A chef's offering to her father

Premier Chefs Dinner keynote speaker Suzanne Goin reflects on mentorship, family meals, love and loss
Chef Suzanne Goin
Chef Suzanne Goin says her late father's simple but rich dishes and attention to detail infuse her own cooking and approach to food. Photo by David Young-Wolff

The first dish Suzanne Goin remembers preparing with her father still makes her a little giddy.

In her childhood home in Los Angeles, her father, Dr. John Goin, a plastic surgeon, taught the 8-year-old to make spaghetti carbonara — a simple combination of hot pasta, bacon, garlic and cheese, all held together and transformed by a slick coating of egg yolk.

“It’s just one of those dishes, as a child, the magic of like five or six ingredients,” said Goin, now a James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of several LA restaurants, including Lucques and a.o.c. “When you start cooking, it’s the magic of taking five ingredients and turning them into something special.”

It’s a dish Goin added to the menu at Lucques, her first restaurant, riffing on the traditional Italian version by swapping spaghetti for ear-shaped orecchiette and adding fresh peas and pea shoots.

Her dad’s tastes for simple but rich dishes and his meticulous attention to detail infuse Goin’s cooking and her approach to food.

“His spirit and those years, it’s innate in my food and my cooking. The dishes, where it all originated, a lot of it comes from those memories of time around the table with him,” said Goin, who will give the keynote speech Sunday at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Premier Chefs Dinner, an annual fundraiser that brings together several Northwest celebrity chefs and wineries. The event has raised more than $5.5 million to support cancer research at the Hutch over the past 23 years.

Goin especially regrets that her father didn’t live to see her open a restaurant. He was diagnosed with tongue and throat cancer when Goin was 18 and died 10 years later at age 65, when the cancer had spread to his lungs, she said.

Goin, now 48, opened Lucques in 1998, three years after his death.

“He would have loved it so much. He would have been there every day,” she said.  “My mom and I sometimes joke that he would have been harassing everyone, telling the bartender that he hadn’t made the drink right, or saying that the napkins weren’t lined up correctly or saying something needed more salt.”

A life of food

Her father’s passion for cooking caught on early — Goin worked as a pastry chef during high school and found restaurant jobs all through college. She never went to culinary school, instead pursuing a history degree at Brown University, but went right back to restaurant work after graduating college.

Her jobs not only fueled Goin’s zeal, they helped her cope with her father’s illness. Her dad wasn’t a great communicator, Goin said, and it was tough for her not knowing whether he was going to die within days or live for years. The surgery he’d had to remove the tumor on his tongue affected his ability to eat, but more importantly for the doctor who prided himself on public speaking, it left him with a lisp and his confidence shaken.

“When my dad got sick, that job became a good way to go hide and pretend it wasn’t happening,” she said. “Restaurants are busy and hectic and bustling and the people are funny. It helped me a lot to kind of get swept away in that atmosphere for eight hours a day before coming back to the reality of what was happening.”

At first, her father was none too happy with Goin’s career choice, saying he couldn’t believe she’d graduated with honors from an Ivy League school only to take a job making salads, which was ironic because he was the reason for her drive, she said. But once Goin landed a job as a chef at Alice Water’s famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, her dad started to come around.

Goin likes to describe her parents as “pre-foodie foodies.” Both her father and mother, Dr. Marcia Goin, who’d had breast cancer when Goin was a teenager but survived her disease, loved good food. Her dad liked to eat at French restaurants when they went out but loved cooking Italian food at home. One of his favorite dishes was “braised anything,” she said.

“If we’d go to a restaurant and there’d be a braised lamb shank or something on the menu, he would always say to the waiter, ‘Is it slimy?’ and of course the waiter would always say, ‘Oh no sir, it’s not slimy.’ And he would say ‘Oh I guess I’ll have something else,’” Goin remembered. “He loved that, what we’d call gelatinous now instead of slimy … Braised dishes always remind me of him.”

Goin and her team at Lucques create an ode to her dad every Father’s Day, serving a Sunday dinner replete with dishes he loved — like braised lamb and the Parisian meringue, chocolate, almond and ice cream dessert favored by Ernest Hemingway, one of her father’s favorite authors.

Goin is now passing on the tradition to the next generation, teaching her own three children to prepare food in the home she shares with her husband, chef David Lentz. Goin feels strongly that her kids should learn how to cook for themselves and eat healthily.

But the lessons are about more than food. Goin loves the time preparing food with her children when they work and chat, talking in a way that her 8-year-old twins (a boy and a girl) and 6-year-old son won’t when simply asked how their days at school went.

“Once you’re side by side, slicing and dicing, or cleaning lettuces or picking herbs, they start to open up. Things start to come out,” Goin said.

‘My cancer story’

About six years ago, Goin and Lentz were cooking at an Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation charity dinner in Philadelphia.

There, they heard Alex Scott’s mother, Liz Scott, recount how after her daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer, the 4-year-old started a lemonade stand to help other kids with cancer.

“It hit us like a freight train,” Goin remembered. “We were both standing there bawling … The idea that she’s a 4-year-old with cancer and what she’s thinking about is helping other people and raising money for other kids is pretty crazy.” 

In 2009, Goin, Lentz and Goin’s business partner Caroline Styne launched L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade, a yearly food and wine event in L.A. that has raised $2.7 million to fund childhood cancer research.

As much as Goin loves cooking and running restaurants for the sake of the food, this event is “a way for us to do something bigger and even more meaningful with whatever our talents are,” she said.

When she was invited to speak at the dinner to support cancer research at Fred Hutch, Goin was excited to hear about the Hutch’s advances in immunotherapy that could not only cure more people living with cancer, but reduce cancer treatments’ often toxic side effects, she said. Along with many other treatments, her father had part of his tongue removed to try to eliminate his cancer, which affected his ability to eat and speak.

“When I think about what my dad went through … he was in so much pain,” she said. “If some of that can be alleviated, in addition to saving people’s lives, making that process not so horrific — that’s an amazing thing.”

Goin paused while she thought about how she’s going to address the audience of Hutch supporters, community members and researchers. She wishes she could wrap up her story in a bow in a way that makes sense, she said, but ultimately all she has to tell the crowd is what’s happened to her.

“I’m not a doctor and I’m not a researcher,” she said. “My cancer story is just a sad story of losing someone.”

Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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