UNBEATABLE with Jon & Vinny
Two dudes, a fafillion restaurants, five senses.
July 28, 2016 ● 6 min read
In which we get down to brass tacks with the dynamic duo behind Jon and Vinny's, Animal, Son of a Gun, Trois Mec, Petit Trois, Trois Familia, Helen's, and Carmelized Productions: Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. Read on to see which sensory experiences they consider flat-out unbeatable.
Vinny Dotolo: My absolute favorite sight is when you can see that food has been cooked with care. When food has had care put into it, in the way it's cooked, you can just look at it and tell. A properly browned piece of meat. How vegetables are cut or cooked. Sauces that are properly made, at the right consistency. The way things are placed on the plate.
Also: really beautiful, raw ingredients. I love the beauty of something brought directly to your restaurant from a farm, that just looks alive. It's our job to try to maintain that. I really love walking through the market. Obviously here in California…I always feel really lucky. Last night I was at Animal, and they were cutting the tomatoes for a buy-out. It was just so beautiful, all those really visually appealing colors.
I think as chefs get older, we become obsessed with just finding the best ingredients and finding a way to not screw it up, rather than showing people how much creativity you have. You have to make your mark, and separate yourself from the pack, but you also have to appreciate the simplicity of things.
Jon Shook: Sight's really a hard one to narrow down for me, but I love fire. Whether it's gas or wood or charcoal, the beauty and the energy that comes from fire...I always tell people if I ever had to get a real job, I would become a fireman. It's something that I've always had an infatuation with, even as a little kid. One time I burned my parents' rose bush down. Every time I see it my eyes widen. Fire would be the one.
Vinny: I'm a big fan of acid. I love lemon juice, I love vinegars.
My kids like gherkins. My little fucking guy, two years old, will ask for gherkins at 8 o'clock in the morning while he's eating cereal. Just walking around the house like, can somebody give me a gherkin?? Salt and vinegar chips are my favorite by a thousand miles. Even a shitty brand, I'll choose those over any chip ever.
When I would go out with my grandparents we used to go to a German restaurant in Clearwater, Florida called Bill Earl's. In the beginning of the meal, you’d get a salad that was like, shredded carrot, a little shaved red cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes — just the basic house salad. I never chose any of the dressings, I always chose oil and vinegar that would come in that caddy. Every time, that was my go-to.
Jon: I'm a sucker for really anything sweet. Sometimes I even cook with a little bit of sugar in savory foods. I'm that guy who pours Sugar in the Raw in my iced tea and doesn't stir it in so I can have the little sugar pieces in my teeth. Sugar's my vibe.
Vinny: I love so many smells. I love nuances in things. When I was a child, I was teased for having a big nose, and that one thing has literally made my career; my big nose is a very sensitive big nose, and it's probably my strongest cooking attribute.
It changes week to week, year to year, day to day. I'm obsessed with smelling things in different stages; the smell of meat browning; the smell of a vinaigrette being made. Cakes baking in the oven is always sort of intoxicating. Herbs being chopped — even just picking herbs. If you're getting great herbs from the market, when you pick dill it's like your whole world smells like dill. We make this hibiscus plum jam every year at Animal that's the basis of our char siu sauce, and I love the way that smells in the summer. In the winter, I love a good braise with wine in it. I love the way it smells when you take the cover off something being braised.
My all-time favorite smell in the kitchen though, is foie gras. I never knew it until I walked into a kitchen run by a chef that was doing things with great technique, and flavors, and creativity: Michelle Bernstein. The smell of foie gras cooking in her kitchen was incredible. I found it so intoxicating, the way it smolders in a pan when it's being seared really hard. I loved it. I was obsessed with it.
I think that came through when we opened Animal. She had this one dish where she took all the trim and she chopped it up and it went in this hash for this fish dish…it was out of this world. Jon and I didn't spend 10 years at restaurants in Paris or wherever. We just didn't have that career. That wasn't who we were. Good or bad, or whatever. We found our voice through some pretty heavy influencers. The smell of foie gras is one, for sure.
Not having that smell in our kitchen was really weird for a couple of years. The night it was announced that the ban had been turned over, we had a hundred people show up just to eat foie gras...damn was it good to have that back in the kitchen. Some of those dishes are the heartbeat of the restaurant, so it was weird to not have it in there. We missed that smell.
Jon: The cooking of pan-seared foie gras is probably one of the most interesting, unique smells. It was something that, when I smelled it for the first time, so did Vinny, so it was a really big bonding moment. Every time I smell it, I still flash back to that moment eating it for the first time. It's something that I still hold pretty close to my heart.
Vinny: Oh! I have one more: my father and my grandfather had an industrial manufacturing company where they made citrus-based cleaners. They were one of the first to make organic solvents in the seventies. My grandfather toured an orange juice factory and saw them throwing away all the orange peels, so he extracted the oil from them and made a citrus-based cleaner that you now see everywhere around the world.
So, the smell of citrus always brings me back to that factory. Oranges in particular; when someone cuts an orange, my brain immediately rushes to that place. Every time.
Vinny: I like touching my food. I'm one of those chefs that would rather have their hands in it than rubber gloves. It's one of those forces of nature in humans that you can't really explain. There's something personal about it. Whether I’m making a potato salad, or just making a green leaf salad, I always use my hands. I can feel it, I can sense it. Last night, I was demoing the biscuits to our assistant pastry chef. I do it all by hand, I don't use a pastry tool because I think that disconnects you from the food. That's one of my favorites: cutting in fat. The feel of cutting in butter into pastry, making something like biscuits or scones, or pie dough. I love that.
Jon: I love kosher salt in your fingers, the feeling of seasoning a piece of meat or a vegetable, or a salad. Feeling how much control you have with such a fine sandy texture in your fingers.
Vinny: One of my favorite sounds, ever, is children laughing. I love listening to my kids laugh. It's one of the greatest sounds in the world, brings me so pleasure. It's such a beautiful, pure thing. There's something so free about it.
When it comes to food, I love something sizzling in a pan. Basting sweet breads, or pan-searing a steak. The sound of vegetables cooking in olive oil, I love that sound. Another sound that I really love in the kitchen is the sound of the moment before service, or the first moment in the day where there's this calm energy. You can hear all these little things, you know? I love that, those first fifteen minutes in the building before things get banging around, before the dishwasher’s moving. There's this nice silence.
Can I tell you a sound I hate? We have this Parmesan grinder at Jon and Vinny's, and it squeaks really loud. It's a good Parmesan grinder too, it's like one of the best ones you can buy but they burn through like, a wheel every four days there. A whole wheel. You know when brakes screech on a car? It's like that. And I also hate the sound of a Vita-Prep.
Jon: My favorite sound is the sound of people clearing their plates. The fork scraping the plate trying to get that last bite. It's a very distinct sound, and it's hard to hear, especially in noisy restaurants. It shows that the guest enjoyed it — which, anybody that loves cooking, there's a part of you that loves sharing, so that's part of it. I think that as a kid, I was always told if I didn't clear my plate, I couldn't have dessert. So there's a part of me that's like, "You know you're not going to be able to have dessert unless you clear that plate!"