It's been a whirlwind year for Los Angeles chef and restaurateur Suzanne Goin. In the past 12 months she has opened a new wholesale baking operation and has expanded her retail concept Larder to LAX, all while publishing and promoting an absolutely essential cookbook. 2014, she says, "is the year of getting back into all the restaurants more intensely and intimately."
Eater caught up with Goin at her restaurant Lucques to talk about changes in the Los Angeles dining scene, her ever-changing role in a growing restaurant empire, and the importance of cultivating a loyal and satisfied staff who work as "a family team." She also talks about why she's not rushing to open a restaurant outside of Southern California, the upsides of not being trendy, and the surprising joys of running a business with no guests.
You've recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of A.O.C. and the 15-year anniversary of Lucques. How has the LA dining scene changed in the years since you first opened?
It's changed so much. It's unbelievable. I would say when we first opened, what we were trying to do was sort of this weird morph of fine dining, meaning delicious food, nicely presented and all that, but also casual service and the food actually not being fancy. I feel when we opened, things were either sort of fancy or they were really casual. There wasn't this in-between way, this in-between thing — that for me feels very LA — of delicious, simple, casual food, but in an atmosphere that's beautiful and you feel good in it, but it's not fancy or pretentious or making you uncomfortable. It's the same idea with the service.
When we first opened, it was the era of the anorexic hostess and the snotty lucky-to-be-here type of thing and we really fought against that. I feel that's changed a lot also. Now, there's people downtown in little tiny spaces. When I first started looking for a restaurant before I even hooked up with my business partner, I was trying to do that, a really small space because I had been the chef of a 28-seat place in Boston. It was really hard to do here. It was not flexible. It's hard to get the permitting.
It was a little bit hard for people to get their finger on what we were doing.
If I'd even been able to do it, I don't know if people would've understood it. I think the idea that the food was really just the food that I wanted to cook and that the atmosphere was very welcoming, like you're coming into our home. I think that's very prevalent now, but at the time it was a little bit hard for people to get their finger on what we were doing.
How long did it take for it to catch on with your customers?
It was actually pretty instant, which was a great surprise ... Caroline [Styne] and I are both from here and I think that there's something, like we have an innate sense of how people live and eat and the lifestyle here. We're not trying to hook into it. It's how we are, so it makes sense. The new A.O.C. is very reflective of that same way people like to live.
I thought what was really striking there was that it was so seamless between being indoors and outdoors. You could be seated outside and it could take you a moment to realize...
That you're outside, yeah. It's a very LA thing. We have it [here at Lucques] too ... It's similar. We definitely have trends in how we like our restaurants to be and feel.
A.O.C. patio. [Photo: Aaron Cook / Eater LA]
And how has your role at the restaurants changed in these 16 years?
When we first opened Lucques, it was my first restaurant. We used to be closed on Mondays. I work the grill six nights a week and I was here every day, every night. On Mondays, I come and do inventory and I just lived and breathed being here, which was great. I was like that for probably the first two years and then it was like okay, maybe I can actually let somebody work the grill because that was my main thing I could not let go of.
I think when we opened A.O.C. that was the moment that was a big change, a big change had happened for me because there's suddenly two places and you can't be in two places six days a week, at least during service. That was for me a big moment. I think I started focusing more on mentoring and training.
It's actually really fun and rewarding to have a great group of people that have been with you for a really long time.
As we had more places, that's really changed. It becomes a lot about working with the different chefs that I have at different places and working on the recipes and the menu items and everything that we're doing there, but also working with them individually as chefs, as their own people with their own visions. That's actually really fun and rewarding to have a great group of people that have been with you for a really long time. [Lucques chef de cuisine] Javier [Espinoza] has been with me for 10 years. Lauren [Herman] at A.O.C. has been with me for six years. These are people that I've grown up with and they're very different, but that's great actually.
Do you think there's something in the culture that you're trying to cultivate that encourages people to stay?
Oh definitely. That's my goal. I don't like new, I don't like unknown. I like my people. I want to be in the kitchen with my people who I know, we're all on it, we're all in the same place. That's definitely part of the goal. It's funny that when we're opening new places or growing the business, it's a cart before the horse type of thing or it's like a chicken and egg type of thing. Which one comes first? Because when we opened A.O.C., we had two managers here. One was my sister actually and one of them is the woman who is now our director of operations.
They were both so able and ready to do the job. It started to become actually a little bit of a power struggle. I had the same thing in the kitchen. I had two really strong number two's and it was like okay, I think this restaurant is not big enough for the four of you. That was when we opened A.O.C. It was nice for everybody because everybody got to move up. Everybody took on more responsibility and everybody got to grow into new positions and develop and make more money.
There's a certain point where we have to keep offering opportunities to people who are working for you.
I think that growth is really good because probably we would've lost them. There's a certain point where we have to keep offering opportunities to people who are working for you. That's the nice thing about having more places because things shift and change...
When I sense somebody good and somebody who's going to grow into something, I try to hold on to them as much as I can, so just be aware of what's going on with them and definitely focus on everybody's individuality, what's everybody's different needs and skills. I worked for a chef one time who was like, "Everyone is dispensable," which is probably in reality true. Down the road you would figure it out, but I think that that's a really bad attitude. For me, what's worked well is cultivating the people who are here and building a family team that's made my life better and happier and more able to do more things.
The Larder at Maple Drive. [Photo: Facebook]
Speaking of which, you've been focusing on expanding Larder and I was wondering if there have been any surprises as you've opened more locations?
It's funny, last year was a crazy year for us. We did way too many things in one year and that was not planned. It wasn't supposed to be that way, but we had all these irons in the fire. We've had a total of 20 projects that we've been in discussion with and talked about and almost happened that don't happen. I was very used to being able to just keep the conversation going because some things are probably going to fall out or it's not going to work out or somebody's going to back out or what ... But then things worked out and you're like oh no, that means I have to do it.
In all those [locations of Larder] ... It's the same concept, but they're all very different. I guess in terms of surprises one nice thing has been that I feel like we learn something every time. When we did the one at LAX, we have a big grab 'n go section that we didn't [have at the others] ... It was so successful and I think the thing we really learned from that is that in that environment, people like to pick things up and look at them. At Tavern, a lot of our stuff is in this very beautiful deli case. It's more of a case with marble around it and everything looks pristine and beautiful, but we don't sell as much out of that case because you can't pick up a bottle of juice and see what's in it. You can't look at the salad ... We actually went back at Tavern and put in a grab 'n go, which then of course we sold twice as much product. It's just learning. I think that's the fun thing. Opening LAX was pretty hard, but at least we learned something. I think we're constantly learning different things from it.
You also opened the Larder Baking Company which is a wholesale operation. What are some of the differences between running that kind of kitchen and business versus running you restaurants?
Very different. Of all of our things, that's the one I'm least involved in the day to day. I'm definitely involved in the recipes and quality control and all that type of stuff, but I don't go there day to day and work. I think one thing that's really different is there's no front of the house. That takes a whole element of running a restaurant out of the picture. Training employees, making sure how everybody is communicating with the kitchen, communicating with the guests, presenting themselves, presenting the restaurant, that whole part of it which is actually a big part of it. Especially with the Larder, because a lot of it is about retail and making sure that you're constantly tweaking and cleaning and re-organizing, re-merchandising, playing around what makes certain things sell, what do people want.
That whole part of it is gone, which is actually a relief in that case ... Not that I don't love that part, but that's a big concern. There's also just the production and the scale and having real consistency of producing the same things over and over and over again ... It's really about large scale, pleasing other people and coming up with the items that they're interested in. And it's only so much people are going to pay for bread, so it's also figuring out the pricing structure and using the recipes that we want to use, but making it work within the structure of what the hotels are used to paying for a dinner. I actually like it in a weirdo, geeky kind of way. It's like trying to figure out what size it's going to be and what's the better way to cut them and the presentation and all that type of stuff.
You were saying that what was crazy about last year was that all of these irons in the fire actually ended up happening. I imagine that you turn down a lot of opportunities as well. What's the craziest, most outrageous thing you've ever said no to?
Actually, I was talking about it last night. It's me opening a restaurant in Bora-Bora. It was actually really early on. Now, I actually would have somewhat of an idea. I don't want to do it, but I would have somewhat of an idea of how you would do it, but this was like two or three years into Lucques, "Why don't you guys open a restaurant in Bora-Bora?" A lot of people have talked to us about doing something in Dubai, which again a lot of my peers and people that I know have done, but I don't know...
We almost opened early on, we were in discussion to do something in Palm Springs. It was years ago. We went down there and looked at it, fit it with the concept, I wrote a menu and all of a sudden it was like wait a minute, we have not signed anything. Nobody is paying us anything. I'm doing all this work. I'm just giving them ideas. That's the thing we definitely learned over time. It's like okay, let's just find out- can we just cut to the chase and talk about what we're talking about here? Are we consultants? Are we owners? Who's building it out? All that type of stuff that I think we needed to ask.
Would you consider opening something else outside of the Southern California area?
It would have to be— we sort of consider everything because you never know, but I think it would have to be something really special and fantastic and probably realistically I would have to have somebody who wanted to move there...
The idea of doing something far away that you can't really go see all the time and control is pretty scary.
The idea of doing something far away that you can't really go see all the time and control is pretty scary ... It would have to be something where we have somebody, a couple of key players who would just really want to go there and run it because the idea of going up to San Francisco or going to New York or going somewhere and checking in, I don't think it would work. I think it would just be an exercise in frustration. I think the customers would be probably disappointed.
Lucques. [Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]
Your restaurants really do have different and discrete identities. A.O.C. is not Lucques which is not Tavern. How do you ensure that each one feels like a Suzanne restaurant?
I think because I'm very hands-on, intimate with the creation of them and the execution, running. It's sort of like why your kids look like you, because they come from you. I think it's just because that's where it comes from. It's never anything where I think like, "I better make sure this restaurant feels like me." I just do the things that I believe in and feel right to me. It's funny there are times where there's those certain dishes where I'd be like, "This would be a good dish for Tavern. This would be good dish for A.O.C." It's funny how they have different personalities and the different things that would make sense there. For me, it's sometimes more of making sure that they do really feel different, which I think they do.
Is there any one of your restaurants where you feel like now a few years later is the closest to what your initial vision for it was?
No, I think they've all developed over time and changed. I know one nice thing is if I look at the opening menu at Lucques which was 15 and a half years ago, I'm not embarrassed. I think that's part of the fact that things are always changing and developing and new influences are coming on. I have my style and I have the food that I love and I have the way I love to cook. We're always creating and coming up with new things and there are certain dishes that are on the menu now that wouldn't have been on the menu then, but it's all in the same mindset. I'm generally not trendy.
A.O.C. probably is the one that's changed the most just by nature of the move, but I think the feeling and the spirit is still the feeling and the spirit that we envisioned ... I feel like the design now it's more timeless and it's actually more reflective of Caroline and me, of what we like and who we are. People have said, "It kind of feels like a cross between both of our houses" ... It's what we like.
So what's on your plate now?
My plate is empty and I'm so happy. Our big joke used to be, last year Caroline and I were like "2014 is the year we're not going to do anything." It's like the year of catch up I feel like. This is the year of getting back into all the restaurants more intensely and intimately and in depth and fixing the things that aren't working as well as we'd like them to work and bring in new energy and actually just spending more time because in reality we were opening all those things.
And the book.
And the book. The book took over my life for a little while ... I feel like now I get to be at the restaurants more and get back to the cooking part, like the actual cooking as opposed to menu writing and developing, it's like actually cooking which is great.