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The Best Lines from Susan Feniger’s Interview With The Upsell

The Border Grill chef weighs in on LA’s dining scene, the authenticity debate and more

Los Angeles LGBT Center's 'An Evening With Women'
Susan Feniger
Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Los Angeles LGBT Center

From her beginnings at City Cafe on La Brea in 1981, through a 27-year run at Border Grill in Santa Monica, Susan Feniger is a titan of LA’s restaurant industry. And with more than 400 episodes of Food Network’s Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour with famously close partner Mary Sue Milliken under her belt (and a Top Chef Masters appearance to boot), Feniger hardly needs any further introduction within food circles in general. Here are 10 potent quotables from her recent interview on the Eater Upsell with Greg Morabito.

How her friendship with Mary Sue Milliken began: “We started off as the first two women in that kitchen [at Le Perroquet in Chicago], we were women in a French kitchen and you had to be pretty driven.”

And how LA became the spot for her and Milliken: “[At City Cafe], I had two hibachis in the parking lot in the back, one hot plate and I told [Milliken] you should just stay [in Los Angeles] and do this restaurant with me. She said, ‘If you put in an oven, I’ll consider moving out.’ So I did, and that was the beginning of City Cafe.”

What makes being a chef in LA great: “It’s an incredibly close community, all of us, I wouldn’t hesitate to call Wolf [Wolfgang Puck], Bob Spivak, Suzanne [Goine] and Nancy [Silverton]. It feels like it has always been very close. There was something there that didn’t feel competitive. It always felt warm and friendly, and sharing information. That wasn’t necessarily the case in New York or San Francisco.”

On her work/life balance at Ma Maison with Wolfgang Puck in the 70s: “I had come from a Chicago restaurant called Le Perroquet. I thought, ‘This guy [Puck] doesn’t know what he’s doing’… [Ma Maison’s] kitchen was way more lax, we were out partying every night, doing drugs.”

On the authenticity debate: “Authenticity was a big thing for Mary Sue and I. We wanted to do dishes either one of us had learned from someone, ideally while you were in the country, and just do it as well as they did it. We felt like there’s so many generations that have perfected things so well, we just need to learn that cuisine, that culture and understand it. We were just trying to recreate what was done forever.”

Service isn’t just an industry, it’s a mentality: “At our first staff meeting at City Restaurant: Most important thing is that all of our customers get treated with respect, whether they’re celebrities or they’re not, you can’t be snooty, you can’t have an attitude. You have to have respect for the customer, no matter how busy or how slow.”

Casually creating an LA public radio phenomenon: “We decided at some point, we wanted to approach Ruth Seymour, who was head of KCRW, we approached her with an idea, we wanted to do a 5-minute political food show. We wanted to talk about sustainability and frozen food, and we invited her over to lunch. [Instead], they gave us a 30-minute show, and we came up with the name Good Food. The person who was the intern at the time was Jennifer Ferro, who is now head of KCRW.”

“Vacationing” in New York for Food Network tapings: “We were going to New York filming six shows a day, five days a week, thirty shows a week. We filmed a total of 460 shows of Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour. We would go to NY, start at 7 in the morning. Finish filming at 5 or 6 in the evening, and Mary Sue and I would go out and party all night, cause it was like a short day. When we’re in LA, we’d be at work at 7 and done at midnight, so it was like a vacation for 5 days.”

The only thing that bugged her about her elimination from Top Chef Masters: “I lost on literally one of the dishes from Street that was the most loved dish ever on the menu, which blew me away. [It was] the Kaya toast.”

And is chili a soup? “No. I think it’s between a stew and a soup.”

Border Grill

1445 4th St, Santa Monica, CA 90401 310-451-1655