Jon and Vinny’s Excellent Adventure

Two best-friend chefs electrified L.A. with their outrageous cooking and built a food empire. Now what comes next?
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THE FIRST THING to know about  Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo is that for all intents and purposes they are two halves of a single brain. Yin and yang. McCartney and Lennon. Cheech and Chong. There is no precise comparison that captures the breadth of their bromance, but suffice it to say that they have spent nearly as much of their lives together as they have apart.

 

Raised on opposite coasts in Florida, the chefs behind Animal, Son of a Gun, and Jon & Vinny’s met 19 years ago on their first day of culinary school in Fort Lauderdale. They’ve remained inextricable ever since. After the two relocated to Los Angeles in 2002, Dotolo applied for a line cook gig at Govind Armstrong and Ben Ford’s erstwhile Beverly Hills restaurant, Chadwick, telling Ford at the interview’s conclusion that his buddy would have to come along, too—they were a package deal. Ford hired them both.

Their brotherly relationship is uncommon in the restaurant industry, at least in sheer duration. The intense physical and mental strain of the business has a way of grinding down even the most productive relationships (the decades-long feud between Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse that started in the ’70s might be the most infamous example). Stir in contentious financial decisions, booze,  and drugs—all rampant in the industry—and the potential for combustion can be inevitable. Except with Shook and Dotolo.

Their first venture, Animal—the sparsely decorated dining room on Fairfax that became famous for selling baroque foie gras biscuits and fried pig’s ears—celebrates its tenth year this June, a length of time that might as well be a century in restaurant years. The pair’s catering operation, Carmelized Productions, has become the de facto vendor of choice among the Hollywood elite. Their hospitality group, Joint Venture, encompasses seven dining rooms, employs 250 people, and has partnerships with chefs Ludo Lefebvre as well as Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson. Their flagship Italian American diner, Jon & Vinny’s, has the broad appeal to evolve into a national restaurant chain. The future appears bright. But as their nascent food empire expands beyond their direct control, the boyish masterminds have begun to grapple with the question every budding entrepreneur faces: How do we not screw this thing up?

The boyish masterminds have begun to grapple with the question every budding entrepreneur faces: How do we not screw this thing up?

Shook and Dotolo arrived in L.A. as a pair of scruffy surfers with $500 between them. (After stints in Miami and Colorado, they’d grown accustomed to squeezing by on a line cook’s pay.) The two had envisioned moving to San Diego, where they could ride killer swells, but Shook had an aunt who lived in the Valley who could provide a temporary place to crash. Working in Beverly Hills under Ford led to catering gigs, some for his father, Harrison Ford, and his then-stepmother, screenwriter Melissa Mathison. When they weren’t cooking they’d paint houses and do odds jobs for Mathison and her friends. Their charm was hard to resist: scrappers with boundless enthusiasm, goofy grins, and a rare talent for throwing together glorious meals on the fly. Shook recalls cooking a dinner for a producer in Malibu, then spending the night on his couch so that he and Dotolo could hit the beach the next morning.

When not working (or surfing), they would bomb around L.A. in Shook’s pickup, eating at restaurants picked from a Zagat guide (Shook maintains that the guide, along with a copy of Catering for Dummies that Ben Ford gave him as a joke, are the only two books he’s ever read). Flush with catering cash, they sampled the city’s grand buffet, from miso black cod at Matsuhisa to birria tacos in Boyle Heights. Their accountant would later conclude they dropped close to $150,000 in the span of 12 months. “There was a solid four years where we ate every single meal together: breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Dotolo recalls. “Jon and I would go eat and have nothing to talk about because we already knew everything about each other.”

Jon Shook

Photograph by Peter Bohler

Amassing a stable of Hollywood patrons, their operation began to attract media attention—they coauthored the cookbook Two Dudes, One Pan and starred in a Food Network reality show called 2 Dudes Catering. Their wavy shoulder-length hair, hazy surfer lingo, and general Spicoli vibes made them prime candidates for reality TV in the age of Jersey Shore. The show lasted five episodes. “The network wanted us to be these outrageous characters, like getting into crazy fights and stuff,” says Dotolo, “but it wasn’t who we were.” Since then they’ve appeared as guest judges on shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef America, but their early foray into television left them wary about being on camera. “We wanted to focus on what we loved doing, which was cooking,” says Shook.

Their breaking point with shilling arrived in 2008, when they were invited by the sausage company Johnsonville to emcee a promotional event in Chicago that culminated with a giant Styrofoam sausage being dropped via crane onto a 50-foot-tall grill. After that, Shook says, “Vinny looked at me and said, ‘No way are we doing this stuff anymore.’ ” Instead, beyond guest appearances here and there, they’ve mostly leveraged their fame with commercial partnerships. Shook and Dotolo have produced collaborations with Vans (skater-inspired kitchen shoes), Shake Shack (a limited-edition chicken sandwich), and Sweetgreen (the “Za’atar Salad”), and they’re ambassadors for companies like Lexus and All-Clad cookware. In fact, they recently inked a deal on their biggest, most corporate partnership yet: a three-year contract with Delta Airlines to provide business-class dining options on flights between New York and Los Angeles. Brianne Chan, a former United Talent Agency staffer who serves as “culinary liaison” for Joint Venture, puts it this way: “They’re celebrity chefs, but they’re not celebrity chefs.”

THIRTY-EIGHT WITH A dense, bushy beard, Dotolo is usually pegged as the duo’s creative force, the culture guy. He wears round-frame glasses, has a colorful sleeve of tattoos running down one arm, and though his fashion taste has shifted over the years, he mostly favors vintage crew necks, Adidas track pants, and retro New Balance shoes. There’s a quiet intensity to Dotolo, except for when his brooding demeanor softens and he gently expounds on subjects like the evolution of American dining or the architecture of an ideal turkey club. He has a savantish ability to summon details about meals from decades ago. He still thinks about the tangy kimchi aioli that Miami chef Michelle Bernstein, one of Dotolo and Shook’s early mentors, would pair with slices of seared tuna. “She was fermenting this jar of kimchi back in, like, 1999,” he says admiringly. “I was this kid from the suburbs, and I’d never seen anything like it.”

“Vin’s got the mind of an elephant. He remembers everything,” his business partner, ever the good promo guy, tells me more than once. Thirty-six and around the same height as Dotolo, Shook usually sticks to black T-shirts, shorts, and slip-on Vans. He possesses an unruly mop of dark hair, a stubbly beard, and a high level of what neurologists often refer to as “executive function,” a skill set rooted in the frontal lobe that enables him to multitask with rigorous efficiency. Chatty and jocular, he’s prone to sly bouts of boosterism as he flits between topics. If Dotolo is the deep thinker, Shook is the quick thinker, P.T. Barnum with a sauté pan. He seems to exult in the bureaucratic, often mundane tasks that so many other chefs bemoan, like dealing with janitorial services, sprinkler systems, and takeout packaging. “I love cleaning. I love sanitation. I love wearing rubber gloves,” he tells me earnestly after I watch him swipe a finger around the dining room at Animal, hunting for dust. After flying to Colorado Springs to cook a Lexus-sponsored dinner at the historic Broadmoor hotel, Shook returned in awe of the industrial efficiency of the kitchen facilities, already thinking of how to apply it to his own organization.

Vinny Dotolo

Photograph by Peter Bohler

When Lexus provided the duo with complimentary cars, they both chose black SUVs, and the pair live ten houses apart in Hancock Park. Shook is married to actress Shiri Appleby, with whom he has two kids; Dotolo, whose wife is acclaimed jewelry designer Sarah Hendler, has two kids as well. Both chefs have a reputation for consuming a sizable quantity of marijuana (half an ounce every week between the two of them, Shook estimates). And while the company name Joint Venture alludes to their taste for weed (and to the initials of their first names), Dotolo says they don’t make a big deal about their fondness for the stuff . “I don’t think about it, really,” he says. “It’s like having a cigarette for us.”


IT’S LATE MAY, and Dotolo is standing in the parking lot, flipping through emails on his phone outside Trois Familia, the French-Mexican brunch counter he and Shook operate with Ludovic Lefebvre in a Silver Lake strip mall. Like most days, the chef is on a tight schedule. He’s here to sample a couple new dishes, but Trois Familia’s chef de cuisine, Gary Miller, hasn’t set up the mise en place yet. Dotolo shakes his head in frustration before seeking some shade to work on a can of LaCroix, his favorite drink (“I’ve been trying to get them to sponsor him!” Shook tells me later).

Even for a professional chef, Dotolo exhibits an unusual fanaticism for ingredients and techniques, whether refined or mass-market. Animal once featured a bowl of unadorned peak-season mulberries as dessert; Son of a Gun’s famed fried chicken sandwich was part homage to Chick-fil-A. At a guest dinner with English chef Fergus Henderson last year, Dotolo coached line cooks glazing herb-marinated quail by describing the grilled chicken at Dino’s Chicken & Burgers on Pico.

A “big chef fanboy,” as he calls himself, Dotolo is a close study when it comes to the cultural undercurrents of the food world. His Instagram feed is a blur of chefs, artists, and designers. “You have to understand where ideas come from, and that’s something chefs are pretty bad at. We credit old recipes, but not the new stuff,” he says. “If you’re not open to constant education and observation, you shouldn’t be cooking.”

 “If you’re not open to constant education and observation, you shouldn’t be cooking.”

It’s tough to pinpoint the exact origin of dining trends, but few chefs can claim the broad influence Shook and Dotolo have had on modern food culture. Before Animal debuted in the summer of 2008—five months before Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck first hit the pavement—terms like “dude food” and “stoner cuisine” were not part of the city’s lexicon. Shook and Dotolo’s bombastic, cross-cultural, and offal-heavy cooking at Animal netted them a Food & Wine Best New Chefs Award in 2009 and an overdue James Beard Award for Best Chef(s) in 2016.

Despite the impact Animal’s arrival had on L.A.’s culinary timeline, Dotolo feels that their food was at its most inconsistent back then: “It was incredibly stressful. We were working until 4 a.m. almost every night. It was constant white-knuckling. We took reservations, we did maintenance, we shopped, we did everything. I would come up with, like, five dishes off the top of my head every night and run them, and most of them were nowhere near what they could have been. It was just our singular vision, and it wasn’t as good as what we do now.”

Shook loves to tell a story about one night in Animal’s early days when the kitchen was swamped, the pass-through counter buried under a line of fluttering order tickets. Melting down, Dotolo grabbed the scraps of paper and crammed them into his mouth. “I would throw tantrums like a five-year-old,” he admits. “That was the only time Jon and I would get into fights, and it was over the stupidest stuff, like how to butcher the tuna or something.”

At Trois Familia, the kitchen is finally ready, and Dotolo heads in to tinker with a dish of chilled asparagus tossed with lime dressing—a stark departure from the current menu of churro French toast and whipped potato tacos. Among the asparagus’s garnishes are wafers of lemon cucumber, chopped pistachios, and pink pickled onion. Could it use fresh mint? Should the pistachios be chopped finer? A few years ago, Dotolo, a self-lacerating perfectionist, might have agonized over such decisions hours before service, but now he’s content to send the ideas to Lefebvre for more back and forth (most dishes at Trois Familia are created via a loose collaborative process). They’ll test the next version when Dotolo and Shook return from a trip to Tulum in Mexico, but in the end, the dish doesn’t make the cut.


SHOOK IS ON a call—he’s always on a call—discussing a space they’re building in Sherman Oaks as he slogs through traffic along La Cienega in Ladera Heights. He prides himself on being something of a lease whisperer, sussing out strip mall vacancies like the former Raffallo’s Pizza in Hollywood that became Trois Mec, the modish tasting-menu restaurant Shook and Dotolo opened with Lefebvre in 2013. The following year, around the time they were developing the idea for Jon & Vinny’s—a place built on Italian American crowd-pleasers like linguine in clam sauce and meatballs with garlic bread—they opened Petit Trois, Lefebvre’s throwback French bistro, in a former Thai restaurant next door to Trois Mec. “Nobody can negotiate rent like Jon,” Lefebvre’s wife, Krissy, tells me. “He has a gift.” That knack for bargain hunting, Shook believes, has been paramount to their success.

“We always go as cheap as we can with rent,” he says, “because we can’t afford prime real estate. You look for multiple units because that’s where the value is,” he says. Cruising through the wide boulevards of Inglewood, Shook pulls down a side street into the parking lot of Carmelized Production’s 4,000-square-foot headquarters. A former machine shop, it was recently transformed into a stainless-steel-clad catering mother ship equipped with industrial tilt skillets and gigantic standing mixers. Some $2 million went into the renovation. The catering business demands a significant amount of Shook’s daily attention, a reality that might seem unromantic to anybody obsessed with chef-driven restaurants. (“There’s no James Beard Award for Best Caterer,” Shook says with a smirk.) But with catering, there’s less sweating over what prices will look like on a printed menu. Before the team moved into the new facility last August, most of the planning for catering events was done in a loft above Jon & Vinny’s by staffers huddling with late-model MacBooks around a long white table. Shook referred to it as “the highest-grossing table in the city.”

Carmelized Productions’ clients, for the most part, tend to be well-off patrons or businesses with generous expense budgets. The company is a preferred vendor for Yifat Oren, the coveted Hollywood party planner who has worked with everyone from Adam Levine to Natalie Portman. Other regular clients include not only the celebrities you’d expect, but also the power players behind them—studio heads, power agents, investor types.

In the commissary’s front office, two large whiteboards map out upcoming events, among them an art gallery opening, a bat mitzvah, and a movie premiere. Some are booked days in advance; others require months of planning, like the pop-up restaurant Shook and Dotolo operated at three consecutive Sundance Film Festivals (rather than rely on local distributors in the harsh Utah winter, they filled trucks with produce from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market each time and shipped everything across state lines).

Shook and Dotolo with John Clark, catering co-chef de cuisine, in their Inglewood kitchen

Photograph by Peter Bohler

Shook and Dotolo estimate that since launching Carmelized Productions out of their East Hollywood apartment in 2002, they’ve written thousands upon thousands of custom menus. Gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo, vegan, or pescatarian requests are common.  There’s also plenty of experimentation involved, which latently serves as market research for their restaurants. “Our recipe book could fill up an entire room,” Shook says. “We’ve done so many types of food. People would ask us to make sushi, and we’d go buy fish from the seafood importers. Asian food is a huge seller—that and Greek food. We could open restaurants for either and probably crush it.” Still, the greatest demand is usually for comfort food. “Want to know the five most requested foods?” Shook asks, counting out each one on his fingers. “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.”

The pair had been catering for almost two years when they were hired to cook for publishing mogul Benedikt Taschen, best known for producing exquisitely eccentric art books. Taschen and his wife, Lauren, live in the Chemosphere, the iconic octagonal, flying saucer-shaped home John Lautner designed, and Taschen recalls the two chefs arriving on the night of their first gig dressed in T-shirts (“I thought they looked like housepainters,” he says). Taschen asked if they had uniforms; they explained the nonchalant look was their trademark. But if the night started inauspiciously, it changed when one of the house’s toilets overflowed during dinner and the young chefs leaped up to fix the mess. “I said, ‘Now I understand why you are wearing the T-shirts,’ ” says Taschen. “I loved how hands-on they were. They saved the party.”

Shook and Dotolo had been searching for a catering kitchen at the time, but the Taschens encouraged them to think bigger. “We said, ‘Why don’t you open a restaurant?’ They didn’t think they were ready, but we thought they should try it and see what happens,” Lauren Taschen remembers. “ ‘Create what you guys want, and we’ll back you 100 percent.’ ” As Shook and Dotolo’s first investors, the Taschens would end up lending the two $150,000 to open Animal. (They’ve remained the sole outside investors in every Joint Venture project since.)

After using the money to secure the lease on the former Fairfax tea shop that would become Animal, the chefs were nearly broke. Their backup plan if the business floundered was to move out of their apartment and sleep in an upstairs hovel behind the kitchen (the space is now used to store wine). Shook and Dotolo grew accustomed to feeling like everything they had built could get swept away in an instant. “I used to yell at the kitchen crew, ‘Cook like you’re cooking for The New York Times critic!’ ” Shook tells me. “And then after we got reviewed, I’d say, ‘Cook like you’re cooking for the James Beard judges!’ And then we won that. Then I’d say, ‘Cook like it’s for Thomas Keller!’ And then he came in for dinner.”

They opened their second restaurant, Son of a Gun, on 3rd Street in early 2011. A colorful Florida-inspired fish house, with a menu of delicate acid-kissed crudos and polished fry-shack fare like lobster rolls and smoked fish dip, it helped kick off the city’s obsession with East Coast seafood. In 2015 came Jon & Vinny’s on Fairfax, where architect Jeff Guga wrapped the dining room in bright California white oak and white countertops. An alumnus of Frank Gehry’s firm, Guga was referred to them by Taschen, who has functioned as a soft-spoken father figure, offering advice on what to do and what not to do. “I speak with them every day about different stuff,” he says. “Not about menu or operations but larger opportunities and their brand, which I think is where their focus is now.”


WHILE TASCHEN’S CREATIVE role in the lives of the two chefs may be unique, his role as a financial backer is not. Most chefs rely on someone with money to help make their aspirations a reality, however briefly. Restaurants are notoriously expensive to run, with razor-thin profit margins and short life spans. That Shook and Dotolo have yet to shutter a restaurant means they’ve beaten the odds so far. And they’ve done something even more unusual by becoming the deep-pocketed backers of other chefs. “That’s the new frontier for us,” Dotolo says. “The original dream was to have one restaurant, and we did that, but beyond that you need to build connections with other people. It can’t just be about you.”

Their first chef-partner, Frenchman Ludovic “Ludo” Lefebvre, moved to L.A. from Paris in 1996 to run L’Orangerie in West Hollywood. By the time he moved to Bastide on Melrose Place, he was known for being one of the most talented and temperamental chefs in L.A. But it wasn’t until Lefebvre launched the wildly inventive pop-up dinner series LudoBites in 2007 that he became a star, earning a short-lived TV show. Shook and Dotolo attended Lefebvre’s earliest pop-ups and became friends with him. (“Not friends like we go out every weekend, but we’d see each other at restaurants and have a drink,” Lefebvre says in his Burgundy accent.) What was remarkable to them was that Lefebvre didn’t have a permanent place. It wasn’t for lack of trying. At one point, Lefebvre and his wife had nearly opened next to Valentino in Santa Monica, but investors pulled out when the French government criticized George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. “Nobody wanted to put money into French food after that,” Krissy Lefebvre says.

Shook and Dotolo grew fascinated with the idea of opening a place with Ludo Lefebvre despite the darker side of his reputation. “Ludo comes from this amazing lineage of French chefs: Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard. It’s unreal,” Dotolo says. “There were these big-name people who would tell me, ‘Don’t get involved with him; he’s a nightmare.’ There was this perception that Ludo ran crazy food costs or that he couldn’t manage a restaurant. It took some uncovering, but everybody realized, ‘Hey, this guy is incredibly talented, and he needed to do his own thing.’”

“There were these big-name people who would tell me, ‘Don’t get involved with him; he’s a nightmare.’”

During a foie gras-themed dinner at Son of a Gun, which took place weeks before California’s ban went into effect in 2012, Shook and Dotolo approached Lefebvre with the idea of partnering. For his part, Lefebvre remembers thinking, “Why not have successful people to work with?” Their original plan was to launch a fried chicken joint, but inspired by a subsequent trip to Copenhagen, they settled on offering an avant-garde tasting menu that, priced at $75 per person (the cost is now $110), would focus on European technique while winking toward globalism. The name was easy. Trois Mec. Three dudes. More difficult was figuring out how to fit three chefs into one tiny kitchen. They considered running the place in shifts: Lefebvre would cook for four months, then Dotolo, then Shook.

But as Shook and Dotolo’s schedule pulled them in other directions, they struck a compromise. Trois Mec would become Lefebvre’s restaurant; Shook and Dotolo would provide operational input, developing recipes as needed, and share in the profits. The decision paid off, and the concept—it was the first place in L.A. to sell “tickets” rather than offer traditional reservations—proved a critical hit.

In 2014, the trio opened Petit Trois, a narrow bistro serving escargot and steak frites, whose essence was pure Lefebvre. Then came Trois Familia in 2015, which they plan to expand into a late-night wine bar in the coming months once the license is approved. And this year they’ll open a Petit Trois in Sherman Oaks that will seat 90—their largest restaurant yet—and feature Lefebvre’s take on upscale brasserie cuisine, like duck à l’orange and beef bourguignonne.

It was their experience with Lefebvre that encouraged Shook and Dotolo to work with Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson. The two women moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn in 2014 to open Madcapra, a falafel stand in downtown’s Grand Central Market. Kramer remembers Dotolo commenting on one of her early Instagram photos, asking if she wanted to grab breakfast. “He’s a savvy dude on social media, so I think he heard what we were doing in New York,” remembers Kramer, referring to her and Hymanson’s popular Mediterranean restaurant Glasserie. Though the women had vague plans to open a larger restaurant after Madcapra, nothing was set in stone. At breakfast Dotolo extended an invite for the pair to cook a pop-up dinner at Animal. The event went well, subsequently, and before the last of the desserts were served, Shook broached the topic. “On the spot he was like, ‘Do you want to open a restaurant with us?’ ” says Kramer. “Jon is a real straight shooter. I think that if they see something that they’re interested in, they just go for it.”

With Shook and Dotolo acting as “operational partners”—a similar arrangement to Lefebvre’s—Kramer and Hymanson opened Kismet, an airy all-day Mediterranean restaurant in Los Feliz, last January. Kramer and Hymanson had final say over everything; it was their restaurant. “They know that with some decisions we’ll be right and sometimes we’ll be wrong, but they want us to figure that out for ourselves,”  says Hymanson. “They’ll give us their opinion, but they don’t want to impose too much.” She and Kramer already have plans to open a new takeout project with Joint Venture next door to Kismet later this year.

Shook and Dotolo with Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson at Kismet

Photograph by Peter Bohler


SHOOK AND DOTOLO have a keen interest in both scouting talent and nurturing it. Alumni of their kitchen include Jonathan Whitener (Here’s Looking at You), Miles Thompson (Michael’s), Ryan Denicola (Chi Spacca), and a handful of bartenders who’ve trained under Joint Venture’s longtime beverage director, Helen Johannesen (she now owns a wine delivery service and bottle shop in the rear of Jon & Vinny’s). There’s Sam Rogers, a former delivery clerk who serves as Joint Venture’s full-time farmers’ market liaison (buying upwards of 40 dozen fresh eggs a week); catering co-chef de cuisine John Clark, a former Museum of Tolerance security guard from South L.A.; and Jon & Vinny’s chef de cuisine, Courtney Storer, who has emerged as one of the group’s rising stars.

Then there’s new recruit Daniel “Dano” Heinze. A veteran cook who ran chef Sean Brock’s Charleston restaurant, McCrady’s, Heinze was born in San Diego but grew up in Florida. He moved to L.A. to open his own restaurant but signed on with Joint Venture in the meantime. Though Shook and Dotolo let Heinze host pop-ups at Trois Familia for three months, his primary gig is heading research and development for Carmelized Productions. That means he’s in charge of finalizing the Delta Airlines menu. “It’s actually been fun,” he insists. “It’s better than working behind the same line every night.”

Shook and Dotolo meet with Ludo Lefbvre at Trois Familia

Photograph by Peter Bohler

At a media tasting event in August, Shook, Dotolo, Heinze, and a crew of catering chefs portioned out samples of their prospective in-flight menu, 37 dishes altogether. “What it takes to get food on an airplane is amazing,” Shook tells me, wide-eyed and seemingly ebullient about serving food in a pressurized metal tube to diners who’ve lost 30 percent of their ability to taste. “These had to be plated yesterday, so it’s been lugged in and out of a fridge a couple times. And we had to do a soup. We never do soups.” There’s a Parmesan-dusted bucatini pie, based on a recipe from Dotolo’s grandmother, and a wedge of toast topped with creamy blue cheese, dates, and pine nuts. Delta had been intrigued by Dotolo’s idea for miniature pizza pockets, but the process was too labor-intensive. The dishes needed to be simple. “You have to sneak in technique with food like this,” Dotolo says, leaning in to me. “If you’re dehydrating or fermenting, just do it and don’t tell people.” The sole dud of the night: an oily slab of garlic toast that sat too long. Shook shrugs it off. “There’s no way everything could be as good as it is in the restaurant, but it’s a hundred times better than what’s up there,” he says. “I feel good about putting Weiser Farms potatoes in the air.”

The next month Shook, Dotolo, Lefebvre, Kramer, and Hymanson flew to Las Vegas to meet with representatives from the Palms Casino Resort, who were hoping to entice them to open a restaurant at the property. It’s the sort of offer they’ve heard before. Few days pass without an overture from a potential investor or a lucrative consulting deal. With Vegas, the dudes insisted that if they were inviting one chef, they had to invite them all. “The whole company is meant to be an open forum,” says Dotolo. “I’d never ask anybody who works for us to do something I wouldn’t do myself.” When they returned, Shook and Dotolo seemed skeptical about landing on the Strip, but they wouldn’t rule it out. “It’s a gamble because Vegas always wants the new shiny thing. They give you a two-year deal and perpetuate this idea that you’re not making enough, so you have to change the way you usually do things,” Dotolo told me months ago in Trois Familia’s parking lot. “I probably hate compromising more than anything.”


THE PURSUIT FOR Shook and Dotolo has, all along, been to create food that’s accessible without sacrificing quality or distinctiveness. They’ve built a career blending high and low culture without making it feel middlebrow (Shook describes it as “casual luxury”). If their embrace of everyday dishes has been a defining note in the tuna melts and fish and chips of Son of a Gun, it is Jon & Vinny’s reason for being.

When Shook and Dotolo conceived of the restaurant, they envisioned a place that would serve throughout the day, a huge challenge in terms of cost and logistics. The food—pizza, pasta, chopped salad, meatballs, mozzarella sticks—would be familiar (and kid-friendly) but refined. So far the response has been overwhelming, spilling into their catering business. At large events Shook now rents a dozen deep fryers and boils water in them to produce mass quantities of fettuccine; meatballs are rolled by the thousands.

Things have gone so well, they’re opening a second Jon & Vinny’s soon, in Brentwood. “Starting out we were overeager and under-educated,” Shook tells me. “Jon & Vinny’s was the first restaurant where we laid out the entire concept in our heads. Before that we would rent a space and figure out what to cook. When we open Brentwood, it’s our first ever cut-and-paste. You need to have every angle figured out.”

The mere mention of it gets Shook buzzing. The stakes are especially high because they’ll be renting from L.A. real estate magnate Rick Caruso, the developer behind the Grove and the Americana at Brand. Shook tells me he hates the word chain, yet it’s obvious they’re aiming to build something that can go beyond two locations. Not that they’d reveal their plans (“never bring your cheese to the rat trap” is Shook’s media policy). But the idea of multiple branches would seem to have undeniable appeal to people with their grand vision. More Jon & Vinny’s outlets would mean lower costs, a hurdle that all restaurateurs struggle with, and greater access to capital, which could be used to finance concepts for up-and-coming chefs they’ve partnered with. “It’s a tough industry,” Shook says. “The system is broken, and nobody has found the solution yet.” Maybe going mainstream, for lack of a better term, could provide the answer.

For a certain generation of cool chefs, chain restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory and Houston’s once invited scorn, the antipodes of individual expression. Now they might look like salvation, or at least longevity. “A great restaurant is the one that can be around forever,” Dotolo says at one point. At another, he adds wistfully, “Could you imagine if Chili’s was actually good? I would eat there all the time!”


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