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Chef Suzanne Goin on Expansion, the Creative Itch, and Her New Cookbook

Suzanne Goin [Photo: <a href="http://www.lucques.com/suzanne_goin.html">William Norton</a>], the new A.O.C.
Suzanne Goin [Photo: William Norton], the new A.O.C.
Photo: Facebook

Los Angeles chef and restaurateur Suzanne Goin is a busy woman. So far this year, she and her business partner Caroline Styne have already reopened their beloved 10-year-old wine bar A.O.C. in a new space and expanded their grab-and-go concept The Larder. Next, they're taking The Larder to LAX, opening a wholesale bakery, and Goin is set to release her second cookbook, The A.O.C. Cookbook, in the Fall. Here now, Goin talks about how the so-called "creative itch" motivates her to keep growing, why A.O.C. feels more at home in its new space, and why it's important for her to promote from within her restaurant group.

I saw you recently opened another location of The Larder. What's your plan for that concept? Are you planning to keep expanding?
We're funny, we sort of go about things organically, so there's not really a master plan. It all started as the front part of Tavern, more grab-and-go prepared food kind of quick salads and sandwiches and breakfast pastries. The more that we've been working, I think Caroline [Styne] and I have both really liked this idea of the all-day place that serves different purposes for different people and is almost like a neighborhood meeting place.

That kind of developed at Tavern in the front part that we call The Larder. We do a lot of catering, so a couple of years ago we were looking for a catering kitchen and the old Maple Drive restaurant — it was one of those classic iconic LA celebrity restaurant hangout places in Beverly Hills years back — the kitchen was available. We wanted the kitchen for our catering and the landlord said that's great, but one thing we definitely want is a little cafe to service the office building. So we did a little mini version of The Larder in there. It's a really small space, it just services the building breakfast and lunch.

Then Rick Caruso, a developer here in LA, was building this high-end apartment building kind of right smack in the middle of town at Burton Way. He stops at The Larder at Tavern every day on his way to work. He was the one who had really wanted that for the building and we started talking to him. It sort of developed this idea of that as a standalone restaurant. The new one, we're open breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So it was not a masterminded plan, but it's sort of this thing that's growing and taking on a little bit a life of its own.

I tend to be on the slow expansion plan. Lucques to A.O.C. was four years and then A.O.C. to Tavern was four years, so we kind of were using more like the four to five year plan. But I think right now we're kind of just playing around with it and seeing what does and doesn't work and just letting it develop on its own.

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The Larder at Burton Way [Photo: Aaron Cook | AACK Studio]

So before when you were on the slower growth plan was that more of a master plan?
No that was kind of the same. When we opened Lucques, that was just what we wanted to do. There wasn't an idea of opening another place. But after we'd been open for about four years, we had a lot of really great staff. We had two great managers. We had two sous chefs who were both really strong. We had all this energy and great talent around us and people who you're probably going to lose if you can't offer them more. We also had from Lucques this culture that had grown out of our bar there, which is where the idea for A.O.C. was born.

I think we sort of were getting a creative itch too just after four years to do something different in terms of design and the space and also the food. It was fun to think differently, maybe like a little more North African and Southern Italian and then also really focusing on the wine. Then four years later, we were playing around with this idea of an all-day place and also having something that was retail or prepared food to go, kind of a little more casual, maybe a little more American. It's sort of like each thing kind of leads to the next. But for better or for worse, not in a super calculated way.

I like what you said about getting the creative itch. It seems like a lot of chefs have so many projects going on at the same time like it's a creativity thing, needing to be constantly developing something.
It's a good thing. We have a lot going on right now. We moved our restaurant A.O.C. We've been in our other space for 10 years and we just moved in February a mile and a half down the road. It's a really great space that Caroline and I have both sort of coveted for years. It was a very exciting move for us. In a certain way, it was like another type of creative itch. Maybe the food, but also the design and just revamping. We'd been there for 10 years and it was time to re-examine what we were and what we wanted to be. I almost feel like we grew out of that space.

Obviously I love the food part [of opening a restaurant], but I love creating the atmosphere and doing the design part and figuring out what the place is going to feel like. It's the first time we've actually moved something instead of starting something new. It was a stressful and exhausting experience, but a really fun experience too. The thing about opening a new place is it's all new and we bring people who've worked with us for a long time to help us do it. But this was actually just moving that whole crew. Everybody got so excited about the new space and the change. It was a really exciting time. And definitely play around with the food, too, and re-look at what we were doing. We have full liquor now. We have this beautiful patio so we're open for lunch and brunch. It's been a really fun, creative, exciting experience.

When did you first decide to relocate?
We were offered the space in the Fall. It all happened really quickly. It was all very top-secret. We literally did not tell our staff until December 1, and we moved and reopened on February 1. It was a very quick turnaround.

We were going to renovate and change some things up, but this was a really lucky chance because we really loved this space. We wanted a big change, and I think we got more bang for our buck than if we had been trying to change something that was existing. It was almost like moving from your starter home to your dream home. It's funny, the space is so very A.O.C.. It's what a lot of our regulars say when they come in, they say, "That's so weird, it feels like A.O.C. in here. It really feels right."

That's good. And like with moving from your first house to a new home, is there some sentimentality to that? How was it saying goodbye?
Definitely. It was really strange and surreal to have spent 10 years in a certain space and have so many memories. We had a lot of the people who had worked with us over the 10 years come back and we had a little going-away party. It was very sentimental and emotional. The nice thing was what we were going to was so great and we were all so excited about it. We were all able to do it together.

Once that day happened, I didn't really look back, which is unlike me because I'm generally a very sappy, sentimental person. It's all good. I have great memories, but I don't long for the old space at all. I'm just happy to be here, which is nice. The space at Lucques, I feel like I wouldn't say that about. I'm very emotionally attached to [the space at Lucques], it feels very much a part of what that restaurant is. It's funny, A.O.C. feels actually better in this space, which is strange.

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The new A.O.C. [Photo: Facebook]

Why do you think that is?
I think it's that we have so many elements that I love here. We have this beautiful patio. I was laughing because all of our restaurants have trees in them. We have trees, we have a patio, we have this upstairs room with a big wood-plank floor that feels very rustic. It feels very comfortable to me. The old space was a little more slick and urban and minimalist, which kind of worked at the time. But I feel like I'm inherently more of a tactile, rustic, cozy person. And, like I said, I love greenery, I love gardens, I love to be outside. This is very much that place.

And I know you're working on a cookbook too for A.O.C., right?
I am. And actually, it's almost out of my hands, which will be a huge relief because it's kind of been an albatross for the last two years. I just finished doing the first half and I think in two weeks I get the last half back. Then it's off to publishing land. Then it comes out October 29. That's really exciting.

It's been a ton of work, but in a good way. Thinking about the creative outlet thing, it was nice — as much as it tortured me much of the time — to use your brain in a different way and to sit and write and think, develop recipes and test them, think about ways to make small batches of things, and get to the best way to do something at home versus doing something at a restaurant. It was a great experience. And very different from what I normally do. I've been doing this for a really long time, and it's nice sometimes to do something different. The thing about a book is that, unlike every meal you put out that everybody eats, it is nice to have a documentation or something you can hold onto and see and give to people and it can kind of live without you. It's really rewarding.

What can we expect from the book?
It's similar to the Sunday Suppers book. It's similar in that it's my recipes, but it's set up like the restaurant. It's seasonal, it's in categories the way we do it at the restaurant. But I think it's a little chattier than the Lucques book and I think it's maybe even a little more personal. My editor really wanted me to talk about the whys of when I'm putting a dish together, why I'm putting those elements in, what makes it work, and what are those details that matter. I actually like teaching, so it's fun to try to explain to people the thought process. There's a lot of stories in there, too, of the restaurant over the years.

Are there any other projects you're juggling at the moment?
We have the Larder we're working on for LAX which is kind of crazy. Exciting, just very different. I've never done anything like that before. And then we're also opening a wholesale bakery. We have this baker we've worked with for five years. He's amazing. His name is Nathan Dakdouk. He's just this very old-school artisan bread craftsman. We're partnering with him and we're going to move the baking out of Tavern and into a wholesale facility, which will be great and exciting new part of the business to grow.

We're at this point right now where we're doing pastries and all the bread out of this very small crowded space [at Tavern]. I think the bakers are excited to get out and the pastry people are excited to have them out and have more elbow room to move. It's kind of another growth moment for people who were with us for a long time.

Right. I was reading an interview where you were talking about the importance of making people partners and transferring authority as your restaurant group gets bigger. Why is that important?
For a lot of reasons. One, the great people that have been working for us inherently have their own ambitions and designs and things that they want to accomplish and achieve. I think if you can find a way for them to do that within your group, then you're more likely to hang on to those great people.

I think also it's rewarding to give people who work so hard for you a chance to develop and grow and pursue their dreams and be in charge of something. A guy who's a chef of our catering company now, he actually was a dishwasher when I worked at Campanile 17 years ago. He was the 15-year-old dishwasher who didn't speak English. Kind of like a cranky kid who had come here by himself and was all alone.

When I opened Lucques, he came over as a prep cook and worked his way through all the stations at the restaurant, and along the line got married and learned English and has three kids and bought a house and runs our catering department now. He's one of the people that I really depend on. It's been great to have that. It feels like a win-win thing. He's been able to really set up a life for himself and achieve something he didn't ever think he was going to achieve. And for me I have somebody who I really trust and knows my food like the back of his hand and can really help me expand and do more things too.

People really become part of your family. There are people we've worked with for a long time. We're all sort of very simpatico, you know? There's definitely some common theme within the culture. It does feel like a big family, which is really nice and it's a really rewarding part of the job. It's hard to get there though. There are a lot of things that don't work out, or a lot of struggle trying to find line cooks or dishwashers [who] don't show up. Those are the good stories and it kind of makes the hard part more worth it for the people when it does turn into something great.

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A.O.C.

8700 W 3rd St Los Angeles, CA 90048

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