Shook, Won: How A Chef Made It All Work Spectacularly Well In Los Angeles
The first act is written. So, onto the second act.
Jon Shook runs a pair of highly successful restaurants in Los Angeles with partner Vinny Dotolo — the diametric Animal and Son of a Gun. While Animal does kung pao sweetbreads and oxtail poutine with a wink, nudge and serious cooking chops thank you very much, Gun — with a kitchen busting open these guys nightly — serves as a tribute to the seafood shack fare the pair grew up on back in Florida. There’s grouper pho on the menu. So, Florida — hold the tartar sauce.
I recently caught Jon Shook at a crazy time in his life. This is not the throw-away kind of crazy. Like, when you arrive at work on Monday morning and tell the stooge sitting next to you about your crazy weekend. No, shit was about to hit the kitchen hood. He’s just wrapped up a phone call, talking about a possible collaboration with barbecue chef Adam Perry Lang. “We’re cuddling, but that doesn’t that mean anything is going to come out of it,” Shook jokes.
And speaking of hooking up, he’s in the midst of opening a restaurant with monsieur pop-up Ludo Lefebvre, a semi-secret collaboration called Trois Mec. The Los Angeles Times has nice scoop about that, but basically it's a tribute to the French “bistronomie” movement with Ludo running point. Dotolo and Shook are more the Frenchman’s Phil Jackson. Shook likens the opening of the restaurant to playing poker with a group of guy friends, with laughs and beers going round and round. He fails to mention stakes, but we both know that they are high. When are they not when James Beards finalist opens a restaurant? You see, Shook and Dotolo were recently nominated into the Best Chef: West category with Sirs Chris Cosentino, Daniel Patterson and Christopher Kostow.
Oh yeah, Jon Shook is about to have a baby with his gorgeous Hollywood wife, Shiri Appleby — the same Shiri Appleby who had a recent star turn on season two of the HBO hit Girls. “It’s going to be a crazy four or five weeks,” he says, with the baby’s due date having passed that morning. (The couple gave birth to a healthy baby girl three days later, which I read about on Just Jared.) So Jon Shook was pumped up when I sneak a quick call with him. Ever warm and honest, he answered every question. Even the one about his future plans in New York. In Hollywood, they call that a spoiler.
First off, what’s the food going to be like at Trois Mec?
We’re working on so many things, it’s crazy. We don’t really have anything flushed out that we’re telling people, “Oh yeah, this is what we’re doing.” We don’t want it to be “trendy” — so many people are doing so many things. Do we have a local forager who is foraging for the restaurant? Yes. But we’re not advertising that.
Indeed, the restaurant is not called Forage, after all.
Exactly. At our other restaurants we use the farmers’ market here religiously, but we don’t advertise that either. That’s part of who we are and that’s part of what we think as chefs you are required to do.
I actually would have assumed your next move would have been your own project, similar to the Torrisi guys in New York City. Have you thought about doing your own projects?
Our finance partner has become a really big mentor of mine. He owns Taschen Books. Just in general between Vinny and me, our careers have evolved so much that even though we are still partners and will still be partners in every project that we do, our responsibilities from 10 years ago to now are totally different. We are really trying to be not only chefs, but also restaurateurs. I’d love to have 20 restaurants in the same sense of Danny Meyer.
Let’s talk about L.A. I’m a huge fan of the dining scene there, especially downtown. From your perspective, what is the biggest misperception about L.A. — from the rest of the country?
That they’re healthy [laughs]. They are so not healthy. You have to remember that we invented the drive-thru in California. We created donuts. I think that the reality is that there are people out here who are healthy and people may care a little bit about what they look like, but I don’t think that in general people would skew away from eating something like the poutine here at Animal. Initially, when we were opening Animal and showing people our example menu, they were like, “It’s never going to work. You are going to go out of business. People in L.A. are healthy.” People in L.A. like their junk food. They like their hamburgers.
I find talking about food in Los Angeles to be complicated…
You have to understand that it’s the only city I know where hospitality is not the number one industry. The number one industry here is entertainment and hospitality is number two. You get that disposition, which creates a very interesting dynamic with staffing and the kind of employees and the way people eat and drink. But still, I love L.A.
I would now asked you the whole “Would you move to New York” question, but honestly, I don’t ever believe that, just hearing about you and how much you’re embedded in the L.A. community….
I wouldn’t say that I would never move to New York. If the right opportunity approached (long pause). I would never leave my residence here in L.A. and would always hold residence. If I were in New York, I would never deny that I still love L.A. New York is New York and there is something magical about that place. If the shoe fit, I would wear it. It just doesn’t fit yet.
We’d love to have you in New York, come on man…
My lady and I have a place in West Village believe it or not. It’s down on West 4th by Café Cluny and we’ve never let go of it. There is always something that has attracted both Vinny and me to New York. The thing about L.A. is that I have my plumbers on speed dial. I know L.A. so well now. In order for it to work [in New York], it would have to make sense. It would even have to make sense to justify the cost of flying back and forth, because I would never leave LA.
How often are you and Vinny talking? Is it constant?
Do you have a brother? He’s kind of like my brother. There was definitely a time in our lives – when we were roommates – when we saw each other 364 days a year. Now, he’s married and has kids. In general, we speak every day whether it’s over e-mail or on the phone or via text message, as long as we’re not on vacation. We still have a very fond relationship and get along like brothers.
Do you guys fight like brothers, too?
Fuck yeah, we do. Fuck yeah. We fight like brothers, but there’s a certain point in a relationship — Vinny and I have been together for 13 years now — where why would you let it go after all we’ve gone through? That’s why I don’t think I would ever do a project without him. We’re in this together and we’ve already been through all this shit. If all this ended tomorrow, we would look at each other and be like, “Wow, that was fucking amazing. What a great run we had!” We’re going to be friends forever, literally for life. There’s a good likelihood that when one of us passes away in 40 years or whatever, the other guy is going to be at his funeral. We’ve already gone through the point of when you want to break up.
How did you meet your wife?
Long story is that she is one of Vinny’s wife’s girlfriends. When they first started dating, I was like, “Hook me up with Shiri, she’s so fucking hot!” Vinny’s wife Sarah was like, “She would never date you, ever.” I had long hair and would go to parties at her house and not even talk to her because I thought I had no fucking chance. I was going through a break-up and she was re-modeling her house at the time and we both randomly stayed at Vinny and Sarah’s house. We just hung out for the first time and actually talked and were like, “Holy shit, we’re kind of the same person.” She’s from a middle class Jewish family, like myself. We really got along and were into similar hobbies. It kept unfolding and now she’s gonna have my baby!
Did you watch those Girls episodes?
She was great, right? You were proud?
Yeah, I’m psyched for her. She’s had an amazing career in general with Roswell and the other thing I was really psyched that she did was Chicago Fire. The two creators of the show — Michael Brandt and Derek Haas — are like the nicest guys in show business and unbelievable. As far as Girls, I got to meet Jenni Konner and Lena [Dunham] and some of the other people on the show. I met Adam [Driver] a couple of times and he’s been into the restaurant. He and Shiri have become good friends.
I would have felt weird about the show if I met them and I had felt that they were dicks, but they were all just normal people. It’s weird because as much of an attraction as a lot of people have to that show, a lot of people on that show had an attraction to the restaurant. That’s always cool. I know [Shiri]’s itching to get back to work after the kid comes and it’s always great to see her and everybody that I’m friends with to be doing what they love doing and enjoying it. Part of my attraction to her is that she has her own life.
Lastly, nice job with the James Beard nomination. That is big.
When it came that we were on the finals list, we were kind of blown away. Being on that list, and looking at the other names just in our category, is mind-blowing. If somebody asked me, I would probably vote for Chris Kostow [of The Restaurant at Meadowood], to be honest with you. That guy is like three Michelin-starred and won Food & Wine [Best New Chefs] with us. This shit blows me away, man. When Animal opened, we wanted to cook for our friends and have it as a neighborhood restaurant. To see where it’s grown now and to be recognized in your industry is so flattering and such an honor.
This Food Republic Interview is presented by our friends at Ribera Wines
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