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Interview with Suzanne Goin
of Lucques — Los Angeles, CA

November 2007

Suzanne GoinAntoinette Bruno: I don't know if you've seen these recent articles about women in the kitchen having a tougher time than men. Is this an important issue for you?

Suzanne Goin: I don’t feel comfortable discussing being a woman in New York. I think New York is different and I’ve never worked there. I have a great deal of admiration for my counterparts there but in LA there are at least as many women chefs as men. My mom is a doctor; she was the first woman to go to medical school from her college. I had to work really hard to make it in this business. You have to have a strong personality. You can’t let stuff get to you. When I worked at Olives, it was a very macho male–dominated kitchen. There was only one other woman there and she told me to quit because they made her cry in the walk–in every day. I thought, what do you mean? How can they make you cry? I think you need a tougher outer shell. I didn’t really experience that sexist thing. Once you show you can stand the heat — they roll over.

AB: Marco Pierre White recently said that he thought it was the physical nature and macho culture of the modern restaurant responsible for women being less likely to reach the top. He said “Restaurant kitchens are a man’s world. The work is physical and demanding. It is the men who rise to the top.” Do you agree with him?

SG: I think the work is physical and demanding and there are women who can handle it and men that can’t handle it. I have guys quit all the time that can’t handle working in my kitchen. It comes down to the person. I’ve worked in kitchens for 20 years &mdash it’s exhausting but I can do it.

AB: Another general stereotype circulating is that women chefs have ”more soul“ so to speak, and cook from the heart. It’s true that I can’t think of very many experimental female chefs, apart from Elena Arzak, Barbara Lynch, Elizabeth Faulkner…but I’m not sure that it’s a fair generalization. How do you feel about it? Is the experimental kitchen more gendered than the regular professional kitchen?

SG: I don’t think so. There are a lot of stereotypes and I don’t like them. There are some generalizations that tend to be true. I know a lot of women who are interested in that genre. I don’t’ buy into the gender stereotyping. I know plenty of soulful male cooks but I do know a lot of women who are soulful. There is a lot more soulful cooking in the west than New York.

AB: The stereotypical chef is a divorcee. The lifestyle challenges relationships like no other. What are your thoughts on this? How does it affect women differently from men?

SG: In America aren’t you more likely to be divorced than married? When my day off is Monday, it’s hard to be married to someone who works 9-5pm and has weekends off. Sometimes my husband David comes home on my day off at 2am and I ask him where he’s been and he tells me Lee Heftner came in for dinner and I understand. I get it because I’m in the business but most spouses wouldn’t. Many chefs figure out how to manipulate their work schedule to make their life work.

AB: How do you manage having twins? What are the hard choices you’ve had to make?

SG: I think the women and kids thing is hard. “Very few women can do both” somebody said in the New York Magazine article. In my state that was a hard thing to read. I got my career under control before I had kids. If you are a 24 year old line cook and have a kid I think that it’s going to be really hard. I have one woman working for me that is in that situation. She has a mental breakdown every 2 months and I talk her down.

AB: Who have your biggest mentors been? Men vs women?

SG: George and Joanne from Il Forno. Alice Waters, and Nancy Silverton. I think they both make great mentors; it depends on the person.

AB: How are kitchens run by women different from kitchens run by men — or is that a myth?

SG: I think management styles are different. Women are less dictatorial &mdash focus on working on a team, for better for worse. Women tend to be better communicators. Men tend to not want to talk about it, get angry or frustrated. Women try to diffuse things a bit more.

AB: Tell me about working in abroad — is it different for a woman there than it is here?

SG: In France it was more about being an American then a woman. They kidded more about hamburgers and pizza than about being a woman. You are American you only know how to cook hamburgers! Why don’t you want to be a pastry chef? They asked me. It was like they didn’t get it. But once you put your head down and do the job &mdash you get respect. You can’t show weakness. I learned as a kid when my father used to tease me and my sister &mdash if you didn’t show that teasing bothered you, it would stop. If you show that it hurts people keep it up.

AB: Let's talk about raising capital. In a recent article published, women stated it was harder for them to find money to open a restaurant than men. How do you feel?

SG: It was hard for us to find money. We were two women (Carolyn Stein is my partner) but it was hard because it was our first restaurant. We raised the money from individual investors. It was hard but I didn’t get the sense that it had anything to do with being a woman. My investors are foodies, wine people, doctors and lawyers — not the Wall Street type. It’s good to get your money from the people that are part of your crowd — not the hedge fund guys that don’t know you. I went to our customers at Campanile.

AB: Was it easier the second time around?

SG: Definitely. We went back to some of the same people (half old and half new), mostly regular customers from Lucques. Once word got out that we were doing it &mdash people came to us. And it was the same for David — it was difficult to raise money for Hungry Cat the first time around. It’s always a leap in the beginning. I don’t know if it’s different in NY.

AB: I think its confidence.

SG: I agree — just like my line cook example. Getting the restaurant together was another thing. When we were looking for fabrics for Lucques the first time around we were told “girls you have to come back with your designer,” as if they didn’t take us seriously. They should have as we could have spent money there. The realtors didn’t take us seriously either.

AB: Do you see a difference between your generation of women chefs and the one that came before you and paved the way?

SG: I would; I think it keeps getting better and better. When I was coming through there weren’t very many women chefs but today that’s not the case. More than half my staff is made up of women &mdash there are a lot of women chefs in LA.

AB: I get asked all the time why we don’t pick more women rising stars and tell everyone who asks that it’s a numbers thing. If there are talented women to pick — we pick them!

SG: I think it’s bad when women are picked when they shouldn’t be. I was afraid that Casey would win Top Chef when she didn’t deserve to win. I think that is great that you don’t pick a woman rising star if she doesn’t deserve to win.

AB: Let’s talk about money. Do you think women are paid fairly?

SG: It’s just as wrong as it is in every other field. Is it that women aren’t going after all the top level executive chef positions? It’s sad that there are no female executive chefs in 4 star restaurants and only 4 out of 40 in 3 star restaurants. I wonder what the 36 male chefs are earning versus the 4 female. That would be interesting. Fortunately I haven’t had to look for a job for the last nine years. I was paid the same at Campanile that the male cook was paid before me. I wanted to open my restaurant, be my own boss, and dictate my own situation.

AB: have no idea how you can be the mother of twin babies, run two restaurants, and have a chef husband with two restaurants!

SG: It’s really hard. We have a great nanny and I have a really good staff at the restaurant. I can stay at home until 1pm then the nanny comes and I go to work. I’m supposed to be home at 11pm and I am the kind of person who would stay until 1am so the curfew is kinda good. When I get to the restaurant I feel that I’ve just come from my first full time job to my second. My sister helps me out and so does my mom.

AB: Do you think it’s the same for David?

SG: He’s really involved and exhausted like me. The breast feeding thing is a whole other element. I have to pump at work and it’s physically draining. I’ve never been so physically drained in my entire life. You go into it so tired. So now I work 5 nights instead of 6.

 

 

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