It’s challenging to sum up Suzanne Goin’s accomplishments in a few pages, much less a few paragraphs. One thing is for certain: she’s a pioneering tastemaker. When she opened A.O.C. in 2002, the Los Angeles-born chef was the first to do the small-plates concept that is now de rigueur in any new restaurant worth its salt.
Goin is also part of two restaurateur power couples. First, with her business partner Caroline Styne, Goin has been molding Angelenos’ palates for nearly 20 years. Their ventures include A.O.C., Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Lucques, Tavern and The Larder, which has four locations, including one at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX.
Second, she’s half of a formidable duo with her husband, chef David Lentz. In 2005, they opened the seafood restaurant The Hungry Cat in Hollywood.
In a city that witnesses restaurant shutterings as often as traffic jams, Goin is a toque with serious staying power — some might say she has the “Goin golden touch.” Incredibly, all of her restaurants are still open and busy as ever.
Most recently, she and her team rocked L.A.’s food world by winning the bid to do the culinary program for the Hollywood Bowl, the premier outdoor entertainment venue in the city. Before that, chef Joachim Splichal’s Patina Restaurant Group held the post for more than a decade.
To top off her impressive accolades, Goin is a three-time James Beard Award winner for both her cooking (including Outstanding Chef, 2016) and Sunday Suppers at Lucques.
However, when asked what she feels her greatest accomplishment is, none of the above makes the list. Read on to find out what she is most proud of, her favorite restaurant of all time, her take on L.A.’s dining-scape and more.
What ingredient are you currently obsessed with?
Two things. [The first is] raw vegetables of all kinds, usually shaved or julienned, tossed with herbaceous vinaigrettes and served with vegetable purees. We have a dish on our new menu at Lucques; it uses a beautiful mix of small bitter and spicy greens — we call them Barbara’s greens, after the farmer Barbara Spenser who grows them. Barbara’s greens with beet puree, shaved roots, pomegranate and labneh-zoug toast.
The other one is finger lime. I love the flavor and especially the texture. We use it with diver scallops with coconut rice, lemongrass sambal and crushed cashews.
Congratulations on being hired to do the Hollywood Bowl’s food offerings this year. What’s your favorite restaurant there?
I would have to say The Backyard was my favorite of the three restaurants this season. It’s a pretty crazy setup: two giant wood-burning grills and a tiny galley kitchen with no hood (so no cooking). This made it a big challenge, but I actually like working with constraints and, in this case, letting the fire drive the menu.
In your travels, which restaurant left the biggest impression on you?
Tempura Matsu in Kyoto, Japan. I loved how humble and welcoming the family/staff was and how unexpectedly spectacular the meal was. [It was] all prepared in a very casual, easy-going mood but all so perfect and delicious.
Maybe the best part was that we took our kids there, and they were treated so well and ended up loving the meal as much as we did.
Who inspires your style of cooking?
I worked for a long line of amazing chefs, and along the way, each one left a mark on me. And plus the glorious produce of Southern California, the many ethnicities and styles of food that abound in Los Angeles and that I have experienced in my travels, all smashed together inside me, with memories of foods I loved as a child and cooking with my parents, to form my style as it is today.
The who’s who are Alice Waters, Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel, George Germon and Johanne Killeen, Todd English, Jody Adams, Alain Passard.
I also learned so much from cookbooks by chefs I never met. Reading cookbooks has been a passion since I was a child.
Which accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud of L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade, the charity event I started with my husband, chef David Lentz, and my business partner, Caroline Styne, seven years ago. To date, we have raised over $4 million to help find a cure for child cancer with our annual food and wine event that brings 50 chefs from around the country to L.A. for a decadent chefs’ cookout.
Which tool in the kitchen can you not live without?
I’m very simple. I love a great old cast-iron pan, a mortar and pestle, and a sharp knife. My life would be more difficult without my Vitamix blender!
How would you describe L.A.’s food scene compared to other cities’?
I think you can feel that we are a “new” city in our food scene — which is a great thing. Chefs feel free to explore their roots, or not, and cook what they want to cook.
Our dining public is eager, open [and] ready to try whatever we are cooking up. And the fact that we can really truly cook to the season locally all year round means better toys for us to play with!
There are no real boundaries on styles of food, formality of restaurants and kitchens, and there is an openness and lack of expectations here that I don’t think you find in too many other cities.
If you weren’t a world-famous chef, what would you be and why?
In college, I studied to be in the Foreign Service. I think I just loved the idea of travel and, maybe, a little spying, too! I always knew I could never have a desk job.
Where do you go to escape it all?
The north shore of Kauai is my absolute favorite place to escape to. As soon as I get off the plane, I feel all the stress fade away.