vinny Dotolo

On the Block :: A Conversation with Chef Vinny Dotolo

By The Hundreds Staff

Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are the dynamic duo behind some of our favorite Los Angeles digs, including Animal, Son of a Gun, Trois Mec (and its siblings Petit Trois and Trois Familia), and Chrissy Teigen’s favorite (and their namesake), Jon & Vinny’s.

But before they reigned over this LA food empire, they were two friends with a passion for food and an instinct for success. The pair met when they were 18 and in culinary school together, before packing their bags and moving cross country to start building their culinary kingdom on the West Coast. As written in LA Mag, “The first thing to know about Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo is that for all intents and purposes they are two halves of a single brain... There is no precise comparison that captures of the breadth of their bromance, but suffice it to say that they have spent nearly as much of their lives together as they have apart.”

The Hundreds has been intertwined with Jon and Vinny from the get-go. In 2007, the pair catered The Hundreds’ holiday party—before they even had a brick and mortar. Back then, they were just ‘Two Dudes Catering’ (with a reality TV show of the same name). The following year, the pair set up shop on Fairfax Avenue—before the streetwear scene bubbled over and exploded into what it is today. “It’s funny because... I really remember it just being like Supreme, The Hundreds, us, Canters, a lot of like the other old Jewish businesses that had been around for a little while,” Dotolo reminisces. Their critically acclaimed neighborhood favorite, Animal, was born then.

In the ten years that followed, brands came and went, pop-ups popped up before disappearing entirely, and long lines of eager streetwear connoisseurs ebbed and flowed. Animal, however, remained standing through it all. And it may just have something to do with their philosophy of trusting their guts and cooking from their hearts.

“We just wanted people to come in and be happy. That’s all we care about,” Dotolo says. “Still right now it’s like all I care about is that customers come in and they enjoy themselves and they leave happy and that’s it. I’m cool with just that.” A little while ago we chopped it up with Vinny at Jon & Vinny’s to see through his eyes how Fairfax is changing (for better or for worse), where his approach to food stems from, and what it means to be a responsible restaurant owner in 2018.

Left to right: Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook. Photo: Bobby Hundreds / The Hundreds.

The Hundreds: What was the Fairfax block like when you first opened Animal in 2008?

Vinny: It’s funny because I was talking to Ben [Hundreds] about this the other day... I really remember it just being like Supreme, The Hundreds, us, Canters, a lot of like the other old Jewish businesses that had been around for a little while. The bakeries obviously, but not much of the streetwear culture. Some of it had come and gone quickly. I think a few brands tried to come in and buy stuff and like do things... So I really remember the block as that when we first got here. Slowly, I think, after we opened Animal, it kind of blossomed. Not from us being here, I think people were just interested in Fairfax in general [in 2010].

But what you guys did was new for the block.

Vinny: Yeah, what we did was different for Fairfax and different for Los Angeles for sure.

Jon said Animal was your baby, Son of a Gun was your true love, and Jon and Vinny’s is your original dream. Did you always envision that on Fairfax and why?

Vinny: I don’t know if we always envisioned it on Fairfax, but we envisioned doing this restaurant. I think we would’ve of course done it differently depending on the year that we executed it. But that’s just because your taste changes, your ideas change, you see the world differently. Jon and I do believe—someone told us like early on in our career that every restaurant that you’ll do will reflect a time in your life and where you’re at personally, and we opened Jon and Vinny’s with the intent of families and children and groups of people eating together. Not only because the food was well-received that way, but that we also were eating that way as individuals. Our families are a big part of our lives now and we wanted to make sure we had a restaurant that they could come and eat at and they could grow up in. And not that they couldn’t at Animal or Son of a Gun or one of those, but there’s something felt more true to the way that kids like to eat here and parents can eat here as well and feel satisfied too.

Jon & Vinny’s “Ham & Yeezy” pizza with ham, vodka sauce, red onion, caciocavallo, smoked mozzarella, and pickled fresno chilies. Photo: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times
The interior at Jon & Vinny’s. Photo: Paolo Fortades / The Hundreds

We touched on it a little bit but I wanted to know why you guys chose Fairfax specifically when you first got that spot in ’07. Was it a rent thing or was it a culture thing?

Vinny: It was a rent thing for sure, first and foremost. But you know we always say Fairfax chose us. We were looking at another space in Santa Monica at the time and we came over here, broker showed us the place and we were kind of standing outside, we didn’t even see it, and we were like, “Yeah, this is it.” We just felt it. Jon and I really trust our gut in that way. We saw a space today and it just didn’t feel right. We kind of just trust our gut and when you walk into something you get excited. You see something you like and you’re like, “Oh wait this is the feeling I want people to have. How can we make that happen for us?” That’s really what we do.

“I think we really just sort of trust our gut, cook from instinct, cook from the place of our heart.”

Would you say that’s a big part of your philosophy? Leading by gut feeling?

Vinny: Yeah, of course. And I think the food is the same way in that regard. I think we really just sort of trust our gut, cook from instinct, cook from the place of our heart, you know what we like to eat, what we think other people like to eat. And listen, there’s people that don’t like our food but it’s okay. I don’t like every car or every piece of clothing or every shoe. Life would be very, very boring if we all did.

It shows that you have that clear vision from the beginning and you’re able to carry it through.

Vinny: Yeah for sure. Jon and I definitely have visions of how we want things sometimes even before we actually really, really know. We’re really confident in what we like and what we don’t like.

The famous shrimp toast sandwich at Son of a Gun. Photo: applesandonions.com

Photo: Bobby Hundreds / The Hundreds

Streetwear has this inexplicable connection with food... not only does the streetwear scene definitely have a foodie thing going on, they both have a lot in common from apprenticing, vision/brand, irreverent spirit... there’s a ton of passion involved. Do you have anything to say about that?

Vinny: Well, I mean I think you said it yourself in the question. It still does carry that indie do-it-yourself against-the-grain vibe to it as well as something that’s very honest and true about it. It was refined, but it wasn’t overly polished but it wasn’t luxurious. It was like all the things we were really came out in [Animal] when we first did it. I think an expression of one’s self is felt through your end result. I think the same way in a painting—it’s like the way an artist will make a gesture with a brush stroke. There’s intention behind it and there’s intention behind everything we’ve done at every restaurant. Specifically, the intention was to make a restaurant that we truly loved wholeheartedly—all and all. The decisions were made by us so if someone didn’t like it, it was on us. We were making all the food. It was an honest expression and it was well-received and we got lucky in that way, because I think a lot of times there’s great chefs, there’s great talents, there’s great restaurants. Some people just don’t connect with the work.

“I think an expression of one’s self is felt through your end result… The intention was to make a restaurant that we truly loved wholeheartedly—all and all.”

Foie gras, biscuit, maple sausage gravy at Animal. Photo: jenn.la

 I was reading a piece where you did a grapefruit dish or a dessert—it was supposed to get all over your face, which made it more about the act of eating.

Vinny: Yeah we do think about how food eats. We eat the food ourselves when we sit down in the dining room to eat our own food and understand it from the diner’s perspective as well as the cook’s perspective. There was intention behind it all. It’s like we wanted a lot of the meat stuff to have bones left in it so when you were finished, there were bones on the plate. There’s something very homey about that, very rustic. We wanted people to eat with their hands as much as possible, like I said, have fun, have a spirit. Everything’s not just what we thought people would buy. We didn’t just open a restaurant with chicken breast and pork chop and steak.

It was things that you knew that you liked.

Vinny: That we loved. That we loved as cooks, as young chefs and young cooks, like that’s what we loved to eat and cook. That’s what we were enjoying cooking and that’s why we wanted to do that restaurant the way we did.

Veal tongue at Animal with salmon roe and black mustard. Photo: jenn.la

Jon & Vinny’s spicy fusilli. Photo: goop.com

Are you concerned about Fairfax maybe becoming like Abbot Kinney at all with the new restaurants opening?

Vinny: Yeah. I mean... there’s something really neighborhoody about this. Look, I mean we’re looking out the window of Jon & Vinny’s—there’s like a mattress store across the street*. I think that’s kind of cool. This street needs the diversity rather than it becoming homogenized... I think there was a moment where there were too many coffee shops. There’s Cofax, Theater One over there. They all are good and they all serve their purpose, but like does Fairfax really need that? But that comes down to the landlord curating a block and being like, “I can’t let a coffee shop go in there, there’s a coffee shop across the street.” It’s like they were just like, “Fuck it, you’re a tenant who wants to pay rent,” which I think is selfish. We own this building here, we own the space next door, and we’ve only let popups come in there to do random things.

[I think Fairfax] could benefit from a cool women’s store over here. Or like a bodega would be great. You know something beyond the magazine stand there I think would be good for the neighborhood if they did it well. But I mean, Jon and I love this block and we don’t want it to become something so far from its original state, but we also know that it needs the diversity to continue to grow.

Animal. Photo: Bobby Hundreds / The Hundreds
Jon & Vinny’s. Photo: Paolo Fortades / The Hundreds

You told Food and Wine a little while back that you dreamt of being a professional surfer or skater or punk rocker and then you realized you were always the one barbecuing. Do you think the things you learned coming from these countercultures lend to your approach now with what you do?

Vinny: Of course. I think my approach to food definitely has stemmed from my childhood and how I grew up and the things I ate but also the people I hung out with and who I am as a person.

What were the people you hung out with like?

Vinny: Skaters, surfers, punk rock, dirt bikers, stuff like that. I guess people call them extreme sports but they’re not.

Did you and Jon know each other since you were kids?

Vinny: Since we were like 18. But I think we found common ground when we first met each other on that stuff, that we kind of grew up the same way but knew we had to grow up and get a career going in our lives. We took it seriously while a lot of our other friends were out partying and going to four-year colleges and partying their way through those. We were going through a trade school, art school, culinary school. We had a little less than two years demanding jobs and we were working at and cooking at restaurants and going to school at the same time. It was just important to us. We knew then I think that we needed to sort of settle ourselves into a good path for food. We feel compassionate about it too. We both really wanted to cook and that kind of made a world of difference. We were happy to go to work. Did we change jobs? Yeah, but for the most part we were happy to go cook at restaurants. The problem with us is that we work together a lot, so we learned really fast about the whole entire restaurant [business]. So we didn’t need to stay for a long time. That’s what we felt.

What do you mean by that?

Vinny: Jon and I would work together at a restaurant and we just picked up everything that they were doing really fast. We’re visual learners so we’re able to watch or whatever.

We’ve spoken to photographers who said skateboarding is the reason why they’re successful. Why do you think you guys have been so successful?

Vinny: I think the way we cook is just from a place of ourselves wanting to eat that food as well and not a place of, this is how I was trained, these are the things I’ve read about how to make food. It’s more like, this is what I want to put together, this is how I want to eat this. That was really it. I think the success in that is from being confident, sometimes overly confident in yourself.

I think Jon and I are both like that—let’s go as far as we can with things. But Jon and I also wanted to have places that people just love to eat at. We didn’t need to cook for our ego. I say that in the sense that some guys I think cook with ingredients or in a way that they’re cooking because they think it will sell… like, “Oh, I know that people like this”—I feel like people use that to sort of have success. They go at it.

Chefs Ludo Lefebre, Jon Shook, and Vinny Dotolo at Trois Familia. See if you can spot the Adam Bomb. Photo: Christina House / Los Angeles Times

Like they’re chasing something else.

Vinny: Yeah, and they’re chasing accolades and Jon and I didn’t ever. We just wanted people to come in and be happy. That’s all we care about. Still right now it’s like all I care about is that customers come in and they enjoy themselves and they leave happy and that’s it. I’m cool with just that. I think that that creates an honesty about the food and the restaurant itself.

And we can tell.

Vinny: Hopefully. That’s the goal.

There’s this Eddie Huang quote I read. He said that, “I genuinely feel that restaurants have the responsibility of being cultural distribution centers,” and he kind of equated them with museums. Do you agree?

Vinny: I agree with that. I think I like Eddie. First of all, I think he’s a great guy and he’s a smart guy and we very much have a huge responsibility to the public. These are public places, which is a really interesting way to think about it. I’m just here for anyone. We don’t discriminate against anyone. You come in here, whoever you are, if you’re willing to act civilized and be in here with other civilized humans, pay for your food, and hopefully enjoy yourself because we’ve done something right, it’s an amazing process to think about.

“Jon and I didn’t ever [chase accolades]. We just wanted people to come in and be happy… I’m cool with just that.”

Man, people have to think about coming here and then they came here—they thought about coming here. We’re in their thought process. It’s a big responsibility to uphold that they have a good time, that they experience our best. Sometimes we fall flat, I’m sure we do. Sometimes shit happens that I can’t control and there’s things that—the energy of the team that night or something happened with an ingredient or the way they cooked it, seasoned it. There are so many variables that are uncontrollable, unlike a museum where most things are like okay once we install the show it stays here, there’s a security guard, we’re good. Are people going to come in and shit on the show? Some people will. Some people will absolutely love it, it will change their life. Same for a restaurant.

So there are some parallels and some differences but I think for the most part responsibility-wise, yes. And it gets even deeper when it comes to recycling, building materials, jobs, you know, responsibility to employees in the sense that you provide a healthy and happy workplace, you provide them with an income that they can go and get their check cashed. People who I’ve talked to who work for a company haven’t gotten paid in four weeks. It’s crazy. We don’t play those games.

There’s so much of a responsibility and so many directions. Do you recycle your cooking oil? Do you use good products? We shop at the farmer’s market like everything you need. This bread was made by hand. This arugula was picked by a farmer, so was that fennel. All the way through and through, how we print the paper, what we print it on. Everything has meaning and purpose behind it. But yeah it’s a huge responsibility to not only the public but to all the people that work with us and for us.

***

Introduction by Kat Thompson, interview by Alina Nguyen. This interview is part of an ongoing series on The Hundreds Blog where we explore Fairfax’s thriving food scene.

*We spoke to Vinny late last year. Since the interview, the mattress store has since sold and will soon become a Dolls Kill women’s boutique.

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