Interview: chef Suzanne Goin + business partner Caroline StyneCaroline Styne and Suzanne Goin took a brief respite from expansion mode at A.O.C.
Yes, chef Suzanne Goin and front of house partner Caroline Styne have worked for accomplished restaurateurs and entrepreneurs like Alice Waters, Nancy Silverton, Mark Peel and Sean MacPherson, but it’s gotten to the point where the duo has cultivated their own culinary family tree, as they’ve inspired several chefs and staffers to open their own establishments. The partnership began in 1998 with Lucques, expanded to A.O.C. and Tavern, and will soon include branches of The Larder in Beverly Hills, on Burton Way and at LAX. Goin and Styne also have a Montecito restaurant in the works, and Goin is publishing an A.O.C. Cookbook this fall. On February 13, we met on the second floor of A.O.C. version 2.0, where Goin and Styne (2013 James Beard Award Finalists for Outstanding Chef and Outstanding Restaurateur) shared insights about topics like partnership, expansion and charity.
What does the new A.O.C. space allow you to do with the concept that you weren’t able to do before?
Styne: A.O.C. had reached 10 years old, and we were looking at the space we were in before and thinking about how we could do something special, do a little remodel, do a major remodel to give it a little birthday present. This space became available. Both Suzanne and I have coveted this space for a long, long time. It’s a classic L.A. location. It’s got this stunning patio that we didn’t have at the old location. It kind of gave us a chance to reboot the concept a little bit, tweak it.
Goin: We have a full bar here, which we didn’t have. In a way, it almost feels like that was our starter house, and we got to grow up a bit and move in to our dream house. Having the private room, having full liquor, and having the patio are the obvious upgrades, but we both feel really strongly about this building, and have spent time here over the years. Caroline used to eat at Joe Allen with her dad, and Orso. The outside, the fireplace and the trees, we really love it. We knew we didn’t want to open another restaurant, so when this became available, we couldn’t pass it by.
At what point did you realize that you might work well together, and that you should probably be partners?
Goin: We were very lucky. A lot of people probably have our story, until two years of the restaurant being open and it all implodes. We didn’t know each other very well. It was a gut feeling, an emotional feeling. The good thing was, we met through mutual friends. I was a chef looking at little spaces, and I was going to open on my own. Caroline was looking at restaurant spaces and didn’t have a chef, and was looking for a chef. These friends introduced us. It was strange. We were both trying to do the same thing from different angles, but it was pretty quick. We met and went out to dinner and said, “Should we start looking at spaces together?” I remember my attorney at the time, who’s our attorney now, said, “First of all, okay, do you know her?” No. “Have you worked with her before?” No. “Do you know anyone who’s worked with her before?” No, but I just know. As we looked for the space that became Lucques – it took us about a year and a half – which was very painful at the time, but actually a good thing. We got to know each other. Over 15 years, it’s like marriage. There are ups and downs. As you go though all this stuff together, the partnerships either dissolve or get stronger. We were in the get stronger category.
How much more can you take on? You have a restaurant opening down the street and you have one opening in Montecito, and that’s all I know about.
Goin: We’re doing a Larder at the new Tom Bradley terminal. We’re good right now. We don’t need to work on any more projects.
Styne: We’re at our limit.
Goin: We have a lot of irons in the fire, which happened because over the years, people approach you about things, and opportunities become available and you check them out. 90% of the time, they don’t work out. When interesting things came up, “We’ll pursue it,” because probably the other thing is not going to happen. Then everything happened and was sort of too good to not do. This was kind of the icing on the cake, because everything else was in motion. Then this came up and we’re very emotionally attached to this space, so were like, “Yeah, it’s kind of crazy, but…”
Styne: We kind of dived into this more freely than we did anything else, and we were both very shocked at ourselves when we did that.
Goin: On the outside, you would have looked at that and said, “No, you should not do that. Bad idea.”
As you’re expanding, does it get harder to hire, or is that more a byproduct of the training?
Goin: It’s harder because you need more people, but one thing we’ve been able to do – which is one reason we’ve been able to do all these projects – is we’ve recruited great people, but also brought on people we’ve worked with for a long time. Most of my managers and kitchen people started early with me, they’ve stayed with me and we’ve been working together for a long time, and they keep moving up. It’s worked well, because they know me, they know the style, they know the farmers, they know how to cook everything, they know the management style, the culture of the place, and the nice thing is, as new things are happening, it’s a way for me to move people up, rather than have them leave for somewhere else. You can keep them in the family, which is great…When we opened here, we had to hire more cooks, because we opened for lunch and brunch here. That’s another thing, we do lunch and brunch here, and the kitchen’s bigger, so we had to hire some people, but I had a really good core team, so that made it easier. We had a lot of people come in and try out, but the key people – that’s also what guides our expansion – if something comes up and we don’t have a person we can associate it with, then we don’t do it. Montecito, for example, my chef de cuisine at Lucques and our manager here – they’re a couple and are getting married in April – they’re both from that area and want to move there. He’s ready for that next step. Rather than losing them – it’s kind of a chance for them to do something, and then they give us something. It kind of works well, but if we didn’t have that team in place, we never would have agreed to do that.
There are common threads in your cooking style between the restaurants, but now that you have multiple locations of single concepts…
Goin: …That’s not wise…
Styne: …That’s not ideal….
…How do you work to differentiate, or do you even?
Goin: I definitely do. Between Lucques and A.O.C., I think of the formats being very different. We have a wood oven here too, which I think is a big driver. That inherently makes certain dishes more A.O.C.-ish. I’m thinking in a certain way when I think about A.O.C. and I’m thinking in a certain way when I’m thinking about Lucques. Also, with the Larder, which is the one concept thing that we’re doing, that’s more casual – breakfast, lunch and dinner – than here or Lucques. There are times when I come up with a great salad and think, “Wait, should I do this one there, or should I do that one there?” Or during the season, making sure I’m doing different things at different places. Also, I have different key players at each place who will bring ideas.
Styne: I have a similar situation in the front of the house. The good thing about opening new places is it does afford you the opportunity to move people up and give them growth opportunities and give them the excitement of the new, versus getting stuck in one place in their career.
Goin: To learn on somebody else’s dime is huge. I opened a restaurant at the very beginning of my career – I was a pantry girl – but we opened a restaurant and even though it was twenty-something years ago in Providence, Rhode Island, when we went to open Lucques, I definitely had a better sense of what to do and what it was all about, from having done it once before.
What does a person have to be to work at A.O.C. versus Lucques versus Larder? Is that the same type of person?
Styne: I think we generally look for the same type of person. There’s definitely a culture in our company as a whole, and the people we like to work with tend to be similar. Each restaurant has its own personality in terms of the staff. The front of house staff at Lucques is a little older and more mature. The staff here is a little bit younger and little bit funkier, a bunch of wine geeks.
Goin: At the staff holiday party, they were like, “Who are those people?”
Styne: At Tavern, we have a mix of those two, driven by those who are more willing to drive to the Westside. They each have their own personality, but we generally look for kind, caring people. That’s the key, people who actually love what they’re doing and love food, and care about hospitality in a casual but correct way.
What sort of questions would you ask when you meet somebody to determine that?
Styne: I usually ask things like, “What would people say about you who worked with you?” I ask them a lot about what they enjoyed with each of their jobs, because that can give us a lot of insight into what drives them. “It’s a big money maker and I take home cash,” that’s usually when I’m like, “Next.” Everyone’s here to make a living, but we can’t be all driven by that. If they say what they got from the people they work with, or the excitement they derive from the restaurant as a whole. That can tell us more about a work candidate than how much money they make.
What about when you’re hiring for kitchen? What sort of person are you looking for?
Goin: I’m looking for somebody who cares about food and is that real restaurant kitchen person. I’m looking for hardcore people who don’t care how many hours they’re going to work. They want to do this so badly that they don’t care what it takes to do it. I always ask, “How did you get into food and cooking?” I’m always interested to hear their story. Some people grew up eating great food and cooking with their grandmother. I always say, “Really great cooks come from a really great food upbringing, or a really bad food upbringing.” I just really like to hear. You can hear if it’s a listing of places that they’ve worked, or, “I really love…”
Was it a given that both of you would work in restaurants for a living, or did you consider other careers?