The Hungry Cat

The corner of Anapamu and Chapala is a buzz of activity, as chef-restaurateurs Suzanne Goin and David Lentz prepare to open their new restaurant, The Hungry Cat, at the end of March. Suzanne and David have a sister restaurant in Hollywood also called The Hungry Cat that will be two years old in March, and Suzanne owns two restaurants in Los Angeles, Lucques and A.O.C., with a separate partner. In an interview in their new space last week, David explained how on a wedding anniversary a few years ago they stayed at the San Ysidro Ranch and had a revelation that it would be great to open a restaurant in Santa Barbara. “The Hungry Cat almost fits Santa Barbara more than it fits Hollywood,” he says with Suzanne adding, “We love the pace, vibe and architecture here. This building is what we were looking for. This is what we love. We’re excited to be up here.”

The Hungry Cat concept was born when a restaurant project David was working on with another partner fell through at the last minute. “It was very discouraging,” says David, explaining he was just a chef looking for a venue to make good food.

“We said, let’s just open a little place like where we would want to go eat, and we literally wrote the menu that night,” says Suzanne, describing that they’d want a place that had great drinks and was based on seafood, including caviar and oysters.

Bouncing Around

In 2006, Suzanne won two James Beard awards, one for her cookbook, “Sunday Suppers at Lucques,” and one for Best Chef in California. Her road to becoming an award-winning chef and restaurateur began when she was young. “I grew up in Los Angeles, and my parents are sort of big foodies,” she says. “They were foodies before there even were foodies, so I grew up as a kid eating great food. We would go to France and rent a house for the summer for two weeks every year. I think I was lucky to be exposed to great food early on.”

Suzanne went on to attend Brown University, and got a restaurant job right out of college. From then on, she says she just kept on working in restaurants. “When I graduated, it was like this big moment of – are you going to be a history professor or are you going to be a cook?” she says. “And I thought why don’t you just try the weird thing first and see if it works out.”

She later took a job for two years at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, worked in France for a year before flying to Boston to work for Todd English, and then landed in Providence at Al Forno. She “finally made my way back to Los Angeles” as chef at Campanile for two years before opening Lucques and, four years later, A.O.C. In November 2005 came the release of her cookbook, which is based on the seasonal set dinner menus served at Lucques on Sundays.

Suzanne and David got married three years ago. They are expecting twins (a boy and a girl) the third week in March – right around the time the restaurant will be opening.

David grew up in Maryland and says his cooking standpoint is definitely a reflection of what he grew up with and what he remembers seeing. “Steamed crab, crab feasts, peel-and-eat shrimp, this is what I apply as a restaurateur these days,” says David, “that style of good times, everyone sitting at a big table, and just having fun drinking and eating.”

David, who started cooking when he was 20, doesn’t get “caught up in frou frou presentations,” saying “it’s more about the flavors and it simply being good and speaking for itself.”

After working in restaurants in Maryland, he went to culinary school but soon dropped out because he “found it to be a waste of money.” He worked in San Francisco and “a bit” in England, then moved to Miami where he “hooked up” with China Grill.

“They put me on as sous chef, and once I got to that level, I learned a lot about the business aspect, as China Grill has really large properties, and you’re exposed to crazy scenarios,” says David, who helped China Grill open in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay. “That was crazy, and after two years of that I was finished with Las Vegas and large restaurants.”

In 2000, he walked away from the corporate world and into Los Angeles, not knowing anybody, but knowing he didn’t want to necessarily move back to the East Coast. “The first two months I was in town, I lived in an apartment a couple of blocks from Lucques and I came in for a Sunday supper by myself and ended up sitting next to Suzanne’s sister,” says David, explaining that he and Suzanne met that night and started dating immediately.

“It’s kind of a corny story, but when I was in Las Vegas, the Best New Chefs of Food and Wine came out and Suzanne was one of them,” says David, “and I told my roommate, ‘I’m going to marry that girl someday.’”

Cat Call

David’s “goal is to do everything to order whether it be making simple syrup that day, squeezing fresh juices, or mixing drinks to order. This is going to be the best product, everything seasonal and made to order. I don’t believe in clones or carbon copies. We want to open really strong, we’re going to open with everything that we know how to do really great and let it develop into its own thing.”

The Hungry Cat will be going off the template they have in Hollywood, but it will be “very much Santa Barbara.”

In addition to the menu being loaded with fresh seasonal celebratory fare, David says, “it’s definitely seafood-driven,” with Suzanne happily emphasizing, “It’s seafood and one amazing hamburger.”

Above all, David says, “we’re here for the locals.” Two of their investors are locals – Jane Walker Wood and Scott Adelson and they’ve hired Dylan Fultineer as chef de cuisine and Todd Smith, who worked previously at Dish.

The Hungry Cat will feature a full bar open until 2 am. It will be open seven days a week for dinner until midnight and, eventually, brunch on weekends.

“We’re thinking this will be a great place for restaurant people to come and hang out after work and have some drinks, get some oysters,” says Suzanne, explaining that guests can expect it to be casual with good energy, an open kitchen, and caviar that is priced “really really well.

“We want you to eat it!” she says. “We love to eat it.”

The Hungry Cat will open soon at 1134 Chapala Street. For more information visit www.thehungrycat.com.