The James Beard Foundation has shown Suzanne Goin of Los Angeles a lot of love over the years. She was awarded a Best Chef (California) Award in 2006 and earned the foundation's pick as the nation's Outstanding Chef for the year in 2016. She was also named one of America's best new chefs in 1999 by Food & Wine Magazine. Aside from the critical acclaim, Goin is an intelligent, successful restaurateur. In 1998, she opened her flagship restaurant (Lucques) with her business partner, Caroline Styne. Since then, she has successfully launched a number of different concepts across the Los Angeles area: a.o.c. in 2002, the Tavern in 2009, and several locations of take-home outlet The Larder since 2011.
Goin is also a notable philanthropist. Her friend and colleague, Philadelphia's Chef Marc Vetri, was a supporter of childhood-cancer charity Alex's Lemonade Stand and invited her when he put together the first ever culinary fundraiser for the organization. Moved by Alex's story of her battle with childhood cancer and an emotional speech delivered by her mother Liz Scott, Goin returned to Los Angeles determined to do something similar. She, Styne, and Goin's husband, Chef David Lentz, founded L.A. Loves Alex's Lemonade to raise funds for cancer research. The group's annual event (described disarmingly by Goin as "an executive chef cookout") has raised over $3.7 million dollars since its launch in 2010, including a record $1 million in 2015 alone.
Here's the advice Goin had to share about having a successful career in the restaurant business and running a catering business.
Be True to Your Food
Your guests come to you for catering because they like your food. If you want to give them a VIP experience, your catering food has to meet the same standard. "We treat catering food just like it's restaurant food," says Goin. "We don't dumb it down, we don't take any shortcuts. The way we would cook for 20 people, we cook that way for 200 people."
Choose Your Dishes Carefully
"Part of it is just knowing what dishes work and what dishes don't," Goin explains. Unless the event takes place in your own venue, while you're closed for other business, you won't have access to your usual staff and equipment. Pick dishes that effectively represent your food, but can be executed flawlessly in less-than-ideal circumstances.
Do Some Things to Order
"Whenever we do a big catering event at a hotel or somewhere, they're always like, 'Wait, you're going to do that to order?'" Goin chuckles. "Of course it would be easier to prep ahead of time, but that last flourish of something fresh or bright at the last minute makes a big difference."
Goin allows for the demands of just-in-time dishes by fleshing out her catering menus with lower-maintenance items. "Obviously, if you're serving a four-course meal, you can't have all four courses be something like that. You want to put a braised dish in there, or something that can be prepared ahead of time without the quality suffering."
Embrace Special Requests
Special requests are a fact of life for chefs, especially those who—like Goin—practice their craft in Los Angeles-an epicenter for the latest in food and diet trends. According to Goin, you should always give the guests what they want. "I remember when I first opened up, if a customer wanted to change anything, I would freak out," she said. However, she soon realized that usually when guests want to change something, it's something very simple. And why would you not do that for them? This is part of the reality of being a restaurant owner and retaining business.
Don't Get Bent out of Shape
Last-minute snags and setbacks are just part of the catering process. Don't let them get to you, or you won't be in the right frame of mind to give your guests the best experience possible. "In catering, that's just so par for the course," says Goin. "We've definitely grown to roll with the punches. When you're storming around and letting your blood pressure spike through the roof, the only person you're hurting is yourself."
Build Up Your Team
Goin realizes that managing a successful catering business is impossible without a talented team. “Taking the time to nourish those people that are in our world is really meaningful,” says Goin. “We all work at the time when everybody else is having a good time, so we all become our own little family.” Going schedules staff dinners as a way to bring her team together and help them feel appreciated for the terrific job they do. “It’s a really wacky mix of people, but it’s the food that brings everybody together.”
Whether you already have a catering business or you're thinking about expanding your current offerings, you can learn from Suzanne Goin. Follow these tips, and you'll be following in her successful footsteps in no time.