Turns out that when Cat Cora calls, people listen, even chefs as famous as she. That’s the way Suzanne Goin puts it, describing how she was chosen as the celebrity chef for the Arthritis Foundation’s venerable fundraiser, the Taste of the Town, which is this Sunday, September 12. “Cat’s out of town at the time of the event, so she asked me,” Goin explained. “I jumped at the opportunity. Dave [Lenzt, her husband and fellow chef] and I love Santa Barbara—that’s why Dave opened the [Hungry Cat] there. We used to go to Santa Barbara for our weekend getaways; we even had one of our first dates there. It’s nice when we can have some community interaction at a benefit like this one.”
That’s great news for Santa Barbara foodies, given Goin is one of the country’s hottest chefs. She’s won the James Beard award as best chef in California, published a brilliant cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, and now runs three restaurants: Lucques (on almost everyone’s shortlist of the best restaurants in Los Angeles), AOC (the originator of the small plates craze in L.A. and still the best place for that), and Tavern. How she manages to run all three, raise three children (including twins that she gave birth to right as the Hungry Cat opened on Chapala Street), and still have time for fundraisers is, she admits, “a funny question. I don’t know the answer. When great things come up, you just sort of make it work. I usually work the Sunday suppers at Lucques, so I just changed things around for the event. It’s fun to be able to give back, and the organizers have been making the planning easy for me.”
One part of her job is to oversee the three-course menu for the Connoisseur’s Circle-level guests. “I’ll be working with some private chefs in Montecito, and they will be supervising young people with arthritis who will work as sous-chefs,” explained Goin, divulging that the menu will be “really fresh and bright and tasty but at a level that’s light and lunchy.” After passed appetizers, guests will enjoy a first course of heirloom tomatoes and haricots verts with crushed hazelnuts, crème fraîche, and pistou. “I love tomatoes and cream together—the juicy acidic tomato and the rich cream,” said Goin. “It’s all my favorite summer ingredients together.”
The middle course will be slow-roasted salmon with cornbread pudding, arugula, and a “raw succotash salsa” that began life as an AOC salad before Goin “cut everything smaller and added more vinaigrette.” The meal will finish with roasted-fig-and-almond tart with almond ice cream.
But even regular ticket holders will get to feast, as 40 food purveyors will be dishing up deliciousness and more than 40 wineries will pour. It’s the typical, wonderful Santa Barbara list, from the Ballard Inn and Bella Dolce to Qupé Wine Cellars and Whitcraft Winery. “I’ve actually never been, so I’m excited to be going to the event myself,” Goin said. “That list of wineries and restaurants is amazing.” If she gets a chance to break away from her work and cruise the tables, she hopes to hit “Melville, and Laetitia is another one of our favorites—the owners are actually investors at a couple of our restaurants. I’m also hoping to get to the Wine Cask, as I’m interested to see what it’s like since it reopened, and I love Olio e Limone, and for Mexican, Los Arroyos.”
In some ways, it seems Santa Barbara is a home away from home for Goin. “What really drew us to opening the Hungry Cat there was a love of the place, and not a calculated business decision,” she said. “And then there are all the farmers there. There’s product we can get at the Santa Barbara Hungry Cat we just can’t get in Los Angeles.” Of course, what’s fresh, local, and seasonal has always been the driving force behind Goin’s cooking (as is little surprise from a chef battle-tested in Michelin-starred French restaurants and mentored by Alice Waters and Nancy Silverton). “People ask me about the trend of local and seasonal,” she explained, “and I always reply, ‘I hope it’s not a trend.’ It’s especially good that people are going to the farmers’ markets and growing their own little gardens. It’s a great thing.”
The 29th Annual Taste of the Town is Sunday, September 12, noon–3 p.m., at Riviera Park & Gardens, 2030 Alameda Padre Serra. Tickets are $100 in advance, $125 at the door, if available. Tickets for the Connoisseurs’ Circle begin at $1,000 and include two tickets to the Connoisseurs’ Circle and four general admission tickets to Taste of the Town. Call 563-4685 or see TasteofTheTownSantaBarbara.com.