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How Suzanne Goin Runs Her Kitchen In The #MeToo Era

Suzanne Goin prepares a peach salad in the Lucques kitchen in West Hollywood. (Photo by Tamika Adams)
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By Tamika Adams and Lori Galarreta

James Beard award-winning chef Suzanne Goin has achieved the rare feat of having a thriving restaurant in Los Angeles for two full decades. By SoCal standards, it is equivalent to a hundred years. After Lucques opened its doors in 1998 with co-founder Caroline Styne the pair went on to open AOC, Tavern and The Larder.

As more stories emerge about the endemic sexism, harassment and hazing in professional kitchens -- from Mario Batali and John Besh to Ken Friedman and Charlie Hallowell -- Goin reflected on running a kitchen as a woman chef.

"None of that behavior would have ever been tolerated here," says Goin, speaking about her West Hollywood restaurant Lucques. "I'm not surprised that women went through it because there was a feeling that it's a male-dominated business. This is how the restaurant world is and you just have to grin and bear it -- or get out."

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Maybe it's because the West Coast is more laid back. Maybe it's because Los Angeles has a more matriarchal chef culture. Goin says,"I think we're lucky in that it may be an easier place to be a woman chef. I mean, it exists here but maybe not to the extent that it exists in New York or Chicago."

Although the restaurant industry employs only one-tenth of all workers, according to the National Restaurant Association, they account for nearly 40 percent of all complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says the Restaurant Opportunities Center United. A 2014 study conducted by ROC found that nearly two-thirds of female restaurant workers and nearly half of men reported that sexual harassment was an "uncomfortable aspect of work life."

Goin says organizations like the James Beard Foundation are making a point to champion inclusivity in the kitchen, both in the front and back of house. She runs her kitchen as a meritocracy. "If a man and a woman are applying, if the man is a better cook and a better option, I'm going to hire him," she says. Unfortunately, how Goin runs her kitchen doesn't account for how most women are treated in the industry. Goin herself described the culture of the restaurant industry as a "grin and bear it" complicity. A wave of change may be coming as the #MeToo reckoning continues to alter indsutries from Hollywood to Capitol Hill.

In the meantime, as culinary trends continue to come and go, Lucques' has managed to weave itself into the fabric of L.A., no easy feat in a city where even the hottest restaurants can crash and burn after a few golden years.

Suzanne Goin and Sous chef Mercedes Rojas on L.A.'s farm to table movement. (Photo by Tamika Adams)

Pioneering the farm-to-table movement in Los Angeles

Alice Waters pioneered the farm to table movement at Chez Panisse in Northern California. When it migrated to Southern California establishments like Lucques, it evolved into a curriculum for other chefs to follow. That was long before pea shoots, pickled garlic and shishito peppers were menu mainstays on the menu of every self-respecting "seasonal" bistro.

Goin says her mission at Lucques and all her subsequent ventures is to keep the farm-to-table tradition strong and hyperlocal.She has spent decades building relationships with local growers. Her style and philosophy have been shaped by her environment.

"Right here, where we are, is a key part to what Lucques is. It definitely defines what we are here. It's a matter of finding what's locally available. We are spoiled to have all the produce we have year-round," Goin says.

Her willingness to improvise with her menus is due, in part, to fickle crops and California's climates: "To really benefit from it, you have to be willing roll with it."

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Sous chef Mercedes Rojas, the main buyer for Lucques, says it can be a struggle to keep up. "With farmers, it's so hard to get the exact flavors you want. In the market. I tasted over 10 peaches this week. The cooks and all of us remember and talk about that those nectarines from last year. It can get that specific," Rojas says. It's a trying process but, "That's what the guests come for."

After two decades, Goin and her business partner, fellow James Beard winner Caroline Styne, know a little something about what Angelenos want.

"Understanding the culture and understanding the thought behind the people who live here makes a big difference," Styne says. "We set out to open a restaurant that was a place we would want to go to. I think that is a part of why people feel so good here."

Lucques is celebrating its 20th anniversary with special dinners and events all summer. More information here.

Editor's note: A version of this story also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.

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