Hollywood is more likely to conjure up images of what's fake than what's organic, but not at chef Suzanne Goin's sensational new French-California restaurant, Lucques (pronounced luke). Alice Waters, the godmother of the good-food, good-earth connection, rates Goin as one of the most eco-conscious chefs in the country, which only makes Goin try harder. "Alice inspires you to call up the city of Los Angeles and fight about recycling," she says, "even when every ounce of your energy is directed toward getting dinner out."
Goin, 32, grew up in Southern California in a food-obsessed family that planned vacations around restaurants they wanted to visit. She started cooking as a teenager, thanks in part to her mother: "Mom wanted to hang out with the guests at her dinner parties, so she got me to cater and my sister to waitress," she recalls. It was after college, when Goin moved to Berkeley to work for Waters at Chez Panisse, that she got turned on to environmental issues. "My first job was on the pasta-and-lettuce shift," she says. "At most restaurants, you call up a company and ask for 10 pounds of mesclun mix. At Chez Panisse, you get trays and trays of picked-that-morning lettuces that you mix yourself." After two years in Berkeley, Goin went to work in France and realized how much she had learned. "It was the antithesis of Chez Panisse--they'd vacuum-pack foods," she says. "And they'd import produce from Spain instead of buying at the market right outside the restaurant."
Now that she has her own restaurant, Goin follows the rules she learned from Waters. For one thing, she makes a serious effort to minimize waste in her kitchen. Goin won't buy plastic containers to use for storage, for instance, and instead reuses mustard tubs. She returns all the boxes, about 10 a day, that she receives from farmers. She also keeps a bucket for leftover grease, which a local company makes into soap.
Goin, who uses organic ingredients for 80 percent of her dishes, is a regular at the local farmers' market. "It's like a party where people can choose from produce that's in season," she says. One of her favorite growers, James Birch of Flora Bella Farm in the Sierra foothills, often brings organic potatoes, greens and citrus fruits directly to her door and leaves with her compost. Goin uses his produce, as well as ingredients such as line-caught fish, hormone-free meat and artisanal cheeses, in the recipes that follow. They include a sumptuous beet and walnut salad (instead of tossing out the beet greens, Goin adds them to the dish), a delicious organic chicken roasted with mustard and bread crumbs, and a wonderful warm potato salad with Fontina cheese and organic vegetables.
Goin is confident that over time she will make Lucques even more environmentally correct. "At first, I had to focus on putting food on the plate and finding a dishwasher who would show up," she says. "Now I can concentrate on making that call about recycling. Getting to the Chez Panisse dream world takes time, but I'm working on it."