Susan Feniger

When we visited Los Angeles, we finally got to meet with one of our favorite California restaurateurs, Susan Feniger, who is possibly one of the sweetest chefs we’ve met. It’s no secret to those in the industry that Susan’s personality is infectious, and next week (April 23rd) in San Francisco she’ll be participating in Cool Comedy – Hot Cuisinean event she started years ago (with Mary Sue Milliken) that brings together comedians like Bob Saget and chefs like Feniger to raise money for the Scleroderma Research Foundation (which Feniger is on the board of).

We weren’t surprised Feniger is also a philanthropist. We stopped by for a chat, as well as for her famous Kaya Toast with Coconut Jam. The dish is the one she lost with on Top Chef Masters…we object (especially those of us who will be hung over this weekend).

What was it like opening a new spot in Los Angeles now?

I used to live in this neighborhood a long time ago, and I think what many people crave in Los Angeles is a place in the neighborhood to walk to, since LA is so not a walking city unless you live off of Abbot Kinney in Venice. So we really wanted to have a place that was sort of a neighborhood hang – that you could walk to, you didn’t have to have a reservation, and that wasn’t going to cost you a fortune. You could get a great local craft beer, really interesting cocktails, unique food, or you could just have something really delicious like a hangover burger or a great fish and chips.

All of the meat is from Lindy & Grundy which is hormone-free, and antibiotic-free. The fish for our fish and chips is all sustainable according to Monterey Bay Aquarium. We also really wanted to keep it at a price point that you could get a burger for twelve bucks, get a beer and that would be that. There’s also nothing [open] late in LA, unless you go to a club. So we stay open until midnight during the week and until 1am on the weekends, which for LA, is late.

What was it like when you came from the Midwest to LA?

I grew up in Toledo, then I was in college in Vermont, and then in LA. Then I worked in Kansas City, Chicago, New York, upstate New York, then back out here to LA, then to the south of France, then back here. So it wasn’t exactly like I moved from Toledo to here. But thirty-something years later, I’m still starstruck when the movie stars come into the restaurant. I still love that. Even if I don’t know who they are, I still love it when they’re here.

That’s one of the fabulous things about being in LA. You have that amazing industry around you. If you’re in it you probably hate it, but if you’re outside it, it can be dreamy and fun and you can be starstruck and love it.

And how is the LA foodscape different from every other city that you’ve worked in?

I’ve been in LA a long time. There’s an awareness in LA and has been for many many years. Many people think it’s sort of hippie – it has that thing about it. But we have amazing agriculture. We’ve got the California avocados – they grow here, forty-five minutes away – that are just the most incredible avocados in the world. They’re just fantastic. We have artichokes here, we have strawberries, we’ve got rice…We have farmers’ markets now literally year-round – probably twenty-five markets a day within twenty-five miles. We have great access to wines. In my backyard, I have a lime tree, a lemon tree, and two orange trees. You go out and pick – it’s amazing that you have that here in LA. I love New York, but for theater, you know? In terms of raw product, we are spoiled in LA. So I think the landscape for being a chef here is really wonderful.

How does that translate to cooking at home?

I’m barely at home to cook. I mean, truly. I’m in the restaurants. We have Border Grill in downtown, Santa Monica, at the airport, a couple of trucks, a kiosk, in Las Vegas, our catering business and [now] Mud Hen Tavern. So I’m home maybe two nights a week, in the best case scenario.

I cook very basic when I’m home. My partner – my girlfriend – doesn’t cook at all. I think in nineteen years she’s cooked twice for me and that was already too much. And I had to go to like six months of therapy to figure out if I could be with her, because she also doesn’t eat pork and doesn’t eat shellfish. I was like ‘Oh my God!’ (Laughs) But we’ll eat late at night. She’s a writer, director and singer/songwriter, so she’s up late too. I might go home and at 11 o’clock make soba noodles and vegetables, a big bowl of popcorn, or grilled cheese with avocado.

I cooked the other night. It was really last minute. I literally had the whole day off and said I wasn’t going to check emails. We took a walk on the beach with our dog, then came home, took a hot tub, hung out, had a drink, and then ended up inviting two friends over at the last minute. I made split peas and took mustard greens, hoja santa and fresh tomatoes out of the garden. We had split peas and greens and I made tzatziki with yogurt and cucumbers, an orange salad with jicama, and grilled steak.

The topic of women in the food industry right now is sort of having a moment. What do you think about that whole discussion?

You know, when we first started, there weren’t a lot of women chefs in the industry at all. This is back in the early eighties when we opened our first place. Women chefs became sort of visible in the media then, but many left the industry. I think women over the last twenty-five years have gotten smart and stayed – and I think many women have become chef/owners. I personally always knew I would open my own place; that was not even ever a question for me. I was working under other chefs with the idea that I wanted to learn as much as I could and then open my own spot.

I think many women end up opening their own places – or that’s their goal – because there is this ceiling that happens. It is still in many ways a boys’ club. I was a tomboy and grew up with boys. I think I didn’t feel it as strongly because I was just very focused on learning as much as I could. I didn’t really care that much whether I was making less than other guys in the kitchen because I had a bigger end goal. But, as a political statement out there, I think there still is that. That’s why women chefs and restaurateurs started. Most women chefs that are known are typically restaurant owners, not executive chefs of big companies. Typically they own their own place because then you’re your own boss.

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