Why Female Partnership Is a Recipe for Success
James Beard Award–winning restaurateur Caroline Styne on collaboration and reinventionRachel Tepper Paley
March 21, 2019
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), with founding support by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Rachel Tepper Paley traces the career of James Beard Award winner Caroline Styne, from her early days as a tortilla chip entrepreneur to celebrated restaurateur, and the fires, both figurative and literal, which helped to forge her outlook and approach.
When someone is described as a “phoenix rising from the ashes,” rarely are those ashes, well, literal ashes. But that was the case, in a sense, for Caroline Styne, the woman who would go on to become the James Beard Award–winning restaurateur behind Los Angeles eateries Lucques, A.O.C., and Tavern Restaurant.
In the mid-1990s, when Styne was in her 20s, she had already opened and sold her first culinary company, a baked tortilla chip enterprise called Basically Baked Inc. But the New York City native had bigger aspirations.
“I had the fantasy of having a restaurant,” she recalled, despite never holding a job in the industry beyond a waitressing gig in college. Styne knew she needed more hands-on restaurant experience, so she secured a job managing the L.A. Italian hot spot Jones Hollywood. “I worked there for four years, overseeing all the operations with the whole management team,” Styne said. “Then we had this horrible fire that burnt the restaurant down.”
She remembers getting a call the morning of the fire, and spotting helicopters circling overhead as she drove to the site. About 80 percent of the restaurant was severely damaged. “The outer walls were still intact, but the roof, the inside of the restaurant, the whole thing [was gone]” She remembers thinking: “Oh, God…my job is gone. I've got to figure out what to do.”
But much to Styne’s shock, not only was she still employed, she was on the precipice of perhaps the most significant learning experience of her professional life. “The people I worked for were like, ‘We're going to rebuild, are you kidding?’
What followed was a crash course in building a restaurant. “There was no Internet—I think fax machines were just starting to be used…there was no ‘get your phone and Google it,’” Styne said. “It was actually great practice in how to get the information you need with the resources you have.” The restaurant reopened in six weeks, and Styne emerged from the experience all the savvier.
“At that point, I said, ‘OK, now I feel like I have the running-of-the-business knowledge, I have the how-to-get-it-open knowledge,’” Styne said. “I'm ready to go and open my own place.” But first, she needed one more moment of serendipity: crossing paths with chef Suzanne Goin, her now longtime collaborator and co-owner.
The meeting was a setup through mutual friends, who thought the two might click. It wasn’t an easy gathering to schedule: both Styne and Goin kept flaking. Eventually their friends intervened and forced a chaperoned sit-down over drinks. The sparks were immediate. “I remember thinking: ‘Wow, this is pretty amazing, I feel so comfortable with her,’” Styne recalled. She was immediately struck not only by Goin’s talent and warm demeanor, but also by how closely their visions for a future restaurant lined up.
At the time, Styne explained, L.A. restaurants tended to exist at one of two extreme poles. “It was either super casual or super fussy,” Styne said. “We both imagined something that was more in the middle.”
In the fall of 1998, Styne and Goin opened Lucques, their market-driven ode to modern Californian fare. “It was kind of an instant success,” Styne said. “I think we didn't realize how well we would do.” Four years later, it was joined by A.O.C., the pair’s moody small plates-centric wine bar, and in 2009, by Tavern, an airy temple to modern American fine dining. In recent years, the duo has been adding additional locations of their fast-casual concept The Larder, which grew from its original outpost inside Tavern.
“There were tons of challenges, the first being raising money and being able to actually finance what we wanted to do, and being smart about how we did things,” Styne said of opening Lucques. Casual sexism was a persistent theme, she added.
“The idea that we were women was really interesting,” Styne noted. “We'd walk into a fabric upholstery or furniture store and we would get, ‘Hi, girls, how can we help you?’ We just resented that so much. It was very minimizing of what we were doing. Even once we got open, people would come out [and say], ‘You know what you girls should do? You should do this.’ And I’d say, ‘If I was Wolfgang Puck, would you say that to him?’”
The pair’s restaurants don’t feel gendered in the slightest, but Styne revealed that being a woman affects the properties in more subtle, but key ways. “We run it emotionally—I think women tend to be more nurturing,” she said. “We're both mothers, so I think we tend to look at our employees more like family, slightly more in a mentorship or nurturing way than maybe men do.” It’s evidently a strategy that works: the restaurants tend to hold onto staff, and Styne says she regularly receives positive feedback from employees. “I cross my fingers that everybody feels like it's a better atmosphere to work in.”
The warm, accepting atmosphere is, in part, influenced by the ongoing collaboration between Styne and Goin. “We definitely make a lot of decisions together, and I think we feel most comfortable when the other one validates the selection,” Styne reflected. Although they’re usually in sync—“I can think of maybe three or four times in the last 20 years that we didn't agree on a choice”—having one another takes the pressure off big decisions in a way that’s freeing.
“She and I both tend to be OCD and a little neurotic,” Styne said with a laugh. “I could obsess about things for days. That is, if I didn't have her saying ‘yes.’”
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.