Last May, the stage of the Hollywood Bowl was set with tables of food and flowers. Chandeliers were suspended from the top of the Bowl over bartenders mixing drinks and pouring wine as the sun set over the hills. Guests milled about, but the audience seats were all empty.
Caroline Styne, the star of the show and co-owner of the Lucques group of restaurants, was busy bussing dirty dishes at the party, celebrating the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season. Styne will be onstage at the Bowl again Tuesday to preview the diverse menu for the Bowl's new concert season, which begins May 22 with Paul Simon's farewell tour.
Styne, the just-announced James Beard Award winner as Outstanding Restaurateur, and her partner, chef Suzanne Goin, have taken over and expanded the Hollywood Bowl food and wine program to include a variety of dining options: two full-service restaurants, food kiosks, custom picnic boxes for pre-order and supper in your seats, and the newly built Plaza Marketplace for grab-and-go prepared foods and wine.
They have brought in teams of the best chefs from the Lucques group to prepare and develop every dish, relying on local produce and freshly baked bread.
Authentic street food can be found throughout the grounds, including a diverse selection of the multicultural foods of Los Angeles, from street tacos and specialty hot dogs and sausages to confections and signature desserts at the Sweet Shop.
Styne oversees every detail of her empire, which aside from Lucques includes A.O.C. and Tavern restaurants as well as the Larder Baking Company. The iconic Lucques will celebrate its 20th anniversary in September.
“I’m always bussing tables,” the diminutive Styne tells L.A. Weekly. “I can’t walk by a table with dirty dishes on it and pretend that I’m too good to clean them up. That’s my joke when I’m plunging a toilet, how glamorous the restaurant business is. I’ll be there cleaning up a spill. It’s all about the guest experience and what they see, and I take an active part in that. … Everybody works with me, not for me.”
That work ethic started early. Her single mother, Mimi Styne, a pioneering female Realtor in Los Angeles, raised Styne and her three siblings. She died of cancer when Caroline was 17.
“I watched my mother have her own business and just assumed that’s what I was going to do. I never wanted to be in a cubicle somewhere,” Styne says.
A trip to Mexico inspired her to develop her own line of flavored tortillas and quinoa tortillas (unheard of at the time).
“My partner then and I did this all in my tiny rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. If any normal-sized person would have gone into this apartment, they would have thought it was a dollhouse, but to us it was perfect. We connected with a health food company called Barbara’s Bakery and sold the idea,” Styne says.
She later met and connected with Goin, winner of a James Beard Award for Best Chef in 2016, and the rest is L.A. restaurant history. Last week Styne took home the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur at a ceremony in Chicago.
“I am just completely over the moon about this win,” she says. “I really hadn’t expected this and am just so thrilled to bring the award home to my home and restaurant families. This is really a testament to the hard work and sacrifice that everyone in our group puts in, from the front of the house to the back of the house, busters, dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, servers, runners, managers and beyond. I feel so lucky to have all of these incredible people on my team. This award is really all about them. “
That team effort is grounded in the unique relationship she has with partner Goin and their united vision and philosophy about what the Lucques group should be. Styne says she can count the disagreements they’ve had on one hand.
“What makes us different from other people is we don’t have that '20 restaurants in 20 years' plan. We go one at a time. We just thought we’d have Lucques — we never thought beyond that, our dream restaurant,” says Styne. “We’re restaurant soulmates. She is very level-headed but she is a chef. It’s like a marriage. We’ve had our ups and our downs, but we are in a really good place right now. We’ve been together over 20 years and have had our growing pains. I spend more time with her than my husband.”
Styne feels a strong connection to her community, children and efforts to battle cancer, which took her mother at an early age. Each year she and Goin produce the L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade food festival to raise funds to fight childhood cancers; they've raised millions for cancer research. The massive event brings together the best chefs and vintners across the country on the UCLA campus in the name of Alexandra Scott, who died of cancer at age 8 and started her own fight raising funds by selling lemonade.
The young woman in her Santa Monica dollhouse kitchen formulating quinoa tortillas never imagined she’d be the head of one of L.A.’s biggest culinary institutions.
“One of our big moments when we looked at each other in disbelief was when we were standing at Tavern waiting to have our picture taken with President Obama when he did a fundraiser there,” Styne remembers. “We were standing there looking at each other saying, ‘Did you ever think you would be standing here waiting to meet the president of the United States?’”