Don't call it dude food: Meet high-flying Los Angeles chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo

Los Angeles chefs Jon Shook (left) and Vinny Dotolo.
Los Angeles chefs Jon Shook (left) and Vinny Dotolo.  Photo: Supplied

 Los Angeles-based cheffing duo Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have been joined at the hip and hot plate since the first week of culinary school, when they laughed at the same joke in class. Best friends and business partners, the pair have grown so tight (on top of sharing an apartment when they were younger, they also shared a mobile phone and a car), they're more like brothers than friends.

It was the 2008 opening of their first restaurant, Animal, that really put their name in lights – no small feat in a town like LA, a city of fast cars and loose dinners. Their aggressively seasoned, highly idiosyncratic, meaty, fatty and fun approach to dining (foie gras biscuits and gravy tells you everything you need to know) was a middle finger to the establishment.

It was a style of cooking and eating soon replicated across the globe, and the shorthand, "dude food", spread along with it. Love it or hate it, the term stuck. Maybe that's the fault of a clutch of food writers struggling to define this new style of eating. But you could also partly blame their first book, Two Dudes, One Pan for that. Either way, for future reference, they prefer to call their style of cooking "new American".

Dotolo and Shook now own three restaurants and a catering company (Animal, Son of a Gun and their red-sauce Italian joint, Jon and Vinny's, plus their catering arm, Carmelized​ Productions). They also have stakes in another five LA restaurant ventures (Trois Mec, Petit Trois, Trois Familia, Helen's Wines and Kismet). They've even added an airline gig to their portfolio of projects, now managing all the inflight catering for the pointy end of Delta's LA to Australia legs.

By anyone's standards, they're doing all right.

They've been pushing since their early 20s, from catering a disastrous party for Benedikt Taschen (anything that could go wrong, did, yet somehow the renowned publisher and art collector is now a business partner) to cooking for Harrison Ford (another of their early Carmelized clients).

The pair weren't always riding the wave of Gucci and Vanity Fair parties and cooking supper for Indiana Jones. They both started out in pretty humble surrounds.

Dotolo grew up in Florida. His parents, who are separated, both gave him a food education, in their own way. His mother's side of the family is Eastern European, which meant a steady rotation of French and German food, while his dad is New Jersey Italo-American.

When he turned 16, his father told him it was time to get a job. But Dotolo had already started thinking about what it would be like to cook professionally. Food television had exploded on screens across America in the mid-'90s. Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali (pre-sexual harassment cinnamon rolls) were beaming in from the Food Network. There was glamour around the kitchen.

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His first job was as a dishwasher in a barbecue restaurant. "I loved the vagabond, pirate ship culture," says Dotolo. "People from all walks of life. Some of them were drinking, some of them were drug addicts … I found comfort in the kitchen."

He planned to attend the California Culinary Academy when his stepmother passed away just as he graduated high school. So instead, he ended up studying close to home at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

In the first week, he met his spiritual hermano, Jon Shook. They moved out of their dorm and into a flat together, then started work in the same kitchen in Miami working for chef Michelle Bernstein (catch the James Beard Award winner as a regular on the Food Network or at her Miami cafe, Crumb on Parchment).

Dotolo says working with Bernstein changed both of their lives and his personal perspective on food. "I'll never forget the first time I smelled foie gras cooking," he says. "It was intoxicating."

Shook came to food from a different angle. His was a cookie cutter middle-class American household. TV dinners and Idaho Spuds  (the US equivalent of Deb instant mashed potatoes) were regular fixtures. His father was a mechanic, his mother was a preschool teacher and his two brothers, now a doctor and a scientist, were straight A students. Shook, however, was lucky to get Cs.

His parents, on seeing he wasn't about to split the atom or cure cancer, encouraged him to get a job. He started as a shelf restocker at a grocery store, and was fired after pulling a magnificent scam involving soft drink and a roll of tape. "We would take cheap soda, pour it out of the 12-pack box, put beer in it, tape it back up and buy it," says Shook. "We got nailed a couple months after we started doing it. It ran for a while. It was a good program."

Much like Dotolo, Shook got his first kitchen job in high school washing dishes. It immediately clicked with him. "I was super fast. It was very natural for me to work in a kitchen. My brain worked really well in that kind of environment. It was the first time I really felt like somebody understood me as a person, as an individual."

Shook recalls the first time he ate real mashed potatoes made with butter and cream that hadn't been reconstituted out of a box. "I thought, 'holy shit, this is good. I want to know how to make it.' That was the curiosity, and then it just kept kind of growing.

"I met Vinny and I was like 'this is someone that is not just exactly like me and shares all the same loves and passions that I do, he's also short like me," says Shook. "It worked out really well. I think that at the time we met, we both needed each other for more than just a roommate. We needed each other for the mental support, for the physical support, for the financial support."

Today, both have families to keep them occupied, but through their friendship and their businesses, they remain close. "We've always looked out for one another," says Shook. "We're in it to win it together."

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to Shook: I've been listening to a lot James Taylor when I've been cooking. Just chill. Dotolo: Queen. I can't really play aggressive hip hop any more because of the kids.

After-midnight snack Shook: Thai, at this place Ruen Pair. It's my go-to after-midnight eat in LA. It's open till four in the morning. If I'm at my house, I'll suck down a whole jar of pickles.  Dotolo: If you want to still see LA beating past midnight, Koreatown's the place. I like OB Bear.

Kitchen weapon at work Shook: A knife. Dotolo: A small spoon for tasting.

Formative food moment: Shook: Those mashed potatoes. Dotolo: The thing I've looked forward to the most in life is when my dad would cook. He would always grill T-bones. Off the grill, with mashed potatoes. Good salt and pepper on it. My dad could season food pretty well.

Non-cooking ninja skill: Shook: Sleeping. I could lay down right here. I can do it pretty much anywhere – loud, noisy, quiet, in the sun, in the shade, comfortable, non-comfortable. Dotolo: I'm very into art, so I think drawing is something that I do well, for somebody that doesn't draw ever.

Myffy Rigby travelled courtesy of Delta Airlines.