When you cross the beautiful threshold of Lucques, Suzanne Goin's Melrose Avenue restaurant, her first — of now many, including A.O.C., Tavern and the recently opened The Larder at Maple Drive — you are at once reminded of how profoundly relevant both that restaurant and, more importantly, the chef behind it are to this town. While trends and other restaurants and other chefs come and go, Goin remains a constant, her food neither static nor wildly changeable but persistently just right, not unlike the farmers market produce that informs the dishes themselves.
Goin and her longtime business partner, Caroline Styne, do more than just open restaurants (which they do at the same kind of organic pace). They do fun things like host the president when he's in town and organize fundraisers for laudable projects like Chefs Move to Schools, which encourages better eating habits (vegetables! fruit!) for kids, including a Lunch Break gor Schools fundraiser lunch today, Feb. 27, at Tavern in Brentwood. Because wouldn't you rather eat a ficelle sandwich built with market vegetables or a bowl of tomato soup with piquillo peppers and Cheddar crostini and raise money for a good cause than sit at the In-N-Out drive-thru for an hour? That should be a rhetorical question.
So it seemed like the perfect time to sit down with Goin at Lucques and ask the chef about her current projects: cooking with her own kids — Goin and chef David Lentz (The Hungry Cat, or rather Cats, as there are three now) have three young children — and her restaurants, her new book (yes) and her circuitous career path. It was not your average path, if you don't know the story, and included not a few knocks on not a few doors. Of course Goin picked the right doors, starting with Ma Maison. Add the doors of City and L'Arpège, and consider that she talked and cooked her way into the not-too-shabby kitchens of Chez Panisse and L'Orangerie and Al Forno in Providence as well, and you begin to have some sense of why Goin has accomplished what she has. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: President Obama was just in town, which made me think of the last time he was here — and he came to Tavern.
Suzanne Goin: Yeah, you know it was funny. I know he's in town because we had all these people calling Tavern afraid he was coming there. It was exciting for us, but the neighbors thought it was a little…. We had, like, mobs of people, and crazy traffic of course, all down San Vicente, everywhere. And we had the Secret Service for five days.
SI: Five days? Like to make sure your restaurant isn't rigged with bombs?
SG: Yeah, to set up a safe room with phone lines. It was crazy. And then we had the windows all papered.
SI: Where did you put the safe room?
SG: It was in our office. We still have the sign that said “POTUS HOLD.” It's still on the wall. I'm like, Can we keep the sign? The Secret Service said, “Yeah, whatever.” Actually the funniest thing was the Secret Service guys. I didn't even think about who was coming: It was a fundraiser, right? Well, the president was coming — that's pretty exciting. So of course it was all celebrities, right? And it literally did not even occur to me until there was George Clooney and Tom Hanks in the bar. And the Secret Service was so cute; they were all starstruck.
SI: That's hilarious. Because in Brentwood you just take that stuff for granted.
SG: Yeah, it's cute that they were so into it. It was funny. And then everybody got mad at us; we got all these nasty phone calls because he came in the back door.
SI: He's supposed to come in the back door!!
SG: I know. But he went a different route and people said, “We were waiting on the street for six hours!” You know what, that was a Secret Service decision; that was not us. I mean, we're powerful, but we're not that powerful: We don't dictate where the president goes. We just sit here and make his dinner.
SI: It's not a Stones concert.
SG: You're actually not supposed to know where he's going. That's the point. Anyway, it's exciting that he's here again, but we didn't do that one. Our neighbors were happy. And you know Michelle Obama ate here last year, on a Sunday, and that one was a surprise; we didn't know she was coming.
SI: Which is a nice segue into the fundraiser for Chefs Move to Schools you're doing. So what's happening?
SG: The program is a Michelle Obama-driven project that hooks chefs and schools up together. The chefs go and do it however often; we do it once a month with Breed Street Elementary. We did it all last year and we went in, every three weeks, and we taught third graders. It was really fun, kind of like a combination cooking and nutrition program. The kids were really into it. We had them taste things and by the end they were kind of indoctrinated, making smoothies — “We're not gonna drink that soda!” The last day we did an Iron Chef Top Chef competition. We divided them up into teams and they all got a mystery basket and they had to name their teams and they all made a dish. Getting them thinking differently. You know what it's like having kids: You just have to get to them early and make it part of what they do and what they know.
When we showed up at the school, there were all these little food carts that would circle the school, at 3 o'clock when the school gets out. The hot-ticket item is called Hot Cheetos. Literally you take a bag of Cheetos and pour melted Velveeta or whatever and the bag actually explodes; it's kind of scary. We were kind of fighting the battle against Hot Cheetos.
SI: Well, you pick your battles.
SG: Yeah. Actually the third graders were into it; they aren't too jaded yet. I think chefs kind of have this mystique now and kids know the shows, they know the Food Network, so it becomes cool to like the good stuff instead of liking the bad stuff.
SI: That's a point I don't think people make enough. There's a downside to having food TV everywhere — kids now think that they can be Gordon Ramsay when they're 10 — but the good side is that they have Top Chef birthday parties and they know who Wolfgang Puck is.
SG: Isn't it funny? And a lot of them want to be chefs when they grow up.
SI: Do you find that they can make that connection? To knowing all this stuff and being able to cook at home?
SG: Yeah, these kids definitely did. I mean, it's all in what you present. I remember when I was a kid, I loved to cook. There was something so magical about being able to take these five things and put them together in a certain way and you've created something. There's something very empowering and satisfying about that. And we worked really hard to not dumb it down; we were trying to teach them real cooking lessons. Like we talked to them about seasoning. We did these little tests with salt and lemon and olive oil and we had them taste it this way, then taste it that way. And by the end when they were doing the competition, they were like, “Needs more lemon!”
SI: It seems that you're not just trying to to educate them but to be self-sufficient.
SG: Definitely. We taught them how to make guacamole, and then in the end — there were six different groups — and they were all tasting each other's and getting that concept of how they all had the same ingredients but they all tasted different. It's the idea that we all have different tastes, like personalizing it. And I know from my kids, if they've participated in making something, or they feel ownership of it, then they want to eat it.
SI: They can connect to it — and control it.
SG: Right. My kids are funny. They love salad and one of the reasons they love it is because I'll have the olive oil and the vinegar on the table, so they like dressing their own salad — which makes them more involved in it. My daughter's kind of like the foodie of the three, and she loves radishes. Last night she was like, “Some of them are too peppery but I eat them anyway.”
SI: Because isn't that one of the keys to becoming a good cook anyway? The variables and how you manipulate and personalize them? Or teaching cooks to taste their food, which seems super obvious.
SG: Right. Yes. It's bizarre. Like how do you know if it's good if you don't taste it? All the kids went home and made it. We did lassis and smoothies and they went home and made those. It was really great, really satisfying.
SI: And your fundraiser?
SG: The fundraiser is to raise money for the program. Hidden Valley Ranch is a sponsor. I kind of make my own little fake version of ranch dressing, but I think that it's a key thing to getting kids to eat vegetables. To having a dressing like that. I've sort of been doing that since the beginning; there wasn't a point when they didn't eat it [vegetables] so I didn't have to start.
SI: Because then it's like giving them medicine or something.
SG: Right. And then you make it something delicious. But I do think that some kind of dressing, whether it's ranch or a yogurt-y thing, because then they have the interactive thing of dipping.
SI: Dressing's a gateway drug.
SG: Exactly. If you put dressing on it, most kids will eat it. They're not eating that much of it. And if your parents are not chefs…
SI: Yeah, most kids don't grow up with you two as parents. You're training them in a way to eat the vegetables and not to be afraid of them. OK, transition. So you're doing brunch at A.O.C. now?
SG: We've been doing it almost a year now. I think people have it in their head that it's [A.O.C.] a dinnertime or even late afternoon or night spot. We're doing a great series of blinis and mimosas. We just promoted our head bartender, Christian Rollich, to bar manager. He and our general manager Matt Duggan have been working on our cocktail program for four or five years: making our bitters and our orange liqueur — here at Lucques, and he's taken over at Tavern too now — and then when we opened at A.O.C., because we don't have liquor there, we wanted to do something fun for the drinks. And we use the wood oven a lot, so we do blueberry and Meyer lemon pancakes out of the oven; we do a duck confit hash; poached eggs, all kinds of fun stuff.
SI: How much interaction is there between your restaurants anyway? Do people migrate? Do dishes migrate? Like, oh my God, we're out of this at one place, let's run to that place…
SG: We do a little bit of that trading-off thing. When I'm coming up with things, there'll be certain dishes that are very Lucques or very Tavern or very A.O.C.; it'll kind of make sense to me where they'll go. We'll also do this ficelle sandwich — we're kind of on a ficelle sandwich kick — and we actually started them at Tavern and when we opened Maple Drive, we started doing the ficelle sandwiches and have them out as a kind of grab-and-go and that worked really well, so we started doing it at Tavern that different way. And then when we were doing our DineLA menu for here, we started doing a tuna ficelle, so definitely ideas migrate. And people: Javier Espinoza, who's a chef here now, started out as an extern at A.O.C., and then Lauren who's a chef there was a line cook here. Melody, who's our sous chef at Tavern, used to be at A.O.C. Dennis was a line cook here many years ago, went away and came back. So yeah. The guys at Maple Drive, Rudolfo, who is our catering chef now used to be the chef here…
SI: When did The Larder at Maple Drive open?
SG: Nov. 1. It's small, it's really cute. It's in the courtyard of Maple Plaza.
SI: Right, where Eric Klein's Maple Drive restaurant used to be.
SG: We didn't take the restaurant; we just took the cafe part. We have the little cafe in the courtyard. It works really well for us because it's our catering kitchen, so we cater there and we have this little outlet.
SI: And it's geographically well-situated.
SG: Yeah, it's actually right in between. So we do breakfast and lunch, and you just sit outside. Egg dishes. Hot and cold sandwiches. Salads. Prepared dishes, kind of like Tavern. You can kind of make your own plate. Juices. There's a huge juicer, so we've been on a crazy juicing kick.
SI: Do you do much with The Hungry Cat? Many people seem to think you do.
SG: No, that's David's thing. It's always been. When we opened the first one I was probably the most involved, actually in the pre-opening, just because he hadn't opened a place before. And I had, so I kind of knew the ropes. But no, it was totally his thing. People still do that to this day; don't give me credit for that. For us it works really well. We do very similar things, but we do them in a different way. It can be a very high-stress, high-anxiety job, and it's nice to be able to come home and complain about everybody else instead of complaining about each other to everybody else.
SI: Speaking of partnerships, you and Caroline Styne have managed to have a great and very long-term business and creative partnership. That doesn't seem to happen very often. How does that work?
SG: Well, I think that we're really lucky; it was a good pairing. I think it's also kind of like a marriage. We joke about it sometimes, but it really is. We've definitely had our highs and lows, and we've worked through a lot of stuff together. We have very similar tastes, too: I mean, it's kind of a joke. If you put 10 plates in front of us, we would pick the same one. Every time. That's really great and it helps a lot. Then we've worked on our relationship, over 14 years.
SI: One thinks of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. Things that work. The other thing that seems to work is the restaurants: You guys keep expanding. Even through this miserable economy.
SG: Right — I think it's every four or five years.
Si: Do you have a master plan?
SI: It's like having kids. You don't want to space them too close together.
SG: I spaced them too close together, I can tell you, you don't want to do that. Kids, not restaurants. I was much more practical with the restaurants. But you know what else happens, too? It takes a certain amount of time to get something going and feeling really good about it. Then it's like the creative itch sort of comes up. We also start getting heavy-loaded with really good people. A good problem to have.
SI: That seems very different from many restaurants and restaurant owners, who have this big corporate master plan — as opposed to an organic family thing.
SG: Yeah, that's kind of more how we do it. You're outgrowing your house and the kids want to do something more. And the other choice is that they're going to leave you.
SI: Yes, and you seem to have so many local people. And you yourself are local, of course. You went to Marlborough, for starters. And you interned at Ma Maison while you were still there, right?
SG: I did.
SI: And you didn't go to cooking school.
SG: No. Marlborough had this thing called Senior Projects, so they gave you two weeks off your second semester senior year to go do something that you'd always wanted to do. So I went and knocked at the door at Ma Maison and Patrick Terrail answered the door and he's, like [French accent], “You want to do what? OK, come back.” And I think I'd asked like a month before, so of course I come back…
SI: And this was before this was usual?
SG: It was 1984. Before the celebrity chef thing; I mean, it was not normal for a 17-year-old girl to go knocking on a restaurant door saying, “Can I come work here?” And of course I come back on the day I was supposed to start and nobody had any idea of what I was talking about. I'm sure it was in one ear and out the other. So they put me in the pastry kitchen.
SI: Because you were a girl.
SG: Because I was a girl. Which was actually fine, I loved it. They were very understaffed and the pastry chef would show me how to do something and then have me do it. I think she was desperate; she really needed help. I remember she showed me how to make strawberry sorbet or something, and then she told me to make it with raspberries and pineapple. That's kind of what I knew. I was hooked. I was there eight or 10 hours a day and then I'd go home and make everything that I'd just made — at home. I had the wine bottles laid out with the tuile. After a certain point, my parents were like, “Do you think you could learn to make any of the savory food?”
I'd already applied to college and I'd gotten in, and somebody asked me if I'd thought of going to culinary school. No. It wasn't like a thing then. My parents were doctors, and I went to Marlborough, and I'd gotten into Brown. They were like, “You're supposed to go to college, that's what you're supposed to do.” And actually I'm so glad I did. I remember when I graduated, I felt that all these kids had gone straight to the CIA and I remember being 21 and thinking, I'm so behind, you know?
SI: Fast forward, or think about your own kids or somebody else's: Cooking school or Brown? Well, no, that's a stupid question. How about cooking school or school-school?
SG: I'm going to get in trouble now. I'm a learn-on-the-job person. College was such an amazing experience; I made amazing friends; I learned another way of thinking. I wouldn't want to give that up. My dad would have been like, “I just spent — whatever it was, $150,000 — for you to go get an $8-an-hour restaurant job?” But in reality, I feel lucky to have had both. I think it depends. And of course at Brown, I immediately went out and got a restaurant job. At Al Forno, where I worked all through college. That was an amazing restaurant. So for me wherever I went — Ma Maison, Al Forno — I didn't need to go to cooking school.
SI: If you're spending your summer vacation working at Panda Express, maybe.
SG: During summer vacation I worked at L'Orangerie.
SI: OK. Right.
SG: If you're 30 and it's a career change and you've never worked at a restaurant and you don't know anything, maybe. But do you really want to spend that money? I mean, wouldn't you rather go make $8 an hour learning to do those things and actually, say, butchering five chickens. Well, you need to butcher 500 chickens. Go work for free somewhere and learn how to do it. We've had so many people do it here that we've ended up hiring. If you're that dedicated to it; if you get it — come work with our prep cook.
SI: You learn faster.
SG: It's more efficient. You're going to learn what you actually need to know. When I graduated [from Brown], the chef at Al Forno was opening his own restaurant. And I kind of knew that if I was going to do this, I kind of wanted my own restaurant, so I thought that would be a really smart thing to go and learn from him. And I was really torn — should I stay here or should I go to France? — so I came back and I knocked on the door. I'm big on knocking on doors. I went to City and I asked if I could speak to Mary Sue [Milliken] or Susan [Feniger]. Susan walked out, sat down with me, and I told her my story. And she said, “You know what, this guy knows you and he's offered you a job and you'll probably get to do more than if you started again here, so I would take that job.” Great, thank you.
SI: You knocked on the right doors.
SG: I got lucky. I also got lucky with timing. I also worked at L'Arpège in Paris. I knocked on that door. Alain Passard answered the door.
SI: Oh my God. You so knocked on the right doors.
SG: And he knew Chez Panisse, which a lot of French chefs did not. So I showed him my resume and he was impressed with Alice [Waters] and we started talking.
SI: And how old were you at this point?
SG: 24? And then his sous chef was a huge Lakers fan. His name was also Alain, and he was, I think, half Thai, half Italian, and he was, like [French accent], “You are from Los Angeles? I love the Lakers.” Literally, I think that was how I got the job.
Then I stayed in Providence for a year. So I finished college, did another year [working in Providence] — because Susan Feniger told me to — then I wrote a letter to Alice [Waters]. Because I kept having this dilemma of when to go to France and when to come back here and cook and get more experience. Anyway, I wrote a letter to Alice's assistant. I wasn't trying to get a job, so I went in and met with Catherine Brendel, who was amazing. She had worked in France so she had a lot of insight, and I talked to her and she was like, “Do you want to stay tonight?” Yes! So I stayed. And then she was like, “Do you want to come back tomorrow?” Yes! And at the end she said, “Are you interested in working here?” Yes!
Because I had heard these stories that there was like a 10-year waiting list. So I had to come back and cook a lunch for Alice and Paul Bertolli and Lindsey Shere. So I had this menu — I think it was October and I'm coming from the East Coast, so I had this very fall menu all worked out — I land in Oakland and it's like 95 degrees. And I think I had to stage for two more days before the lunch, and I just kept thinking that maybe it would cool off. I did not want to change my plan; I had it all worked out. And the second day it was 95 and I thought, I can't serve Alice Waters pumpkin soup. And of course I look in the walk-in there and it's summer. October in California is summer. So I redid my whole menu, which was probably good because it made it looser or something. Then it's five minutes before the lunch and they want to know what I've chosen for my wine pairings. I'm, like, 22 and I'm thinking, I am so screwed now. There was a server, who I think is still there, who asked, “Do you want me to help you with the wine?” Yeah, that would be great. I've always thought that he was the one who got me the job. Afterwards, when they said how good the wine pairings were, I had to confess. So I got the job.
And I remember before I started I went out and got Larousse Gastronomique and The La Varenne Cooking Course, because I was actually very paranoid about not having gone to cooking school. I just studied those. And of course when I got there nobody quizzed me on what a velouté was, or a sauce Robert — but I knew what they were!
For me that path worked. It's like anything, if you start out working for somebody really good. I'd much rather have someone who worked for a year at Babbo or Le Bernardin than someone who's just finished three years of culinary school.
SI: One last thing: Are you going to write another cookbook?
SG: Yes. I'm in the middle of writing another cookbook now. The A.O.C. book, at Knopf. I'm in lockdown mode.
SI: Is Teri Gelber working on this one with you, too?
SG: I'm doing this one by myself. She moved. And I'm a control freak.
SI: When's it coming out?
SG: November of 2013. It's going to be broken down like the menu, and seasonally.
SI: Because Sunday Suppers at Lucques is like a Bible for some of us. And one wondered if it was like, this is so perfect — one and out. Did you ever think that? Or was it more of a time thing?
SG: It was more of a time thing. I always knew I wanted to do another one, but between having kids and opening Tavern, I had to wait.
SI: They have to evolve.
SG: You can't rush it. I look at some people and I wonder, How did they write another book?
SI: Well, some people shouldn't. You can tell when a book — or a restaurant — is forced.
SG: Also I get a lot of feedback, and people tell me that the recipes really work. And they really work because I tested every single one of them in my kitchen at home. Not here. When I first started, I tried to write the recipes here, and I tried to test them here. I'd take a blank piece of paper and I'd go stand by the stove. And after like four of them, I thought, This is the stupidest thing I've ever done. So now I have a formula. I write the recipe first, and then I get the ingredients and go into the kitchen. Because now I've done it enough where I'm pretty good at guessing that it's 2 tablespoons of parsley. And also I know what they [the publisher] wants. I can't just put the time, I have to put the indicators. I mean, they wanted me to measure salt — and I was like, Real cooks don't measure salt. And then I realized, well, if somebody isn't a real cook yet, or they're learning, they'll measure the salt and then they'll taste it, and then they'll know.
When I do a demo, I'll think that people will be bored out of their minds. But then there'll be some random thing I just do, and people will be like, “Wait, why did you just do that?” Oh, that's so funny, I actually do that because…
SI: And that's sometimes the most revelatory thing you can tell somebody.
SG: Right. Like how do you know it's time to turn it. Oh, well, actually I'm just doing it out of instinct, but now that you mention it…
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