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Susan Feniger: How I Made It In Los Angeles

The Huffington Post     First Posted: 03/31/11 01:14 PM ET   Updated: 05/31/11 06:12 AM ET

Before Top Chef Masters made her a household name across the country, Susan Feniger was already considered a 'top chef' here in LA, with restaurants like City Cafe, Cuidad, Border Grill, and Street. For thirty years, she's made LA a hub for serious foodies as much as she's left her own mark on the city. If there's anything you can learn from Susan Feniger about how to make it in LA, it's that success comes from drive, passion and a desire to keep exploring what lies ahead. Put most simply in Feniger's own words, "life's too short to not do what you love and be passionate about it."

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Susan Feniger next to the wall art outside of Street.
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You're a Midwest girl. What brought you to LA?
"I had just come out [as gay] a couple years before that so the idea of going to California, which seemed more liberal, open and progressive made more sense to me... The thinking about food was more progressive -- it was the beginning of California cuisine. I learned a ton there about products you didn't see on the East Coast or Midwest. The agriculture was different and the culture certainly -- having access to Korean and Latin markets, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo. Even back then, it was pretty amazing for me."

When and where did you get the idea to open a restaurant?
Feniger and a former coworker, Mary Sue Milliken, spent a month working, cooking, eating, and exploring in Paris after Feniger completed a job working in the south of France one summer. "One night we had made dinner and it was pouring rain, and we were probably on our second bottle of wine, and there was this rainbow we saw out of Mary Sue's little window. And we sort of decided we would open a restaurant together. We had never even talked about it, but we decided, and we started thinking 'where should we go?'"

Why not stay in Paris?
"I ended up back in LA because I knew it and because I think the sensibility fit me. Its acceptance of and openness toward women in the kitchen... had a very hippie vibe."

When did you know you had made it in LA?
"There was never really any intention about how to grow. I just really wanted to do the stuff I wanted to do. It all sort of just happened. Like when Food Network asked if we wanted a show, it was like 'okay!' and that's when Too Hot Tamales started. Maybe it was that [Milliken and I] were in the right place at the right time. We were two women with French training in really great French restaurants. But really, I've just always done what I'm passionate about. Which is why I opened Street."

Why Street?
"[Milliken and my] focus ended up moving all into the Latin kitchen, which I love. We did Too Hot Tamales and opened Cuidad, which was sort of the Latin version of City. But I also had a passion for street food everywhere."

You're a big time chef--how do you keep your ego in check?
"My partner, my girlfriend, works in the entertainment industry and has always kept it in perspective for me. She says 'you should never lose your day job.' [When working at Ma Maison after culinary school] I got completely star struck with every VIP that came in -- Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Orson Wells, I mean every star. And that was thirty plus years ago, and I'm still star struck."

What's next?
"Our goal right now is: how are we going to grow the food trucks, how are we going to grow Border Grill, how are we going grow Street? I love the idea of expanding. It's all about the team of people and having people work in a place where they're happy about their environment. And it starts from the top."

How tough is it to run a restaurant in LA?
"It's a lot to run a restaurant. It's about people and hospitality. In LA we've had earthquakes, fires, riots, and we're in the worst recession most of us have ever seen. A lot about being in the restaurant business is gaining experience and learning and growing and understanding people and what makes it all work."

This city has been good to you, how do you give back? Feniger has been a board member of the Scleroderma Research Foundation for 25 years and an active board member of the LA Gay and Lesbian Center.
"Mary Sue and I have given back from day one. And here, Kajsa and I give back at Street. We've been supported by the community, and we need to support the community. We net about 1 million dollars a year for research [through Scleroderma's Cool Comedy, Hot Cuisine fundraisers] and we've had performers like Ellen DeGeneres, Conan and Leno. [The LA Gay and Lesbian Center] is unbelievable...for seniors and kids on the street, and with its medical facilities. We give an opportunity for young people who work for us to see that you can do this as a business person -- you can give back. If you don't give money, you can still give your time."

Susan Feniger's Top Picks:

Quick Bite: Central Market for a papusa or a gordita; Samosa House for quick Indian food and a chai.

To Die For Dessert: Butterscotch Pudding at Mozza or Tres leche at Border Grill.

Cocktails Or Coffee?: Golden Bull for a dirty martini.

Work Out: Home when I can, early in the morning, or taking a walk with the dogs and my gal in the park.

Pet Peeve:I would love to have more late night places, coffee houses, streets to walk on, and taxis.

One place every Angleno must see/experience/visit before they can call themselves a true Angeleno? Walking on the beach early in the morning, Joshua Tree, Two Bunch Palms. Basically see the beach, see the desert and the city, all within two hours of each other. That blows me away.

One tip on how to make it here Learn all the pockets in LA; the communities are amazing.

To get the full scoop, check out the entire piece here.

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