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Q&A: Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo Talk Expansion, Collaboration, and Their Next LA Restaurant

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From left: Vinny Dotolo, Jon Shook.
From left: Vinny Dotolo, Jon Shook.
Photo: Eater.com

Los Angeles chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have been on quite the ride this year. Six months ago they opened the hotly anticipated restaurant Trois Mec with Ludo Lefebvre, complete with a ticketing system instead of traditional reservations. And they're already at it again. In May, the guys announced plans to open another new restaurant, across the street from their very successful debut restaurant Animal. Eater caught up with the chefs as they were getting ready to cook dinner at the James Beard House in New York City on Monday evening. Here's what they had to say:

You two have gone from running a restaurant to running a growing restaurant group. How have your roles changed, and what are some lessons you've learned in the expansion process?
Jon Shook: It's interesting because our roles have always kind of evolved. When our company started out it was just me and Vinny, to where it is now: we have chefs now at the restaurants ? As the company continues to grow, our roles continue to evolve. It's not like "This is our new role now." Even our roles as individuals, the way we operate has changed so much. Me and Vinny have been working together for 13 years ? Obviously we lean on one another for the strengths ... But our team now is unbelievably strong. In a weird way, we almost get in their way.
Vinny Dotolo: We're not gonna lie to anyone and say we're in there cooking every day because we're not ? you can't be with three restaurants, you can't be in each place ? There's always those periods where you're like, "How do I grow into this new role, this new part?" When we open the new restaurant it's like, "How do we grow into four restaurants and a catering company? And parents? And husbands?" Trying to do all of them well are some of the biggest challenges we have in front of us, but it's also exciting at the same time.

You opened Trois Mec almost six months ago, and recently announced plans to open a new restaurant on Fairfax, taking over the space of Damiano Mr. Pizza. Why is now the right time to expand?
JS: It's never really the right time to expand. We've had the building for a couple years; we actually had it before we even signed the lease to Trois Mec.
VD: It's opportunity. We have so many people now that we want to give opportunities to. And there's opportunities for us to grow, and give others that opportunity...
JS: For us it was really about being the landlord, running a business correctly, helping the city, helping the block; all that played into our decision with the space. And now we're working with an amazing architect/designer, Jeff Guga. He's unbelievable, this is his first restaurant ?
VD: LA has given us the opportunity that we needed to get out there. We want to give back by putting restaurants in the city that we hope contribute to the food scene, that make it diverse, make it delicious, make it interesting, make people want to travel there for food ... LA has room to grow, we have room to grow. We have a bunch of small restaurants. We like it small, keeping it intimate. We're looking forward to adding another place to LA that will hopefully contribute to the food scene. It's interesting being in New York, there's always been this "if you've done it in New York, you can do it anywhere" kind of thing and I still do believe that, but there's something that I love about LA ... I love the product there ... LA is home. We don't currently have plans to open anywhere else. We're not saying never, but right now we don't have any plans to open anywhere besides LA.

With Trois Mec, you worked with a chef, who up until that project, wasn't really a part of your restaurant group. You guys have also hosted the collaboration series, Cooking With Friends. And of course you two work as a team. How do you as chefs benefit from collaboration?
JS: Everybody comes from a different walk of life, and there's so much to learn. We're young. All these chefs come from different styles, different backgrounds ? With Animal and Cooking With Friends we get to see how people operate ? With Ludo it was an interesting situation, we had toyed with the idea of being producers instead directors (I hate to use a movie example). His style is totally different from ours.
VD: He is from a totally bad-ass background...
JS: We're learning from him. He's learning from us. It's like a group of guys playing poker? there are laughs and someone wins. With partnership, you have to bow down, somebody's gotta win. For me and Vinny, we have that understanding. It's fun...
VD: Doing the collaborations at the restaurant is a great opportunity for the cooks more than anything else, and for us to cook with people that we love and admire .... I think it's about the collaboration more than it is about us trying to see something new or different. It's about the effort of, "How do you work together well with other people?" ? There's a challenge in writing a menu with a person you don't cook with on a daily basis.

Can you tell us anything about your plans for the new Fairfax space? Anything about the concept?
JS: Well, actually it's a little bit different than our approaches in the past because we're working with a designer who talks about flow and white space, and like all these architectural terms that are above, I would say, a lot of my head. But also, being the owner of the building, we're trying to maximize the square footage. So we're working on actual layout of the space. We're definitely going to have our production team which does all of our off-site stuff based in that building ? we're going to have our corporate office be in there, a conference room; the kind of stuff that we as a company need and are ready for now. There will be some kind of restaurant element, and a ton of food will get produced out of there.
VD: We haven't decided. I'm going to be honest with you, the thing that we're battling: it's got this unique beer and wine license to-go, which you can't find in LA. It came grandfathered in with the space ? we're not sure if we're going to use it, not use it; play it into the concept, not play it into the concept. That's the ball we've been kicking around. We don't know what the restaurant side is going to be.
JS: I think what's a little different about us versus a lot of other people in the way they work, they have a restaurant concept and find a space and shove it into it. We kind of find a space and then develop on the concept as we talk about what kind of building materials we want to use, what's the look, what's the vibe ? We wouldn't compete with Animal across the street ? The coolest thing that we're really excited about is working with Jeff Guga ? he does sleek, minimalist, modern style, but with a rustic element. He builds a lot of his own furniture, it's really raw.
VD: Which we haven't done in any of the restaurants. It's very important to us that the restaurants are different in the look, the feel, the food, the whole deal, the concept. But hopefully they operate in the same sense, the same things are important to us ... The block is amazing.
JS: Fairfax in general, that little strip, has become a huge hamburger thing, so that's one thing I can tell you it's not going to be ? That's kind of where we're at. We'll see where it ends up ... It will get fleshed out. I would say on the early side it would be late March.
VD: Yeah, that's pushing it hard.

· All Jon Shook Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Vinny Dotolo Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Q&As [-E-]

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