Restaurant years are like dog years. If a restaurant survives one year, it's like seven in the real world. So when two women chefs make a go of it for nearly 30 years -- not only one restaurant but several, and TV and radio cooking shows, cookbooks, merchandise, catering and a heavy schedule of fundraisers for their favorite charities -- it's nigh on miraculous. Susan Feniger is one-half of the Too Hot Tamales; with her business partner and friend, Mary Sue Milliken, she's entered the pantheon of L.A. überüber-chefs, with Mexican-inspired restaurants Border Grill and Ciudad. Knowing when to hold 'em and also when to fold 'em is a mysterious skill even among restaurateurs, and both Feniger and Milliken possess it (though many Angelenos still mourn the end of their first hole-in-the-wall effort on Melrose, City Cafe). As of this spring, Feniger has also struck out on her own with Susan Feniger's Street, serving her versions of street food. She makes a daily loop among her restaurants, new and old, and the Brentwood house she shares with her life partner, filmmaker Liz Lachman, and alights at Street to talk shop.
What was your first restaurant meal?
How did a girl from Toledo, Ohio, cultivate a palate for Third World cuisine?
My mom was a really great cook -- not that she did exotic things, but if she was making a salad, she'd make the dressing and add seasoning. If she was making a lasagna, the tomato sauce would be a complex tomato sauce, not just out of a can. So I learned from her it's all about the seasoning. My first trip to India influenced how I saw food. I love Latin America, love being in Mexico, but when I was [in India], it was like, these are my people. And the colors -- the olive greens and mustards and cayennes.
You describe colors in food terms.
It's true, it's how I think.
Come on, what's your favorite junk food?
One of my favorite things to eat [as a child] was a box of frozen Birds Eye green beans, the French beans. I loved those. I wasn't a big sweets person and I'm still not. I love Cheetos or popcorn. I eat popcorn a lot.
Why don't all chefs weigh 5,000 pounds?
I wouldn't want to sit and have a big meal, because I want to be able to go into the kitchen and taste everything, and once you've had a big meal, things taste very different. My Chinese doctor wants me to eat in the morning, but I just can't do that, because I want to walk through the kitchen and taste every single thing, even if it's just a spoonful, and that's like having a meal. The only time I really eat a big meal is if I'm sitting down and having a meeting. Or I'll eat late at night. If it's not popcorn, I'll have a drink and cheese and crackers and an artichoke and avocado, and it's 1 o'clock in the morning.
You met your business and cooking partner, Mary Sue Milliken, when you both worked at a Chicago restaurant almost 30 years ago; your ex-husband married her. How is it, not working with her for the first time?
It's really great for my own sense of who I am. It's been majorly exciting, inspiring, freeing, invigorating, challenging. What's scary is, now, you can't blame [problems] on anybody [else]! So we'll see. We're in a miserable economy right now, but we have a great company with great people.
You two have had so much going: cookbooks, TV and radio shows, teaching, even souvenir shirts and caps. Do you ever worry about getting too far from the food?
No. I feel I have stayed very hands-on in all the restaurants. When Street opened, I can honestly say my days were 16, 18 hours, seven days a week, for the first four months. Intense. I was in front of the wood-burning oven, 800 degrees, 12 hours a day -- I lost 10 pounds in the first six weeks.
For years in L.A., it seemed like there was just Chasen's and Perino's on the high end and coffee shops and mom-and-pop places for the rest of us. Why did L.A. experience the Big Bang in restaurants?
I started working at Ma Maison in 1978 or 1979. In 1981, I went to France for a year to work, came back, we opened City Cafe and, around that time, Wolf [ Wolfgang Puck] opened Spago, and that's when it all started. All of a sudden people started looking to chefs instead of to restaurants. It became very chef-driven.
Is there anything you won't eat?
Drinking turtle blood, something like that! I don't need to try every single thing just to say I tried it. Some people do. I don't. I'm curious, but if it grosses me out, that's not a challenge. If I truly spent the time thinking about it, I would be a vegetarian, but I love meat so. ... So much of street food is vegetarian. Many of our dishes are either vegetarian or have a little bit of meat, minimal. We almost use meat as a condiment.