Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo moved to L.A. from Florida more than a decade ago. Yes, they dabbled in television with the Food Network show, “Two Dudes Catering,” but have since hunkered down and built a successful catering business and restaurant group, which includes Animal, Son of a Gun + Trois Mec. The latter is a fine dining partnership with Ludovic “Ludo” Lefebvre. On September 11, Dotolo was “Cooking With Friends” Jon Shook and Michelle Bernstein at Animal to promote their involvement as Lexus Culinary Masters. Near the end of service, Shook shared several culinary insights.
How do you decide who to invite into your kitchen?
You’re a friend, and you’re a badass, that’s basically the whole deal for Animal and Friends. The guest chef picks the charity, so it’s pretty cool. Common Threads, Michelle started down in Miami, so when she picked that one, it was great. We always have the fallback charity of our choice. Everybody always has their own.
What’s your fallback charity?
Baby2Baby…It’s a local charity. Basically if you donate baby goods, they come and pick it up and drop it off that same day. It’s pretty cool. It’s awesome because it’s so hands own. Even if I have one case of diapers or a diaper, “Alright, we can pick it up,” and they’ll drop it off.
You get an immediate result?
Yeah. It’s awesome, and it’s local. They do a big event here in town in November. It’s a big event they do down in Santa Monica, and it’s all local chefs. That’s what’s cool about it. It’s interesting, because it’s not a lot of chef groupies that go to this thing; it’s more people that know about the foundation. It’s definitely more celebrity driven. It’s a lot more that kind of world, and it’s an added bonus that all these chefs get involved.
Chef groupies? Could you have imagined chef groupies when you first started cooking?
To me, it’s funny, because at Trois Mec, Ludo has a huge following. People drool over him. Me and Vinny, even though we’re part of Culinary Masters, we’re a little more laid back in the way that we operate. We don’t have that huge Twitter following. I don’t even Twitter. Vinny has a very small one with a very small following. It’s more to send pictures up of his kids and for the guys who work here, so they can see where he’s eating, more than as a promotional tool.
I didn’t realize about your connection to Michelle [Bernstein] before tonight. What do you remember about your first impression of her?
It was kind of interesting. We went down there because Vinny was interviewing for the pastry chef – his name was Kevin Kopsick, and he was awesome – we were there, he was interviewing, and I went along with him. I was there and Michelle was like, “What do you do?” “I cook.” She was like, “Do you want a job?” I was a little assistant, a little minion, for Michelle, whatever she wanted. I just remember how talented she was then, and how much we looked up to her. She was kind of where we’re at now, then. This is like 10 years ago. She’s a badass.
What do you remember about your first impression of Vinny?
I met him in culinary school. We were kind of like lost souls who found somebody to get together with. Now me and him are like family. It’s a relationship you can’t really explain. A lot of people partner with people. Our partnership is so deep. We’ve had so many tough times and come up through the ranks totally together. It’s a different kind of partnership than a business partnership. Michelle can talk about it. It’s funny working with her now, and her seeing our roles, and how different our roles are. Her seeing how much we’ve grown up, compared to then, it’s probably more intriguing for her than it is for me. I look at Vinny like my brother.
How did you determine how to define your roles?
Our roles are constantly changing. As the company grows, our roles change. There’s no real way to define as much as we lean on each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I’m a terrible speller and I’m always asking Vinny how to spell words. It drives him nuts. He’s like, “Get a fucking dictionary.” We kind of go both ways. There’s no set way, “I’m going to be in charge of this,” or, “I’m going to be in charge of that.” It just kind of organically happens. Then our team, at all our restaurants, are unbelievable. I’m psyched to have a new partner, Ludo, which has been an interesting experience for me and Vinny since it’s always been me and him. Having a third person, he’s from a totally different walk of life than me and Vinny. His culinary training. His French. We’re like boys from the sticks in Florida, and it’s so much fun hanging out with him. So many people ask me, “What’s your relationship with Ludo?” Our relationship with Ludo, if I had to describe it, we’re a group of people who get together and play poker and leave their wives at home. We have the best time, the best laughs. I feel so fortunate to be cooking – I’m a cook – and I have all these things going on from cooking is crazy.
How much more can you take on?
We’re working on a Damiano’s project, which is still far away. Me and Vinny don’t do a ton of television, we haven’t really pumped out a lot of cookbooks, so we focus most of our energy, almost strictly, on the restaurants, which kind of allows us to grow our restaurant brand. And then we have an amazing team. As our team gets bigger, we have to grow. If we want to keep them, they have to move up, we’ve got to create opportunities for them. It’s been amazing to have people that have grown with us. What’s nuts is the front of the house at Animal, [points] I went to high school with him. He was the first server at the first restaurant I ever worked eat. Victor was a dishwasher at the first kitchen we ever rented. We inherited him with the kitchen…Now we run a baby restaurant group.
What are the common threads in the type of person you would hire to work for you?