Suzanne Goin has worked monster double shifts at Michelin three star restaurants in France. She starred at Chez Panisse and Olives, delivering big-flavor menu items at some of the biggest restaurants on the continent. Now she steers three of L.A.'s hottest restaurants in Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern, drawing James Beard nominations as she goes. And she does it all with exacting attention to the sources of her food stuffs, which earned her Chef of the Year from Cooking for Solutions, happening May 21-22 at Monterey Bay Aquarium.
In short, she knows her cheffing, so when she speaks, listening is wise. Here's some nuggets.
On her earliest food influences: "Growing up, my dad loved to cook, loved to eat, and though my mom was a very good cook, she cooked every day, and didn’t neccesarily love it. He would cook on weekends, it could still be fun, a hobby thing. That was always a big part of our lives, where are we going out to eat, what are we going to cook?
"And we'd sit as a family and eat. It shouldn’t be an odd thing [like it is today], that time at the table. The food is the thing that gets you gathering around. They were really into food, too. Dad was real Francophile. French was the best."
On her first connection with supreme ingredients: "I went to Providence to go to college and worked at Al Forno. That was the first time I saw really delicious restaurant food that was not French. It was Italian-based, but vegetable driven, and they were also into the local thing. We'd drive to one town on the shore, 45 minutes, to get tomatoes, because there were no farmers markets."
On the not-so-simple simple things: "I love simplicity, but it can sometimes be too plain. It’s nice to take really great ingredients and honor them, but you should be able to dress them up and make it even better—a little added ingredient, or a sauce, should take it to another level."
On life at Chez Panisse: "We'd change menu every day—which is much more common now, but 15 years ago, it wasn't. We'd literally say, 'What is he growing today?' and sometimes it was 20 cases of artichokes. What are we going to do with that? That's how it was—the restaurant has a connection with the farm, whatever he sells, we buy, and cook. On the fourth day—we've already done roasted artichoke bisque, artichoke pizza, what do we do now? That’s what pushes you.
"Learning to work within that restriction was a challenge at first, now I need that restriction, and it's how I decide what to cook on a Sunday: What’s growing? What does everybody have?"
On the restaurant life in France: "You'd work 7am through lunch then clean the kitchen and have a one hour break. Then I came back to Boston, and someone was complaining about working six days in a row, maybe 30 hours total. It was like, You have no idea. I wouldn’t want to go back and do it all over but I'm really glad I had that experience."
For those in the market for another helping of genius chef insights, I'll post more morsels—including thoughts on how to eat healthily for the planet and your constitution while saving money—in the coming days. I also came across some great tips for parent-cooks and a bunch of riveting recipes while marinating my questions for her.