Just as the sun begins to cast broad shadows on the stone-paved backyard patio, the food is ready and the kitchen spotless. The table is set in elegant shades of pink and white. The rosé wine that matches both the delicious food and decorative decor is chilled to perfection. With everything in place the guests, all old friends, begin to arrive for a Mother’s Day brunch.
Like all pros, Chef Suzanne Goin makes her tasteful touch look like magic. On hand is the trio of women with whom she learned to love cooking and celebrating: her mother, Dr. Marcia Goin; her godmother, Ann Pope; and her sister, Jessica Goin, who manages one of Suzanne’s two L.A. restaurants.
While some mothers enjoy being treated like royalty on Mother’s Day, Marcia Goin says it’s a delight to spend a morning in the kitchen chopping and chatting with her daughters and close friend. The physician calls herself a "chemistry cook"—one who follows directions exactly, which, she says, makes her especially proud to have a daughter who is "a fabulous instinctive cook and a pleasure to watch."
Suzanne laughs. "When Jessica and I were little, we’d write outlandish Mother’s Day menus, with options like chocolate-covered frogs legs," she remembers. "Dad would choose the silliest thing, but Mother always knew what we were actually making and picked that. Good Mom," she says, giving her a hug.
Today, the menu is elegant comfort food—dishes chosen because they are either family favorites with a twist or delicious new classics. Fresh vegetables, including asparagus and corn, are featured, and everyone pitches in. Marcia cuts the spring asparagus (from one of Suzanne’s farmer suppliers) while Suzanne stands at the stove preparing corn cakes for the first course.
"This is a long way from when I used to dress up a can of Spam for dinner," recalls Marcia. "I was an intern and John [her late husband] was a surgical resident in San Francisco; it was economical. My Spam had a clove-and-brown-sugar coating—delicious," she says to much laughter. And that leads to another story.
"Once, for a party, John asked what I was planning to serve as a first course. ‘First course?’ I asked, thinking that getting together an entrée and dessert was enough. We made do without a first course that night, and luckily I soon found a book to help. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961. That changed how everyone cooked and ate."
The family developed their tastes together. "When I worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley," says Suzanne, "Mom began to think of meals differently. Instead of starting with the protein, she began thinking of vegetables first," explains Suzanne. "She enjoys today’s entrée with asparagus, prosciutto, and eggs. It’s a modern take on Eggs Benedict with cheese rather than a rich sauce."
All chefs are teachers, and Suzanne is used to cooking for an audience. Under the watchful eyes of her mom and godmother, she expertly seasons and grills asparagus and arranges it atop pieces of imported prosciutto . Next she neatly fries eggs and cuts shards of cheese. Then, another tasty family favorite, citrus salad, is prepared with green olives and fruity, extra-virgin olive oil . Suzanne reminds everyone to toss this salad again just before serving to combine it with the released juices and oil that have collected in the bottom of the bowl. "The combination of the citrus fruit juices and oil is what makes it delicious," she says.
Marcia points out how childhood roles are mirrored in her daughters’ lives today. When she and her husband offered the girls a chance to earn money by helping at dinner parties, Suzanne cooked; Jessica, younger and more outgoing, served and spent time with guests. Today, Suzanne is chef and co-owner (with Caroline Styne) of Lucques and A/O/C in West Los Angeles—while Jessica mingles with guests as manager of Lucques.
"I’d plan the menu and start the food," says the chef’s mother. "Jessica would design and set the table. Soon, I could sit down at a beautiful table with the first course in place, and Suzanne would finish the meal. And she always had a way with flavors—adding ingredients that made everything delicious ."
Today is no exception. Jessica thinks pink flowers work with the white Richard Ginori china and rose-colored linens, and while she sets the spring table, Suzanne makes it all look easy in the kitchen.
"She has taken some dishes we love and really improved them," says her proud mother. "I make corn cakes and serve them with smoked salmon, but Suzanne adds caviar, crème fraîche, and brown butter. She really knows what she’s doing."
Although Marcia now understands the appeal of a chef’s life, she and her surgeon husband once had other things in mind. "When Suzanne graduated from Brown with an honors degree in political science, her dad wanted her to become the first woman Secretary of State. But she loves her work. With patients, I have a Rolodex of treatments in my mind. When Suzanne goes to market, she has a Rolodex of flavors and ideas for the food she sees."
Dessert is the last dish the kitchen crew faces. Made from snow-white meringues, vanilla ice cream, and fresh California strawberries, it will be assembled at the last minute. It is another family classic: Strawberry Pavlovas, developed for Suzanne’s mother and sister, who love anything made with meringue.
Suzanne adds, "Discovering favorite dishes has been a lifelong adventure." "And the adventure is far from over!" her mother chimes in.
Corn Cakes with American Caviar, Crème Fraîche, Brown Butter, and Chives
1 cup fresh cut corn (2 to 3 ears)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1⁄ 2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1⁄ 3 cup milk
3⁄ 4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, separated
3⁄ 4 cup all-purpose flour
1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1⁄ 4 cup sliced green onion
1⁄ 4 cup unsalted butter
Salt and black pepper
1⁄ 3 cup crème fraîche
2 ounces American sturgeon caviar
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives