Susan Feniger has worked with culinary masters like Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck, but she’s earned her spot as one of the best chefs in America all of her own merit. The “Top Chef Masters” star is personally responsible for changing the landscape of fine dining in Los Angeles with the arrival of her street-food inspired eatery, Street, and vows that she is determined to make the food industry less of a man’s world. Here, the empowering restaurateur discusses her passion for street food, the release of her new cookbook, “Susan Feniger’s Street Food: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Stick, Sweet Recipes” and how playing “matchmaker” helped to shape her future.
Q How did Street come to be?
A I was always drawn to eating on the street. In India, street food is a way of life. No matter where I went in the world—Turkey, Israel, Vietnam, Spain, Mexico— my culinary experiences became all about what I could find from the local culture. That’s what I do and love, as opposed to really eating in restaurants; eating street food is how I get my inspiration.
Q What are your go-to LA restaurants?
A For brunch I love Back on the Beach in Santa Monica because I can read the LA Times, get a latte, sit on the sand and have breakfast. For lunch I’ll have the Godmother at Bay City and the Bombay Café in West LA is a great spot for dinner. The Golden Bowl has amazing dirty martinis. My favorite dessert is from a place in Koreatown called Honey Pig; they have rice that’s scraped off a grill and served as dessert. It sounds odd, but it’s really yummy. Really, I’m a creature of habit; I go to the same places forever. After I’ve spent my whole day working, I enjoy having that quality time at the end of the day to unwind and talk somewhere where I feel relaxed and comfortable.
Q Why did you choose LA as your home base?
A I was working in Chicago when I met my business partner of 30 years, Mary Sue [Milliken]. I took off to the south of France and then landed in LA to open this tiny, 11-table restaurant called City Café in 1981. I convinced Mary Sue to move out as well. At the time, she was dating all these weird guys and I told her that she would just love my ex-husband, Josh [Schweitzer]. He was my high school sweetheart, but hadn’t really been speaking to me a lot after we parted ways and I came out [as a lesbian]. Anyway, I somehow managed to convince Josh to move out to LA and design my first big restaurant, CITY. I introduced Mary Sue to Josh and the rest is history. They’ve been married some 20-odd years and I’m the godmother of their kids. LA is home; it’s where my family is.
Q Do you think it’s more difficult for women chefs to make it in the food industry?
A For sure it was—and probably still is—a man’s world in many ways. There are certainly many women who are now involved in the culinary world, but not many at the higher levels. I’ve never acknowledged it until recently, but I think that there is definitely a different way in which the business and investment community looks at men and women when you’re trying to get restaurant funding. There are numerous men that probably aren’t running their businesses any smarter or better, but have financial partners that just keep backing them with more and more money. But I don’t let it affect what I do or how I do it: I go out and get what I want.
Q Do you have any advice for aspiring female chefs?
A Go after what you’re passionate about and never take your success for granted. Never let your ego drive you, and never let yourself get caught up thinking that you’re so hot or successful that you can’t fail. It’s all very day-to-day, like the entertainment world. You need to keep focused and not let things get to you. Get yourself the training to be able to make smart decisions. That’s how you move forward and have staying power.
Q What is the most exciting thing about being a chef?
A I love everything about the restaurant business. I love the interaction with people, the food I’m creating, and the uniform I wear every day to work. But as for what excites me the most about my career—it’s that I always keep growing and learning.
Q Who are your favorite female chefs?
A Julia Child is the most amazing to me, not only because of her knowledge, but also because of her ongoing search for knowledge. She had such complete generosity with sharing information and teaching others. I also really respect Alice Waters [the owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA].
Q What’s next for you?
A I just released my new cookbook, Susan Feniger’s Street Food: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes, which I’m totally jazzed about. I’m also working on scouting another location for Street. I’m totally buried with work!