When California’s ban on foie gras went into effect July 1, 2012, chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo feared their signature Los Angeles restaurant, Animal, would lose its culinary identity. The young and irreverent chefs had five dishes on their menu that included the French delicacy, which is cultivated from the livers of force-fed geese. Its production and sale was prohibited by the California Legislature due to the controversial force-feeding process.
But Shook and Dotolo drew applause from a crowd of 100 Food & Wine Classic attendees Friday afternoon at the St. Regis, as they served foie gras on a biscuit in maple-sausage gravy and defended its place on restaurant tables. When they travel to events outside Colorado, Shook said, they showcase the foie gras dishes that have been outlawed in California.
“We still believe in foie gras,” Shook said. “We still believe it should be served. … This is one of the main reasons we always try to do this on the road. This is the dish that set us apart from most restaurants in Los Angeles.”
As the ban date loomed two years ago, recalled their beverage director Helen Johnson, lines went down the block at Animal as customers flocked for the soon-to-be-forbidden food. When the ban went into effect, it was a turning point for the chefs, Shook said.
“They took a huge revenue source away from us and the heartbeat of the restaurant,” he said of the ban. “(We needed) to find a way to express ourselves as cooks with other ingredients.”
Their use of unexpected ingredients and risk-taking menu items at Animal — one of three restaurants Shook and Dotolo now run in Los Angeles — was the guiding force behind their intimidatingly titled Food & Wine seminar, “You Want Me to Eat What? Nose-to-Tail Meets Uncharted Waters.”
The selections they served were less out-there and uncharted than the billing suggested, though: a hamachi tostada and a barbecue pork belly sandwich, along with the saucy foie gras dish.
The pork belly sandwich, Shook and Dotolo said, was actually born by accident in Aspen at the Classic five years ago, when they were selected among Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs. They were called on to make a dish for a dinner with the honored chefs here and planned to serve kimchi. They prepared 100 pounds of the fermented Korean vegetarian dish, vacuum-packed it and shipped it via UPS to Aspen in advance of the Classic. But when it made it to a sorting center in Nashville, Tennessee, the UPS handlers smelled its sour funk and threw it away, believing it was rotten, Shook said.
With the Best New Chefs Dinner approaching and no kimchi to serve, they decided to improvise with pork belly they’d brought for another event, preparing it on rolls with a barbecue sauce. Dotolo demonstrated how to make that sauce Friday, surprising the crowd as he began by pouring a can of Coca-Cola and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon into a pot. The sauce also includes bacon, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, Tobasco, ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, honey, garlic powder and onion powder — all boiled and then reduced over several hours.
The dish was a hit at the 2009 Best New Chefs Dinner and has since become a staple on Animal’s menu.
“We didn’t even know it, but we were creating one of our most popular dishes,” Shook said.
The sushi tostada is the most popular dish at Animal, Shook noted, though most of its menu is meat-based. It’s a blend of the Los Angeles area’s most prevalent ethnic foods, with elements of Japanese blended with Korean barbecue flavors and spices traditionally used in Mexican dishes.
“We wanted to make a dish that said a lot about L.A.,” Shook said.
In the Grand Tasting Pavilion this weekend, the pair has had a prime spot in a Lexus-sponsored booth, serving samples of adventurous dishes like sweetbreads and spicy beef-tendon chips, along with a beet salad and balsamic barbecued ribs that have kept gourmands lining up.