The size of Animal, an unadorned, sardine-tight restaurant in Los Angeles, is in inverse proportion to its renown. Here, chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have turned a flair for beastly ingredients - marrow bones, pigs' ears, calves' brains - into a culinary kingdom that's put LA dining on the map. As its name suggests, Animal is about food for carnivores, served on small plates with organic produce and zesty global flavours. Shook and Dotolo have become local apostles of whole-animal cookery, the American counterparts of England's Fergus Henderson and Canada's Martin Picard. But the fact they are also laconic blokes gives them a unique positioning in the sometimes earnest food world. They're more like rock stars.
When I meet the two of them, Shook, the chattier of the duo, wears cargo shorts, colourful sneakers and a three-day growth; Dotolo has an armful of ink, a bushy beard and a slightly saturnine disposition. The two met while attending culinary school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in Florida, and since opening Animal in 2008, when they were both in their twenties, they've racked up plaudits from the Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker ("Hollywood lines up for bacon, head cheese, and Spam"), appeared in their own television program, Two Dudes Catering, earned two James Beard nominations and penned a book, Two Dudes, One Pan. And earlier this year they opened Son of a Gun, a raffish seafood eatery.
Shook's appearances at last month's Sydney International Food Festival, speaking at the chef showcase and cooking at Otto restaurant in Woolloomooloo, meanwhile, marked Animal's debut on the international cooking circuit. (Check out our video interview with Shook above.)
The recipes at their restaurants are emblematic of their gutsy style of cooking, with surprisingly rich flavours, gastronomic experiments and multi-culti noodling. Shook and Dotolo combine Asian ingredients, French techniques and American ingenuity. "The marrow bone is our ode to Argentine steak," says Shook. The balsamic ribs are a twist on Italian cuisine. And the melted P'tit Basque "came about as a happy accident. It's like eating the top of a French onion soup," says Dotolo. The pigs' ears recipe underwent countless permutations until Dotolo struck upon the idea of adding a fried egg. "One of my staff members told me about eating pigs' ears for breakfast in the Philippines; this inspired me to put the egg on the dish. When you think of a pig, the head is generally not the part you think of first," Dotolo continues, distilling the duo's philosophy. "You think of the pork tenderloin or the ribs. But these other parts are just as delicious if not more."
And what of the dude-food tag - is it accurate? "It seems like it's manly food," says Dotolo, "but women like it just as much."