Chef Vinny Dotolo: from Tampa Bay to Han Solo’s Kitchen and beyond

Visionary Chef Vinny Dotolo

Visionary Chef Vinny Dotolo

Chef Vinny Dotolo (born in Clearwater, Florida) was not the typical kid messing about the kitchen’s stoves and dreaming to head one day the organized bedlam of his own kitchen.

However, he was brought up on his Italian-American grandma’s recipes, such as baked manicotti shells, chicken piccata, and meat ragù, a mix of pork shoulder and country ribs as well as sausages and meatballs.

As a teenager, about to graduate from high school, his ambitions of becoming a professional surfer smashed against the waves of the Tampa Bay Area. 

At the same time, he toned down his wish to beat the system by becoming a punk rocker, and his masochistic desire to injure himself, by persisting in skateboarding. Eventually, he combed down his crest and hung up his skateboard.

Whenever there was a party, Vinny was always the one barbecuing. Thereby, an epiphany: “Why not becoming a professional chef?”

No sooner said than done, he enrolled in culinary school at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, where he befriended his classmate and future business partner Jon Shook.

Dotolo and Shook went on working together at Michelle Bernstein’s restaurant, The Strand in South Beach, Mark Millitello’s Mark’s, Oliver Saucy’s Café Maxx, and Doug Reese’s The River House.

They left Florida and ventured West to work at Ray Roach’s Wildflower in Vail, Colorado.

In 2001, the two relocated here in Los Angeles and worked for restaurateurs Govind Armstrong and Benjamin Ford, at Chadwick, until the restaurant shut down in 2002.

After Vinny and Jon - unemployed and broke - hit rock bottom, the two literally touched Hollywood stars, as their initial gig to paint Ben’s house, turned into cooking for none other than legendary actor/producer Harrison Ford (Benjamin’s father).

The rest is history. In 2004, they were inspired to launch their highly-successful catering company, Caramelized Productions

The duo of caterers were a real spectacle, or so thought producers at “The Food Network” after their appearance on Iron Chef America

Their TV show, 2 Dudes Catering, aired in 2007; their award winning cookbook, Two Dudes, One Pan (Clarkson Potter), was published in 2008.

From then on, the two chefs’ climb to success escalated steadily and inexorably. 

Vinny’s and Jon’s meat-centric restaurant, Animal, opened in 2008. They were named Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” for 2009, and were nominated for “Best New Restaurant” by the prestigious “James Beard Foundation.” 

In 2011, they opened Son of a Gun, a seafood-focused joint, that pays homage to the fish cabins they grew up with in Florida. 

After the duo became a trio - through the business partnership with French chef Ludo Lefebvre - they launched the high-scale, Trois Mec, in 2013. In 2014, it was the turn of Petit Trois, next-door French style bistro. 

In 2015, Shook and Dotolo inaugurated Jon & Vinny’s, family-friendly Italian joint in L.A. 

Most recently, the trio rejoined once again for the laid-back French/Mexican café, Trois Familia, in Silver Lake.

 Sarah Renard

Vinny Dotolo with his co-chef Jon Shook. Photo: Sarah Renard

Please, introduce yourself. What is your cultural background?
I started as a dishwasher at a BBQ restaurant in Florida. This is where I sparked my interest  in cooking and restaurant culture. I went to culinary school in Ft. Lauderdale and moved to California in 2002. 

How was growing up in an Italian-American household? Where in Italy does your family hail from?
My dad’s side
of the family is from Rome
and my mom’s side is German/Irish/French. The food I ate and loved the most as a child was Italian-American. 

Vinny Dotolo with his co-chefs Jon and Ludo

Do you remember any chat you had with your father about your Italian heritage?
No, we never really talked about heritage that much. We didn’t look back that much on our heritage, we more so enjoyed the moments we were in and looked towards the future. 

Tell us more about your long-lasting partnership with Jon Shook?
We are like family. We’ve been working together since 1999. It all started when we were both line cooks and has evolved into our restaurant group. 

How were your beginnings in the L.A. food scene?
LA’s food scene has always been great. We are so happy to be a part of its growth and evolution. 

After your catering company took off, you and your business partner had your own food show on TV, along with an award winning cookbook. Did you enjoy your time in the spotlight?
We actually had a really hard time with it. It’s really hard to run a small business and do television at the same time. I’m happy we had that experience and we learned a lot from it, but we are happiest running restaurants. 

You currently co-own a series of premium restaurants in L.A. Please, highlight for us the distinctive features of each one of them? What’s your specialty as a chef?

Animal- foie biscuit/veal tongue.

Son of a gun - chicken sandwich/lobster rolls/shrimp toast. 

Jon and Vinny’s – “LA woman” pizza (local burrata, tomato, basil, olive oil, sea salt)/bucatini cacio e pepe and pecorino romano. 

Last in a long series of recognitions, you were awarded, together with Jon, with the prestigious 2016 James Beard Foundation “Best Chef: West” Award. What’s its significance for you?
The award is important for the city of Los Angeles and the restaurants more so than Jon and I as individuals. The award reflects the hard work and dedication of the teams. 

In conclusion, have you ever been in Italy? Was it a revelation to taste real Italian food?
Yes, I’ve been to Italy a couple of times. Honestly, it wasn’t. I loved the food we ate in the different regions. I had lots of the same food within certain regions. 

For example, when we were in Tuscany we ate porcini mushrooms at every meal at every place that we ate at, because they were in season, but none of the preparations were that different. I really loved the simplicity and quality of ingredients and overall lifestyle. 

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