Ask the Experts: Chef and Restaurateur Suzanne Goin

by Jessica on May 2, 2011

Photo: Ryan Forbes

For a few years, Los Angeles chef/restaurateur Suzanne Goin and her husband, David Lentz, maintained about an equal kid-to-restaurant ratio in their family. Between the couple, they run Lucques, AOC and the Hungry Cat, and have three young children — including a set of twins. This is what anyone would describe as a very full plate. Brimming, in fact. But as if that weren’t enough, Goin and business partner Caroline Styne added Tavern in Brentwood to their restaurant roster in 2009, along with Lentz’s Hungry Cat locations in Santa Barbara and, as of last week, Santa Monica Canyon. Goin also cooked for the Obamas during their recent swing through town; you know, just your typical work week.

Goin somehow found time in her astoundingly packed schedule to answer a few questions via email for the Ask the Experts Taster Tots Q&A. Keep reading to learn about Goin’s many nuggets of wisdom, including how she feeds her kids at home (hint: no literal kid food “nuggets” are involved), and strategies for eating out with the brood. We’ll also be rooting for Goin when James Beard Foundation Awards winners are announced next Monday. The repeat JBF nominee/winner and L.A. native, who grew up in the Hollywood Hills, is up for the Outstanding Chef Award this time around.

Work/life balance is hard enough for parents in any line of full-time work, but especially for a chef. How does your family do it?!

It takes a lot of patience, stamina and schedule planning. Fortunately, we have great people helping us with childcare. My mom and sister live in town, as do David’s parents so that makes a big difference. David and I take turns so we have quality time with the kids. I have specific rituals and times that I spend with the kids both as a gang and individually, like taking them to school, and particular gymnastic, ballet and tae kwon do classes that they love. The most important thing to do is to really “be there” when you are there. It’s a cliché but true. We always making sure we do at least one family dinner a week. And we have breakfast with them everyday so we try to make that meal count.

Which restaurants do you like to eat out as a family?

We really like Canelé in Atwater Village. It’s perfect for all of us and has a terrific menu that appeals to kids and grown-up tastes too. We also love BLD, Mozza Pizzeria, Pacé in Laurel Canyon and The Hungry Cat (otherwise known as “daddy’s rest-er-nant”) where the kids love to make their own fries.

What tricks do you use to make it through a meal out?

Honestly we don’t do it very often because as a restaurant owner and someone who loves to dine out I hate ruin other people’s experience. I have found that taking my kids on individual “dates” is much more successful than the group outing. They stay really focused because it’s one on one. I take lots of books and coloring stuff although often we don’t use them; just good to have in case of emergency. And most importantly I only go places where there can be a quick graceful exit. This sort of helps that I can go to my friends’ places — they usually understand!

As an L.A. native, which restaurants did you grow up going to with your parents?

My parents were great diners so I was lucky enough to be exposed to some wonderful restaurants as a child. Favorites were Perino’s, Ma Maison, L’Ermitage and L’Orangerie. I remember going to Spago when it first opened.

What are your favorite foods to cook your kids at home? Do they have different tastes, levels of pickiness, or allergies?

My goal is for them to eat what we are eating. I love to cook for them from our garden. It’s so great because they do the “harvesting” and help with prep, cleaning greens or picking favas so that makes them more invested in the meal. I always try to make things that we all will like so there isn’t a “kids’ food” option. Favorites are chicken paillards with Parmesan breadcrumbs, grilled steak with aged balsamic, big salads, pasta with sautéed greens, Taleggio and walnuts, grilled turkey paillards with sage brown butter….

Yes, they have very different palates. My daughter is the total gourmet/eater. She loves to help me cook, likes Sriracha and seasons everything with more lemon, olive oil and salt (just like mom!) And she only likes meat on the bone (no chicken breast for her, thank you very much) and will try everything. My older son has more of a traditional kid palate — PB and J, pizza, bread, crackers. Sometimes I swear he doesn’t eat anything; just too busy playing. And my little guy is sort of right in the middle — a good eater but not as into it as his sister — he loves soup (he wants it everyday) and they all love fruit.

What have you found to be the best settings and contexts to push kids’ palates and food boundaries? At home, in restaurants, friends’ houses, etc.

I think you have to do it at home, from the beginning and all the time. Remember that they can only eat what you give them (can’t get in the car and drive to In and Out is what I mean) so if you ONLY give them healthy and adventurous choices and that’s all they know then that is all they will eat. Sadly, even the most sophisticated child will go for the chicken nuggets and fries if that is a choice.

How do you think Los Angeles compares to other cities vis-à-vis family-friendly restaurants?

Honestly I rarely take them out because I’m so happy to be home when I’m home, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask.

Do other customers complain about seeing kids in your restaurants?

Most people don’t mind seeing them and actually like it. The problem is if the kids act up, then it’s definitely a tough situation as a restaurateur. It’s never fun to have to negotiate situations like that. You are pretty much going to offend someone either way.

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