“We’re excited about repeating a restaurant for the first time … we’re doing it twice this year—once with Petit Trois and once with Jon & Vinny’s,” says Jon Shook as I sit with him and his business partner Vinny Dotolo in a not-yet-open-for-the-day Animal on Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood.
In the hour and change spent with the iconic Los Angeles duo (who look the part these days, from the snapbacks to the Vans), one thing is clear: They’re not messing around. “We’re laser focused on everything when we’re in these buildings,” Dotolo says, adding, “I’ve lived, breathed, and operated restaurants with Jon since I was 19 years old… we know restaurants inside and out.”
While the calm, cool, and collected confidence they exude seems to come easy, it’s also clear how hard they worked to feel the way they do. And as is often the case, even with hard work, it takes time to achieve success that allows confidence.
Shook and Dotolo grew up on opposite shores of Florida before meeting at the Culinary School at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. Shook was fresh out of high school at the time and Dotolo was one year removed. After culinary school they worked with lauded Miami Chef Michelle Bernstein before heading to Vail, Colo. in 2001 where they worked for Ray Roach, cooking at Wildflower.
Miami to Vail? I ask. “Cold,” Shook replies.
A little more retrospective, Dotolo notes that while they enjoyed their time in Colorado and certainly made their fair share of friends, they “were not cooking ambitiously.” Following their ambition, they did what many have done before them and headed further west.
Not long after arriving in Los Angeles, they landed a job working for Ben Ford, son of Harrison Ford, at Chadwick in Beverly Hills where Ford let the duo reopen lunch, run lunch, and cut their teeth on catering while he prepared to open Ford’s Filling Station.
We have a little chameleon in our personality … we’re open to changing and it’s been nice because we’ve always done it together. – Dotolo
Catering—which today is the biggest chunk of their business—took on a life of its own and became their sole focus, allowing them to launch Carmelized Productions in 2004. By 2007, before either turned 30, they were catering up to 15 events a week from 10-person dinners to parties for 300, and The Food Network took notice. In June 2007, they starred on Two Dudes Catering, a short-run but wildly-entertaining look at their planning and preparation for events like the X Games. Where was the kitchen they were catering out of at the time? A cozy but unnamed storefront on Fairfax Ave.
Opening Animal and More
Better suited behind the stove than in front of the camera, the two learned a lot during their time on television, discovering much about who they were and who they wanted to be. “We knew who we were but not how to extract it … we knew how to play the instruments, we just didn’t know what the album would sound like,” Dotolo metaphorically explains. Now, there’s an album.
They opened their first—and flagship—restaurant, Animal, in 2008 to praise, fanfare, and critical acclaim. Though the Los Angeles dining scene at the time was not the behemoth it is today, they did find themselves in the same geographic epicenter as Jose Andres and Suzanne Goin to name a few.
While the sailing was fairly smooth, it did take some adjusting to get their sea legs under them during the early months and years at Animal. “It was an amazing process … we grew a lot as people because we were forced to grow,” Dotolo notes.
Their success at Animal prompted encouragement from those around them—including investors—to increase the size of their plate, and so in 2011 Son of a Gun opened beginning what, in hindsight, can safely be dubbed a pattern. “Son of a Gun opened and it went well, which allowed us to then start to think about working with other people. We realized we couldn’t be everywhere and we wanted to figure out how to grow without breaking our britches,” Shook explains.
As for that pattern, Shook and Dotolo then put any additional ideas about further expansion on hold as they instead partnered with their friend—Chef Ludo Lefebvre—and helped him open Trois Mec, one of Los Angeles’ pinnacle dining destinations that continues to represent the city’s new wave of cuisine. Shortly after Trois Mec opened, the dominos kept falling and they, along with Ludo, opened Petit Trois next.
By now, their aptitude was fine tuned and their track record of success, proven—the only logical next step would be to open another restaurant, one of their own this time. Enter, Jon & Vinny’s (opened in 2015)—the West Hollywood neighborhood breakfast, lunch, and dinner Italian restaurant you can’t stop talking about and can’t wait to take out-of-towners to when they come visit.
A Different Type of Manifest Destiny
Having discussed the trio of their own restaurants and a handful of others they are partners and investors in, Shook and Dotolo now slow down to reflect on how exactly it all happened. “We have a little chameleon in our personality … we’re open to changing and it’s been nice because we’ve always done it together. We didn’t set out in a certain direction, either … we’ve kept expanding, opening our arms, folding things in … we will take on what we feel like we can,” Dotolo says happily.
While sustainable growth is the name of their game, Shook admits that—at times—they “feel an obligation to keep expanding for our team … to create more opportunity for them,” adding that “it’s been fun to be able to provide for them.”
This year they—excitedly, Shook will have you know—have their hands full as they prepare to open a second Petit Trois in Sherman Oaks and a second Jon & Vinny’s in Brentwood—letting the seam out a little more in those britches, if you will. Perhaps a key to their continued success has been their methodical partnership. As Shook looks back, he notes that the pair met just out of high school, became friends, then roommates, then business partners, and now operate as brothers more than partners, watching their kids play together.
Throughout their journey they have stayed true to themselves, their teams, and their restaurants. “We demand a lot of ourselves,” Dotolo says. Shook adds, “We strive to only put out the best product … besides, a fair and honest business will last forever.”
Photos: Tim Hans