Like something out of a Nora Ephron movie, Suzanne Goin grew up in a house that valued food – at a restaurant and in their own kitchen – and in her adolescence Goin found herself (with the help of her sister who waited the tables and washed the dishes) catering her parent’s dinner parties with the help of Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking.
Goin is still cooking today (perhaps you are as well, out of one of her two cookbooks and not Julia’s) though pinning down which kitchen she is standing in has become rather difficult. The Lucques Group, a partnership between Goin and her business partner Caroline Styne, is comprised of Lucques, a.o.c., Tavern, four locations of The Larder, and the newest addition to the crowded umbrella, a culinary partnership with The Hollywood Bowl.
Goin’s professional career has seen her zigzag the globe in a “there-and-back-again” manner that would prove trying for anyone, this writer included. Raised in Los Angeles, she grew up enjoying restaurants the way her friends enjoyed Disneyland. “To me, restaurants were this magical place where you were transported to a different world for a couple hours,” she recalls.
Goin, raised by two doctors, notes that being a chef wasn’t viewed as a profession growing up and despite her passion for cooking, she attended Brown University (though she did sneak in a summer internship at Ma Maison before moving East). Throughout her collegiate years, Goin would work at one of Providence’s most renowned restaurants, Al Forno where – as she recalls – “it slowly seeped into me that this is what I wanted to do.”
“To me, restaurants were this magical place where you were transported to a different world for a couple hours.”
Stumbling upon a crossroads after graduation, Goin decided to pursue food. Itching for a mentor, Goin would write Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in San Francisco a letter one night, hoping for the best. Sure enough, Waters’ assistant gave Goin a call and invited her out to San Francisco (the zig).
Goin would work at Chez Panisse for two years before heading to Paris (the zag) where she would cook in several places, most notably at L’Arpege with culinary icon Alain Passard. Upon her return stateside Goin would cook in Boston (the zig) under chefs Jody Adams and Todd English before ultimately returning home to Los Angeles where she would cook with Joachim Splichal at Pinot Bistro and Nancy Silverton at Campanile (the zag).
When asked about the benefit of working under some of the culinary world’s most iconic chefs, Goin notes that it has its perks, “learning how people’s minds work and seeing other ways of thinking … being in more places and seeing more styles and cultures of restaurants helps inform who you are in the end.”
Of all the culinary pit stops, perhaps the most transformative was the two years she spent at Campanile where, as she puts it, she “did everything but own the place.” Goin recalls being the executive chef for her last year and being in charge of hiring and firing, menus, schedules, food costs, labor costs, and so on.
It was this experience at Campanile that pushed Goin and made her realize she was ready to open her own place. Introduced to her business partner Caroline Styne, the duo would spend more than a year looking for the right space before finally opening their first restaurant, Lucques, in 1998.
The case then, as it is now, is that Goin and Styne compliment each other in the best of ways. Originally a front of house (Styne) and back of house (Goin) dynamic, the two have evolved and grown and today make almost all decisions together according to Goin, who adds, “we work through things together and are very much in sync … I think we’re as strong a team as we’ve ever been and now that we’ve hit a stride I can’t imagine doing any of this without her.”
Lucques was an instant success and in 1999 Goin was named one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs. As Lucques grew in reputation and momentum built, it became increasingly difficult to secure a reservation, allowing the bar to develop a personality of its own – ultimately inspiring Goin and Styne to expand and open their second restaurant, a.o.c.
“We struck upon this idea of an old school wine bar that was a meeting place where guests could have tastes of wine and I could play around with cheese and charcuterie,” Goin notes describing her vision for a.o.c. adding that the second property was “a way to explore a different style of eating and different kinds of foods while also going through the design process again … it was terrifying but exciting.”
The success of Lucques was replicated at a.o.c. and ultimately the expansion would continue onto the westside with Tavern. Through the success of multiple properties across the city, Goin was a bona fide culinary star by the time she was approached by Sodexo about a potential culinary partnership with the Hollywood Bowl.
The first thing Goin did? Like any good partner would do, she told Styne.
With both partners being Los Angeles natives who grew up loving the Bowl, they couldn’t help but explore the possibility. Goin and Styne sent in their proposal a first time, had a sit down with the team, sent in another proposal, had a second round of meetings (with tastings this time) and in August 2015 won the contract. The Lucques Group is now in charge of all food and beverage at The Hollywood Bowl – comprised of three restaurants, box services, two marketplaces, and more.
The 2016 Bowl season was their first and having spoken to Goin a few weeks after they wrapped, she is sure to note just how much work it was but that the hands-on work put in this summer will pay dividends moving forward. “So much of this first year was figuring out how it worked having Black Sabbath one night, then The LA Philharmonic, the Hall & Oates,” she explains, adding that “however insane it has been, when Dudamel gets up there and you’re standing under the stars on a summer night in LA, it’s pretty fantastic.”
With a life spent in the kitchen and nearly 20 years plating some of Los Angeles’ most unforgettable dishes, Goin still gets excited about her first love, “the food and the cooking” and is still driven forward by her passion to “do something new and finding influences around me.”
“However insane it has been, when Dudamel gets up there and you’re standing under the stars on a summer night in LA, it’s pretty fantastic.”
One such passion and influence, is Alexandra Scott, the courageous little girl who was able to raise $1M for cancer before passing away at age 8 in 2004. Goin and Styne, along with Goin’s husband David Lentz, brought the Philadelphia-based charity (Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation) out west after attending an Alex’s Lemonade Stand event in Philadelphia.
“There is something inherently in a chef’s nature, we like to give and feed and nurture,” Goins notes looking back on the seven years of work they’ve done here in Los Angeles in support of Alex, her family, and the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.
The local event has grown drastically in size, scope, and scale, ballooning from 18 chefs year 1 to 55 chefs and more than 50 wineries in 2016. Year to date, LA Loves Alex’s Lemonade has raised $4.2M and as Suzanne puts it, “it’s probably one of the most rewarding – if not the most rewarding – thing I’ve done.”