Suzanne Goin and David Lentz: LA's Culinary Power Couple

Suzanne Goin and David Lentz | Photo courtesy of Alex Berliner/ABImages

Years ago, the reigning restaurant power couple in Los Angeles was Barbara Lazaroff and Wolfgang Puck. With that relationship long dissolved, the title must surely go to Suzanne Goin and David Lentz. She’s the chef behind Lucques, AOC, Tavern and the recently opened Larder at Maple Drive. He’s the guy responsible for Hungry Cat Hollywood, Santa Monica and the newly expanded Santa Barbara location. Parents of three children, the couple also find time to put on a massive charitable event every year for Alex’s Lemonade.

Where are you both from?
David Lentz:
I’m from Baltimore.
Suzanne Goin: Bronson Canyon, where they found the severed head.

Where did you meet?
DL: It’s been 11 years now, 12 years, something like that. I went to Lucques.
SG: It was Sunday, February 3rd.
DL: Two months after I moved to Los Angeles. I sat next to her sister. It was a total coincidence. She introduced us and we went out for drinks that night.

Suzanne, was your sister dating anyone at the time?
SG: She was not. Her answer was she just knew he was for me and not for her. She came back into the kitchen and said, “Come out to say hi.” That’s not a 'me' thing to do. She came back like three times. Corina Weibel of Canele was my sous chef at the time. She says, “I’m going to go check him out.” She came back and said, “He’s kind of cute.” I went out and was like, “Welcome to town.”

So you two didn’t meet in the kitchen. But in general, do you think restaurants are good breeding grounds for relationships?
SG: I have way too many staff-on-staff relationships under my belt. The chef at AOC and pastry chef are a couple, a server at AOC and chef at Lucques are a couple. The best one of all is two of my sous chefs at Tavern. None of us knew they were going out until she had to tell me she was pregnant.

Is this all cool?
SG: I always say it’s cool until someone breaks up with someone. We definitely have those, too. I kind of try to split people up once that happens.
DL: I kind of frown on it.
SG: I don’t encourage it, but it keeps happening.
DL: It’s not good for the work environment. Suzanne and I don’t work together because we’d be divorced.

What's the possibility of doing a project together? Have you discussed that or conversely, discussed how you will never do that?

DL: Working day-to-day at one restaurant wouldn’t be healthy. But we talk to each other all the time about food and different issues going on at the restaurants.
SG: We work together conceptually really well. When David was coming up with the concept of Hungry Cat, I encouraged him to do his thing. He used to make those cocktails at home. I was like, "Dave, what you do when we have a party, let’s do that for a restaurant." When Caroline and I were working on Tavern, I’d bounce ideas off him. Working together day-to-day would be really draining. We’re both used to being in charge.

Is there any overlap? With cocktails, for instance, or purveyors?
SG: He’s definitely come over and done some consulting. We have a head bartender now. He was definitely inspired by what was going on at Hungry Cat. So there is cross-pollination.
DL: We pretty much all use all the same purveyors.

You both have several restaurants. Does it get easier with each one?
DL: To a certain extent. Your first restaurant, you’re literally there 23 hours a day. Everything’s on the line. It’s very stressful. This changes a little as you grow. The biggest key is having good people. That’s also the toughest part of the profession these days. I obviously can’t be in three places at one time.
SG: It just changes. I wouldn’t say it gets easier. When we just had Lucques, my focus was making sure every meal goes out just right. I think I have a better big picture of Lucques now than I had then, even though I was making sure every pork chop was the way I wanted it. From micro to macro maybe. Like David’s saying, when you have really great people in place, you can sort of do more. It becomes more of a management job than it used to be, which I don’t necessarily love. I have a lot of people who worked for me for a really long time. We grew really slowly. One of the reasons we opened AOC was we had too many great people at Lucques.

Suzanne, several restaurants at the Larder at Maple Drive location, including one from Joachim Splichal, didn't make it. Did that give you pause?
SL: Yes. But we didn’t take over the restaurant space. We took over the kitchen. It’s a huge, beautiful kitchen, which we now also use for catering.

And your sister runs that?
SL: Yes. The catering business has really grown. We were doing all the cooking out of Lucques. It’s a very small café in the courtyard of the Maple Plaza. We do coffee, pastries, hot breakfast dishes, sandwiches, salads, grain and vegetable salads. It’s very quick serve, a very casual space.

David, why did you decide to open outside of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara, other than having a good excuse to go to Santa Barbara regularly.
DL: Stupidity? It’s really difficult having a restaurant 90 miles away. I just wanted to open another restaurant. I literally found the space online. We used to love going to Santa Barbara. It’s a cool little town and as anybody who’s been to Santa Barbara knows, there are not a lot of decent restaurants. There are a lot of farmers up there. Probably I was a little overconfident. It was really hard. We went through a lot of staff. Santa Barbara is totally different from L.A. and they really dislike outsiders. It took three or four years of us just plugging away. They pretty much hate everything from L.A. Now everything’s great. We have great standing in the community. Before we had a chef who came out from Chicago and it didn’t work out. Finally, we had a guy who started as a line cook, a local guy.

Promoting from within sounds like it’s important to both of you.
DL: We’re both really loyal. We all started from the same place and we know what goes into the job and what it takes. Chris, the chef at Santa Monica, worked for me at Hollywood for seven or eight years.
SG: And he’s married to the manager at Tavern.

Has being parents changed how you cook, eat or operate your businesses? Do you offer kids’ menus?
SG: Tavern has a kids' menu.
DL: Santa Monica and Hollywood have some kids’ options. Before we had kids, I don’t think we would have considered this. Our kids aren’t pasta kids. They eat whatever we give them. But I know what it’s like.

But you’re not doing chicken fingers.
We do house made pasta with butter [also fish and chips and a burger].
SG: At Tavern we do a chicken paillard. Of our three kids, one of them loves everything interesting. One is a chowhound. One, all he likes to eat is sugar and carbs. The chicken paillard is like faux chicken fingers.

Do you ever wonder where that third kid came from, in the most loving way, of course?
The thing is, the three of them are so different, so much of who you are you’re just born with.
DL: I didn’t eat fish until I was 20. I was very picky. I was scared of it. I ate hamburgers and steaks.

What happened at 20?
I just got more adventuresome and as I was getting into food, I started trying it. I don’t know if it was an epiphany or what. I have no aversions to anything now. Well, durian is nasty.
SG: Sweet potatoes babe, you don’t like sweet potatoes.

How about you Suzanne?
SG: I don’t go for lobster. I don't like it. My mom and sister are like lobster junkies.

Where do you go for lobster?
SG: We just get them and grill ‘em or boil them every year for my mom’s birthday; she’s a New Englander.

What are some of your favorite places to eat with your kids?
SG: They like to eat at The Hungry Cat. They like Mozza, too. Up until really recently, as a restaurant owner and someone who enjoys dining at restaurants, bringing two 4 year olds and a 3 year old to a restaurant, it’s fun for them for five minutes and then it’s not fun for anyone. Until they’re able to do it I don’t want to do it. I stated taking individual dates. We go to the pizzeria. They love to go and sit at the pizza bar. They’re focused on watching what everyone is doing, so they’re much better behaved. At Hungry Cat we sit outside in the beer garden way in the corner. I know the menu so I order what we want really quickly. You know how it is with kids: they order and then they’re like, "Where’s the food?"

Do you both still work the line?
DL: I cook a couple days a week. I like it. I think it’s actually more relaxing than anything. You can turn your brain off. I gotta deal with so many aspects of the restaurant, I'd rather just be cooking. Unfortunately, it’s not the main focus. It gives me a good perspective.

How often do you get to Santa Barbara?
DL: I try to get up there once a week.

Suzanne, do you still get to cook?
SG: Usually a day during the week. A lot of time I’ll do [the Sunday] dinners. I feel the same way [as David]. I’m happy when I get to do it. It’s nice not to do it five nights a week. It’s fun, a little rush. It does help when you’re in it. You’re better at teaching people and correcting people and seeing what’s going right and wrong.

I heard you are working on another cookbook. It seems like that would be an incredible amount of work.
SG: It’s an enormous amount of work. I’m in a phase where I’m thinking, "Why am I doing this again?" It is really rewarding to have it all documented and photographed. To have someone across the country cooking and learning from the book is really satisfying.

David, have you thought about doing a cookbook?
Yeah. It’s one thing we might to do together. I’m interested in doing it, but I’m really a poor writer. I would need a lot of help. We’ve been kicking around the idea of seafood and cocktails.

Do the two of you ever get to go out?
Because we work at night, at best two nights we’re off. In a fantasy world we’d do one family night and one date night.

Talk about Alex’s Lemonade.
DL: It was started by Mark Vetri, this great chef in Philly. Suzanne was pretty good friends with him.
SG: He and I won Food & Wine best new chef. The chef world is pretty small so we’d run into each other.
DL: We went to that event. [Suzanne] got invited and I was just helping her. It’s all based on Alex Scott who lost her fight with cancer. Her parents are there. It’s their foundation. It was this big dine around and they got up and spoke. Literally it was the worst thing I had ever heard. We had just had our kids. It was gut wrenching. We were crying. It kind of left a lasting impression. We were talking about [how] we’re so lucky we have healthy kids...We should do something to help these kids. We started donating money from sales of Luke’s Lemonade, one of our most popular drinks. Luke was this crazy chef I worked for in Miami. His favorite drink...was vodka and lemonade. That drink was an ode to him. So we did that and we raised some good money. I think the parents approached us. They had wanted to expand their presence on the West Coast. We said we want to do our own event.
SG: We call all our buddies to come out and cook. We wanted to involve a lot of out-of-town chefs. The idea was to bring chefs whose food you wouldn’t be able to have here. It’s food we like to eat and people we feel connected to. Selling tickets and the auction raises a lot of money. We get all the hotel rooms donated. It’s a huge undertaking.
DL: It’s like opening a restaurant. [The 2011 event] was super intense. Everything was fine. Then this huge rainstorm came. There was a moment the day of when I thought, I don’t think we are going to be able to do it. It’s pretty emotional. We put like six months work into it. All the staffs of all the restaurants volunteer.

So are you two going to cruise for a while or is there another or several more restaurants on the horizon?
DL: I’m always thinking of the next thing.
SG: It’s a sickness.

Do you get antsy?
I like the craziness. I enjoy the creative process of a new restaurant.
SG: I think we both want to cruise a little. I have to finish this book.

Because you have a deadline?
SG: Yes, that I’ve been ha ha ha-ing about.

David, do you think if you open another restaurant that it will be another Hungry Cat?
DL: I’ve got so many different, crazy thoughts. Honestly I think if I were do to do another full-scale restaurant, it wouldn’t be a Hungry Cat. I feel kind of stagnant. I’d like to work with meat. We’re also interested in bars. It runs the gamut.