Q & A With Suzanne Goin: Chefs Move to Schools Fundraiser, Knocking on Ma Maison's Door + Obama's Secret Service Detail
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.
© WilliamNorton.com Suzanne Goin
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.
A. Scattergood the patio at Lucques
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...