She Wants to Make You Cook

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey ’78 / January / February 2006
April 21st, 2007

Sunday Suppers at Lucques: Seasonal Recipes from Market to Table by Suzanne Goin '88 with Teri Gelber (Knopf).

"I'm not a recipe person," admits chef Suzanne Goin, "and we don't use recipes in the restaurant - so the first forty recipes were hell."

Writing the last ninety must have gone a lot easier, because Goin's cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, published in November, reads like a dream. Such a good dream, in fact, that readers may find themselves yearning to make it real with a visit to Lucques, Goin's acclaimed West Hollywood restaurant, whose casual Sunday meals inspired the cookbook. Closer to home, it should inspire cooks to invite a few close friends for dinner and settle in for a long, rewarding day in the kitchen.

Arranged seasonally, Sunday Suppers at Lucques contains a series of three-course menus that are perfect for small dinner parties. The restaurant is named after Goin's favorite Lucques olives, grown in the south of France, and many recipes - such as one for boeuf ˆ la Nioise - share that heritage. She gives the traditional beef stew a subtle kick with balsamic vinegar, though, and then brightens it at the end with fresh spinach and crisp olives; she serves it on pappardelle noodles and tucks in roasted tomatoes. In another twist on a French classic, Goin takes a clafoutis, a homey dessert that's somewhere between a flan and a cake, and adds dried cranberries and walnuts instead of the traditional pears or cherries. The result feels like New England in fall.

In a phone interview, Goin said several readers have observed that her food has a strong New England accent. Although she's originally from Los Angeles and baked in Wolfgang Puck's Ma Maison in high school, Goin cut her culinary teeth in Providence's celebrated Al Forno in its early years. As a Brown student, she presented herself to the restaurant's chef-owners and offered to sell them desserts, blissfully unaware that their made-to-order sweets had a cult following. "Fortunately, they weren't offended," Goin said. Instead, she took a job waiting tables three nights a week. When a kitchen job opened up, she gladly took a cut in pay.

Goin had learned to cook as a child, paring and chopping for the creations her father would make on weekends, and with her food-obsessed parents she'd toured France on trips arranged around Michelin-starred restaurants. Still, Al Forno's tiny kitchen - with its American interpretation of simple Italian dishes and its emphasis on seasonal produce - was a revelation. She'd cook there three nights a week and then come home to write her honors thesis on U.S.-Soviet diplomacy. "I was a maniac," Goin said, laughing a little. "Then, I'm a maniac all the time."

After graduation, Goin set about catching up on the training she feared she'd missed, working under chefs she admired. Alice Waters, who contributed an introduction to Sunday Suppers, hired her at Chez Panisse in 1990. "It was my culinary arts school," Goin says. There, she received an education not only in cooking but in buying from local organic farmers, a lesson she preaches in her book and practices today. She followed that with a series of stages, or apprenticeships, in acclaimed French kitchens, and then her first chef positions in Boston and Los Angeles, where she wound up executive chef at Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton's Campanile.

After Lucques opened in 1998, Food & Wine named Goin one of the "best new chefs" in the United States and Conde Nast Traveler ranked the restaurant one of the world's "fifty hot tables." Since then Goin has been nominated for a James Beard Award three times. With her business partner, Carolyn Stine, Goin opened the popular Los Angeles wine and charcuterie bar A.O.C. in 2002. And two years ago, she and her husband, fellow chef David Lenz, opened a third restaurant together, a casual-hip seafood place called the Hungry Cat.

Being a bit of a celebrity chef has been good for business, Goin says: "I can buy the food and pay the staff. I have a better choice of cooks." But there's a downside too. "A lot of people in culinary school think they're going to graduate and be a Food Network celebrity," she says. "Then they come to work and they're unhappy when they're still working the salad station after three weeks. I worked fifteen years making eight dollars an hour. The dues are hard in this business: long hours, hard labor, low pay. You have to love this career to a fault."

Wanting to produce something more lasting than another restaurant or meal, Goin plunged into the cookbook project unaware of the difficulties ahead. After figuring out how to write recipes, she had to test them in her tiny home kitchen, where some proved too hard. Her popular soupe au pistou, for instance, was nixed. "It's a real pain," she says. "Every vegetable has to be cooked separately. For it to make sense, you need to make it for a crowd." Lamb cassoulet didn't work for six either.

Even with these omissions, Sunday Suppers at Lucques is decidedly not for cooks in a hurry. Some of the most intriguing recipes are braises - long, slow, wintery food. Plus, Goin says she was careful not to skip steps along the way, so the restaurant's fans wouldn't find that their attempts fell short of their memories.

"I don't want this to be the world's best quick-dinner cookbook," she emphasizes. "This is a cookbook for somebody whose idea of fun is to make ossobucco."

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM's managing editor.

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January / February 2006