GREATEST / Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo
For the restaurant duo, success means taking care of the small things and dedication to the everyday grind.
It’s a true Hollywood story: Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo met two decades ago in culinary school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, moved cross-country and became Los Angeles' hottest restaurateurs. As the owners of a fistful of hit restaurants, including the recently opened Jon & Vinny’s Brentwood, the duo have received nearly every accolade a chef could dream of—from James Beard Awards to luxury car deals to signature shoes by Vans, a brand they’ve worn their entire lives.
What differentiates Shook and Dotolo from other mega-chefs is that they are a team, in every sense of the word, and they’re on this ride together. “It’s interesting, because unlike other people who kind of join forces later in their careers, we really had the same rise,” Dotolo says. “We’ve had the same experiences, we’ve shared the same stories. We’ve been through life together, really, if you think about it. And I mean, dude, to be honest with you, we live on the same street, our kids are growing up together. It’s kind of fairy tale-ish if you write it all down.”
Owning one restaurant—much less owning nine, plus a catering company— can easily become a kitchen nightmare. While Shook and Dotolo manage to make it all seem relatively effortless, what you don’t see is the grind that goes on behind the scenes, from balancing books to cleaning toilets. It’s their dedication to the small stuff that sets a sturdy foundation upon which their ventures thrive.
If you're standing up for 12 hours, changing a pair of shoes is like you've started your day all over.
Did you guys know right away when you met that you’d be friends?
JON: We met each other and we became friends first. Did we know how long the friendship would last? Not at all.
VINNY: We were just culinary school friends, living at a shared dorm. They were going to put the dorms under construction, which basically nullified our lease, and we were like, ‘Let’s get an apartment together.’ It was kind of, like, history from there. We started working at the same restaurants, and then kind of just fed off one another.
What are your days like when you’re getting ready to open a new restaurant?
VINNY: The company is at a point now where we’re overseeing departments. Like, if you have one person that’s in charge of doing all the signage and website and getting the phone numbers, you’re overseeing them to make sure they’re doing that. You’re also overseeing the construction team and the kitchen team and the front of the house team, meeting with them and making sure they’re up to speed. And then, where you think things are maybe lacking, you focus more energy on. At the same time, there’s other things that we still have to do for our other restaurants. So it just balances out, and you fall into wherever is needed. And then there’s the promotional side, doing promotional things and marketing and interviews. We’re actually very selective about what we do say yes to. We had a very interesting go at it, because before Animal we had a cooking show called Two Dudes Catering, and it was not our favorite experience in our career. And so from that we’re, like, scarred. We’re, like, emotionally traumatized, and that’s part of the reason we haven’t written another book. Life experiences always create who you become. It’s been an amazing ride that we’ve been on.
How much time do you get to spend in the kitchen actually cooking?
VINNY: We just opened Jon & Vinny’s in Brentwood, and I would say 18 of the first 21 days at that restaurant we were in there grinding, cooking, 12 hours a day. You would catch us, Jon or I, washing dishes, bussing pans back to the dish station, pounding chicken, making pizzas—really showing the team how we like to do it and showing them how motivated we are. And it creates a culture. People know when they see us show up we are willing to do this job. They know that I’ll go clean the toilet. I have no problem doing that at all.
JON: It allows you to really understand the restaurant. I tell people all the time, I know where every drain line is in our buildings. What does that have to do with cooking? Nothing. But if the fucking drains don’t work, you’re fucked. So it has everything to do with cooking. People don’t understand that until you really start owning and operating your own restaurant and understanding the nuances of it and how hard it is to make a dollar in our industry, and balancing price versus cost. The other part we’ve been focusing on for the last couple of years is our team. It’s not even about us anymore. It’s about the team around you and the staff, and how long can you retain them, and how much can they take on, and how much can they handle. That’s what has allowed our group to be able to get to the size that it is.
People are usually either creative-minded or business-minded, but it sounds like you guys are both. Were you just naturally predisposed to being able to look at it from the business side?
JON: What’s weird about making art is you can make something and nobody ever buys it or does anything with it, and it kind of just sits in a corner behind everything. And as a chef and as a restaurant owner it’s more than just cooking, as a lot of people forget. It’s a hard industry to find a voice in because it’s an art, it's a craft. But the business part of it is something that is very important in doing your work.
VINNY: But we didn’t go to business school. They give you a briefing in culinary school on some of that stuff, but it’s not anything in depth. We learned from doing it, from making mistakes. We learned from our CPA and accountant, and we learned the business as we went along. Every now and then, something will surprise you—it’ll come across and you’ll be like, ‘Damn, I never thought about that,’ or, ‘I didn’t see that we were spending this much money on this.’ Those things consume a lot of our thoughts now.
Many restaurants come and go. How do you keep your restaurants consistently good for so long?
JON: Wow, there’s a lot that goes into it, a shit ton that goes into it. One of the major things is recipes. Like really having the great recipe and having a great foundation for the cook to sort of start with. Because interpretation is very dangerous. It’s insane how dangerous it is. And then, just sort of having people in the upper management that start to see the food the way you see it. And that only comes from them learning from you. We’re part of our restaurants, man. We’re not just, like, kicking it on the beach six months or seven months out of the year.
VINNY: We wish.
JON: Those are life goals, you know? Right now, it’s like you’ll catch us in one of our restaurants during the day for sure. If we’re in LA, five or six days a week, we’re in our restaurants in the daytime, guaranteed. We do go home now to family a few nights a week and we get to enjoy that part of life, which has been amazing. But that comes from having a solid team and them working with you during the day and knowing what you’re looking for. You set expectations. So as we’ve been able to step back, we’ve been able to notice so many other things that can help the operation, which is a different mindset than going in and being like, ‘I’m going to make this amazing dish.’ There’s not as much time for that anymore, which is sometimes a bummer for that creative spirit in us. But if we want to grow, you have to compromise in some ways, where you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m not going to get as much time with this, but I am going to be able to see my kids.’ So it’s this constant thing that you’re navigating in life for balance.
Were you guys always into sneakers?
VINNY: Oh, man.
JON: We both grew up wearing Vans down in Florida, and having Vans want to do a collaboration, it was like our dream came true. It was like these young kids growing up in Florida, dreaming of being pro surfers or skateboarders, and to be offered to do a shoe with Vans is like this surreal experience. I had every color of ‘Authentics’ you could imagine growing up. I’d wear through one and get another one, and I did everything in them.
Do people realize how important shoes are to chefs? I guess knives and shoes are the two things that you have that are your own when you’re in the kitchen, right?
VINNY: Shoes in the kitchen are very important. We say to wear something non-slip, but we kind of let people wear whatever. People rock their own style. Jon and I would show up however we want, and we’ll come cook just like anyone else. I don’t need a chef coat to prove that I’m a good chef.
JON: At my house I wear slippers, like the slippers we get from hotels. If I drop a knife on my foot then I’m in trouble, but I try not to do that often. And if I have a really long day, I might switch shoes halfway. I’ll have, like, five or six pairs of shoes that are in my kitchen cycle. Because if you’re wearing them in a kitchen, you can’t give a fuck about them—they get destroyed. Also when you stand up all day you sweat out a shoe. There are a lot of times in the summer you can catch me in the kitchen in a pair of sneaks with no socks on. It’s like those shoes need a rest the next day. They need to dry out and relax because they’re all hot and bothered from you working all day.
Talking about changing shoes during a long day reminds me of an NBA player changing shoes at halftime. Sometimes you have to switch it up.
JON: It all comes down to feeling, and if you’re standing up for 12 hours, changing a pair of shoes is like you’ve started your day all over.
INTERVIEW: LANG WHITAKER
PHOTOGRAPHY: JESSICA LEHRMAN