A Charming Interview with Chef Susan Feniger

Susan Feniger

Chef Susan Feniger loves what she does, and it shows the second you taste her food, or talk to her about food.  From collaborating on restaurants and food ventures with Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill, CITY, Ciudad, Two Hot Tamales) to opening her very own restaurant,STREET, which luckily we had the pleasure of dining at and recently reviewed – here.  She seems to enjoy every ingredient of the culinary world, and that includes having a delicious telephone interview with me from her home in Los Angeles.

(Eric Rankin, Interviewer) Right now you can travel anywhere in the world with the snap of your fingers, where would you go and what would you eat?

(Chef Susan Feniger) I’m sort of a creature of habit… which isn’t good.  I will give two cases.  India is probably where my heart is.  I love every aspect of it.  In Delhi or I should really say Rajgurunagar (outside of Pune) visiting my friend, Allen, and cooking with him and having Chai, probably eating some sort of Bhujia, a kind of potato fritter at a little Chai stand out in a tiny little marketplace in Rajgurunagar.  There’s a million places I would love to explore and go to…. like Malaysia, I’ve never been to Malaysia.  Haha, let’s keep it India.

(ER)  Is there a certain kind of music you rock out to when you’re cooking?

(SF)  My taste in music is so all over the place.  I would typically put in 6 different CDs and it would range from Mozart or listen to Brandenburg concertos or something like that, Annie Lennox, Bill Evans, Pink Martini, and Abigail Washington who is this sort of an amazing singer.  Eva Cassidy as well.

One of my most favorite things to do at home is listening to music and cooking and having a cocktail or a glass of wine.  There’s not much more of a relaxing moment for me than that.  I love that! 

(ER)  We’re Kaya Toast fanatics; is there another hang-over food you recommend for us lushes?

(SF)  Obviously, in the Latin kitchen there is Menudo which is the traditional hangover cure, which you know is tripe.  I personally love a big huge bowl of Pozole which is a great hangover dish – Green pozole.  It’s like Menudo… a big stew.  Chilaquiles is another great one that people often think of as a hangover thing.  Myself personally – I like to go late at night and have fried chicken, I’m not really a big fan of chicken and waffles.  I love fried chicken with grits and hot sauce.

(ER)  What was the experience like being on Top Chef Masters?

(SF)  I really had no interest in doing it. None.  I said no the first year.  I said no the second year.  It was right after we had opened Street so I was completely exhausted and everyone at Border Grill and Street kept saying you have to go do the show… you just have to go and do it.  So I literally thought  “Well shit!”.

So I dug in since it’s for a great cause.  I played for The Scleroderma Research Foundation which is an organization I have been on the board with for the last 25 years.  I lost one of my oldest, closest friends to this disease and she started this organization 25 years ago and I have been on the board ever since.  Mary Sue and I do this event called Cool Comedy – Hot Cuisine and I felt that if I go on national TV that we have made great steps to get it out there.  What was I thinking?  How can I get out of this?

I didn’t care about winning, I just didn’t want to lose in the first round.  Once I made it through round 1, I was like okay… this is fun.  When I got on the show, Govind Armstrong was in my first group and he is someone who has worked for us many, many, many years ago.  And I met Tony Mantuano who I had never met that I just loved.  That was incredible to have Tony there.  We totally hit it off!  And Tony and I went on to the finals.  Then there was jonathan Waxman who I have known forever and loved and Jody Adams who I’ve known forever and hadn’t seen.  And there was Rick Moonen… people who I knew.  People I didn’t know at all like Susur Lee and Marcus Samuelsson.  It was one of those things where once I made it through that first round then I really just thought it’s just about having fun, relaxing, getting Scleroderma out there.  So it ended up being a great thing.  I won a bunch of money for Scleroderma research and it ended up being a great experience and I just went and did an event for Jonathan and Tony was there and we had dinner together.  I did an event with Tony back for the US Open which was fantastic and fun to do.  So you know, like the restaurant business what it does is just build a incredible comraderie…. at least it did for me.  I actually had a fantastic time on it.

(ER)  I hear a sitcom is in the works?  L.A., the 80’s, “Two Hot Tamales”… can you give us any scoop on that?

When Food Network first started Mary Sue and I had a show called “Two Hot Tamales” and we had that show for 4 and half years I think.  Mary Sue and I have been partners for 30 years and we were approached by Michael Eisner a couple years ago… he was doing a book on partnerships (Working Together)  and we were included in that book.  In that book there was very impressive partnerships like Bill and Melinda Gates, Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, and Mary Sue and I.  There was 10 chapters and we were one of the ten chapters….so it was really incredible company.

About six months ago we got approached by his production group saying they wanted to do a sitcom based on mine and Mary Sue’s life.  And it’s of two friends that are business partners, chefs in a man’s world.  One straight (Mary Sue), one gay (Me), and who were at one point married to the same man.  So I introduced Mary Sue to my ex-husband.  When I first met Mary Sue I said to her you would love this guy, you have to meet him.  So 5 or 6 years later she did and they have been together.  Ever since… like 25 years.  So that is what the story is base on.

ABC has bought it… at least to do the pilot.  So Jeff Greenstein is the show runner, he is writing the pilot now.  We’ll see if it goes anywhere!

(ER)  Thank you so much!

And with that we ended our call.  Susan Feniger was hospitable, friendly, and after only a few minutes I felt like I was talking with an old friend.  That’s the great thing about her food as well – it has all those welcoming qualities, and warms not only the belly, but also the heart.

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