“You know your kitchen is small when you’re making salad on the stove,” Suzanne Goin says as she pulls a cutting board over to her range and meticulously begins to slice radicchio leaves into long, feathery strips.
It’s here in her home in the Hollywood Hills that Goin worked on the recipes for her new cookbook, “Sunday Suppers at Lucques.” The little 1920s house is one of those places that could happen only in Los Angeles -- tucked into the hills at the end of a dirt road so remote it feels like another country, yet it’s only a 10-minute drive from West Hollywood and her restaurant Lucques.
She’s fixing a Sunday supper menu at home now, starting with Treviso radicchio with Gorgonzola cheese. It’s the sort of meal regulars have come to expect at Lucques, where Goin has made Sunday suppers a California institution.
And those expectations rise well above roast chicken and pot roast. At Lucques, Sundays mean three-course suppers with dishes such as grilled pork confit with braised rice soubise and roasted figs, or Tunisian lamb-and-eggplant stew with farro, parsley and harissa. Everyone is offered the same menu and everyone seems happy to be having it.
Goin’s cookbook is a greatest-hits collection of seven years’ worth of menus. And that chef-y zing is obvious in the recipes. Every dish has an intriguing twist, whether it’s combining roasted beets and fried chickpeas in a salad, or making perfect little cornmeal-and-almond sbrisolana cookies to go with a Moscato d’Asti zabaglione.
Goin, 39, got her first cooking job when she was in high school, working for Wolfgang Puck at the old Ma Maison. Since then she’s worked for chefs as diverse as Alain Passard, Mark Peel, Alice Waters and Todd English.
Her restaurants -- Lucques and AOC, which she co-owns with Caroline Styne, and the Hungry Cat, which she co-owns with her husband, chef David Lentz -- are at the top of the Los Angeles dining scene.
Of course, with both of them working all the time, Goin doesn’t spend much time in her kitchen. “How often do I cook at home?” she asks. “Does breakfast count? Maybe once every two weeks.”
But even when she is relaxing and cooking in her home kitchen, Goin is in chef mode, working quickly but carefully and every action seeming deliberately thought out. The Treviso she slices in diagonals rather than directly across. “This way it keeps its natural shape,” she says. “You don’t end up with those stupid ribbons. I have a lot of weird phobias and that is one of them. I hate to cut greens across the leaf. You get all those weird ripples.”
Goin slices the shallots for the salad a little thicker than you might expect -- the Treviso is bitter enough to balance it, she explains. If she were combining the shallots with a more delicate ingredient, she’d slice them thinner or even mince them.
The Gorgonzola is another matter. Its flavor is so strong she needs to slice it very thin, so she cleans the knife with warm water between each cut to keep the pieces neat. “You could crumble it, but it wouldn’t look as good,” she says, tucking the slabs of cheese among the Treviso leaves. When the salad is just right, she dips a fork into the jar of saba and drizzles the winy syrup from the tines, making sure she hits each piece of cheese.
Then she carefully polishes the rim of the plate with a kitchen towel. “Cleaning rims is one of those things you just can’t stop yourself from doing,” she says. “It’s second nature; it’s like you don’t even know you’re doing it.”
Maybe putting a menu together is second nature to her too. But Goin has a hard time putting into words exactly what makes one sing. “When I’m thinking about a menu, I usually start with one or two ingredients that I want to use,” she says. “I’ll find something to do with them and then we’ll go from there.”
After deciding on one core dish, she builds from that. “I get a lot of hints from the national origin of the dish -- not that what I’m cooking is going to turn out to be authentic, but it will tell me which style the menu is going to be in,” she says. “That helps simplify the number of choices.”
An inventive hand
Balance is important, both of tastes and textures. “If you’ve got something really heavy for a main course, you don’t want to do the same thing for a starter, maybe a salad would be good,” she says. “On the other hand, if you’re in the dead of winter and you’re serving a beef daube, it would be great to do an onion and bacon tart.... The crisp from the tart shell would work before the meat.”
The menus in the book are suggestions, not hard rules. In this case, Goin feels more like following the Treviso salad with grilled quail rather than the braised chicken that’s called for. And rather than serving the quail with wilted spinach and currant-pine nut relish as written, she’s going to use mustard greens and Concord grapes she picked up from James Birch of Flora Bella Farm. (Locally grown ingredients are the key to Goin’s cuisine, and “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” is arranged seasonally, with pointers for what is best at the market at any particular time of year. Photos of her favorite farmers dot the book.)
She douses the grapes with olive oil and seasons them. They go into a 400-degree oven with several sprigs of fresh thyme. The greens she wilts with crisped pancetta in the biggest pan she can find -- a 14-inch All-Clad skillet that, when she turns it over, reads “Suzanne Goin: 1999 Food and Wine Magazine Best New Chef” on the bottom. “That’s probably supposed to be up on a wall or something,” she says.
Goin sears the quail in a cast-iron pan and when the grapes are nearly bursting, she pulls them from the oven. She plates the quail on top of the greens, beside a dollop of ricotta pudding.
At each step of the way in every dish, she takes a little taste to adjust seasoning. The importance of this becomes clear when she samples one of the roasted Concord grapes and pulls a face.
“I can’t help it, that smell always makes me think of snack time at school -- Welch’s grape juice,” she says. “Not exactly what you want with quail.... Well, that was pushing the envelope a little bit, but they were seriously great grapes.”
She doesn’t push anything on dessert, though, sticking to her tried-and-true olive oil cake. In it is a bit of fine couscous, giving the cake a surprising texture.
The cake was baked the day before, as was the ricotta pudding for the quail. Part of being a smart cook is avoiding loading your menu up with last-minute dishes. And all Goin has left to do now are the final touches for dessert. She breaks tangerines into rough double-segments and sets them to poach in a heavy vanilla-scented simple syrup.
Afterward, she garnishes the cake with whipped cream and the tangerines, which have puffed and glazed. She wipes the rim of the plate, of course. Because Sunday supper, like any Goin meal, has to be perfect.