When Vinny Dotolo (left) and Jon Shook (right) opened their first restaurant, Animal, they didn’t set out to start a revolution. That’s the thing about revolutions, though. Sometimes they just happen. And sometimes there’s a lot of bone marrow involved. Five years later, they own two LA restaurants and a hugely successful catering business. Somehow, they still had time to fill us in on what chefs eat, how foie gras is like a best friend and the future of food.
MADE MAN: Why did you decide to open Animal? Was there a certain void in the restaurant world that you wanted to fill?
VINNY DOTOLO: We thought that there wasn’t really a chef’s restaurant. There wasn’t this onslaught of ingredients that chefs loved and love to eat. They want to eat oysters, they want to eat bone marrow, they want to eat foie gras. It’s a night out. It’s a special night.
JON SHOOK: And also when Animal was getting developed, there weren’t other restaurants like this in LA. You had this California farm-to-table kind of thing that was happening more so than where it’s at now. Which is funny because Animal to me—I love it to death—but I don’t crave eating pig ears anymore because now, everywhere you go, it’s on every menu.
We are not scared of using salt and using fat and using acid. Big flavors. Bold flavors. That’s how I would describe our cooking. No matter what it is that we’re making.
MM: Can you describe your style as more than just chef food? I know you guys hate the phrase “dude food.”
JS: Our style in general, especially at Son of a Gun and our catering business—it’s like, we are not scared of using salt and using fat and using acid. We actually just had breakfast with Michelle Bernstein, who’s one of our mentors, and she was like, “You know what I love so much about Son of a Gun? You cook with flavor.” And that’s what our restaurants are about. Big flavors. Bold flavors. That’s how I would describe our cooking. No matter what it is that we’re making.
MM: Is there any chef you think represents the future of food? Anyone doing anything that’s really surprising to you?
VD: I went to Noma [in Copenhagen] this year and I thought it was amazing. I think what makes it so valid is that it’s influencing people. Rene Redzepi is influencing the culture and the world and making people think about food in a different way. That’s the message I took from there: to start thinking about things differently. Not to just think about what’s organic and what’s farm-to-table, but what’s really the cuisine, because you’re eating the cuisine of his country. It tastes of Copenhagen. It tastes of Denmark. And I think that people are following that trend of trying to find out what their home tastes like.
MM: Would you say it’s hyper-local?
VD: Like micro-climate. That’s something you’re going to start seeing now. I really want to go see the guy at Willows Inn, Blaine Wetzel. He came from Noma and he’s doing that really cool micro-climate shit outside of Seattle. Jon met this guy from Fäviken. He’s in Sweden. He does the same thing. These guys know the farmer that brings in the duck eggs and brings them the foraged greens and they know where the mussels are coming from and the scallops and all this shit. And they serve fifteen, twenty people a night.
MM: You were active in the fight against the foie gras ban in California. Now, a few months later, how is it affecting you? Do you miss it?
JS: It’s like telling a comedian that they can’t use their top jokes. Yeah, there’s still an evolution going on. It’s still changing. We miss it without a doubt. We both love to eat the product individually, so how could you not? It’s like losing your best friend in a weird way.
VD: It was the sweetheart of the restaurant. It was in five dishes.
MM: Do you think there’s more food regulation on the horizon?
JS: If they keep winning. Foie gras was a huge win for the PETA people. Next will be sea urchin or another product that’s in that same vein. One thing about foie gras is that it’s not owned by a Fortune 500 company. It’s not a mass product. It’s not like chicken.
MM: If a guy wants to cook for a date, what can he do to make it 10 percent more impressive?
VD: Learn how to make a good salad. A good salad goes a long way.
JS: Remember that some of the most basic things can be some of the most fun things. Like grilled cheese.
VD: Simple classics are good. There’s nothing wrong with strawberries and whipped cream. Trying to keep it easy is the best way to go. Always.