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03/23/2011 01:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Susan Feniger: How I Made It In LA

When she enters Street, the restaurant she owns with Kajsa Alger, Susan Feniger immediately greets an employee with a smile and a hug. Later, she mentions that she has already been to Border Grill Santa Monica, the restaurant she owns with long-time business partner Mary Sue Milliken, and has to head to a meeting at Border Grill Downtown after lunch. But what's more impressive than Feniger's ability to bounce around LA in a single day while still engaging guests and offering encouragement to her staff, is her long list of accomplishments.

Feniger is a chef, restaurateur, Top Chef Masters contestant, author of multiple cookbooks and a TV and radio personality. Her achievements have helped solidify Los Angeles as a culinary capital as much as they have helped her leave her own mark on the city over the last thirty years. If there's anything you can learn from Susan Fenigar 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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Before settling in Los Angeles, her passion for food took her across the globe. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, she honed her kitchen skills in upstate New York, Kansas City and Chicago, where she first met future business partner Mary Sue Milliken. But long before she and Milliken would decide to go into business together, Feniger first chose to head out West.

"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." She applied to work in French restaurants around LA and was offered a job as a line chef in Wolfgang Puck's Ma Maison. Puck's laidback vibe fit with Feniger's sensibilities, and she found working there to be a perfect fit: "The kitchen was quite a bit different than the stricter French ones I'd been working in, even though we were busy as could be. But the thinking about food was more progressive -- it was the beginning of California cuisine."

"I was very, very driven at that point so I offered to work the morning shift for free, and then my night shift was paid," she says matter-of-factly. "I did that for 6 to 8 months. 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."

Before starting a venture of her own, Feniger left LA, and with the help of Ma Maison's owner, Patrick Terrall, she secured an unpaid position working in the South of France. She soaked up as much knowledge as she could, and at the end of the season, she headed north to reconnect with Milliken, who had been working in Paris. "I ended up moving into her little studio apartment, and we moved the mattress to the floor, and she slept on the box springs. You couldn't move, the place was that small," Feniger recalls, laughing a little. "And we got an externship. We weren't being paid but we got to hang out in the kitchen in one of the biggest catering companies in Paris, which was run by Patrick Terrall's uncle." The two women spent their days working and their evenings cooking in Milliken's kitchen and exploring the markets of Paris for about a month. Then, Feniger remembers, "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." She admits, "we had never even talked about it, but we decided, and we started thinking 'where should we go?'"

For Feniger, the obvious choice was Los Angeles, "I ended up back in LA because I knew it and because I think the sensibility fit me," she reiterates. Initially, Milliken went home to Chicago, and Feniger went back to work at Ma Maison. After working the morning shift, she would head to a tiny café owned by LA Eyeworks, where she prepared specials on a hot plate and hibachi grill outside. "At that point, we were going to farmers' markets even though there weren't as many. We were going down to Chino farms outside of San Diego to pick out unbelievable produce and working with a horticulture program in Brentwood." She jokes that California at the time -- especially with its acceptance of and openness toward women in the kitchen -- had a "very hippie vibe," then adds, "maybe that's the way I viewed it through my own glasses" (which are made by LA Eyeworks, of course).

It wasn't long before Mary Sue Milliken joined Feniger, and the two opened City Café on Melrose. They then began to look toward new ventures inspired by their other passions. "After City Café," Feniger says, "I started to spend time in India. I fell in love with it the first time I visited, probably about 28 years ago. Everything about it -- the colors, culture, food, the people, the spirit -- it was just right for me. It was inspiring." The inspiration abroad led to the creation of their next project -- City Restaurant, a bigger undertaking that would draw upon Feniger's love of Indian culture and Milliken's time spent in Thailand, which opened on La Brea and 2nd.

City Restaurant allowed the chefs and business partners to explore their other culinary interests in LA as well. "The question was what do we do next?" Feniger remembers. Inspired by a small taco stand on Western and Melrose, the two women decided to focus their efforts on Latin cuisine. Once again, they combined their passion for food and travel and visited the family of a coworker in Mexico City, in hopes of learning more about the authentic cuisine. The two used what they learned and opened a restaurant showcasing such food. The result was Border Grill.

Even today, Feniger remains modest when looking back on how the pair finally 'made' it in LA, "There was never really any intention about how to grow," she admits with a shrug. "I just really wanted to do the stuff I wanted to do." Following the opening of Border Grill, the pair enjoyed a succession of cookbooks, appearances on TV and the opening of Cuidad, a restaurant focused on Latin flavors from around the world. Feniger and Milliken were no doubt soon considered culinary heavyweights in the dining world and even experts in Latin cuisine. Their list of accomplishments included, among other things, a show on KCET, appearances alongside Julia Child on Cooking with Master Chefs and cookbooks, such as Mesa Mexicana, Cantina: The Best of Casual Mexican Cooking Cooking with Too Hot Tamales, and Mexican Cooking for Dummies. Other "bits and pieces," as Feniger puts it, "all sort of just happened." When the newly-created Food Network, for example, "asked if we wanted a show, it was like 'okay!' and that's when Too Hot Tamales started," taping over 400 episodes during its run on television.

Part of what has made Feniger and Milliken so successful seems to be their ability to seize new opportunities with enthusiasm. Feniger states this rather modestly, surmising, "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," she says, downplaying the duo's ability to expand much further, take on new ventures, and successfully showcase other flavors from around the world. "But really, I've just always done what I'm passionate about. Which is why I opened Street."

Street, Feniger's newest venture, marks the first time in thirty years the chef has embarked on a project without Milliken. Working alongside partner Kajsa Alger, Feniger decided to try something new. "[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." Feniger wanted to create a restaurant that celebrated local, traditional street food from around the world. Her newest venture offers food from different cultures to a booked room every night, and offers a lunch menu with all items under $11. The restaurant reflects the unique and diverse feel of LA, mixing murals, architecture, and eclectic music from around the world. Feniger herself is just as much a part of Street's vibrant yet laidback ambience, as she can be found mingling with guests, greeting old faces or welcoming newcomers before disappearing into the kitchen.

It's no wonder that while other big name chefs have expanded into other cities, all except one of Feniger's restaurants are located in Los Angeles. She says this is because "part of what I like about being in the restaurant business is being IN the restaurants." Despite all of her success, Feniger appears neither arrogant nor jaded, as one could expect of a well-known, well-established celebrity chef. "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.'" Feniger's low-key approach to her own celebrity may be the trait that has kept her humble in spite of all her success. In fact, at moments Feniger still shows signs of a young chef just starting out. When thinking back on Ma Maison she says, "I got completely star struck with every VIP that came in -- Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Orson Wells, I mean every star." Then, she pauses and interjects, "and that was thirty plus years ago, and I'm still star struck."

Though Feniger may appear to have reached the top of her game, she has no plans to slow down. "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?" Having become a major player in the dining world, the chef looks forward to even more in the future. "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."

Feniger does concede that the restaurant industry is challenging. "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." She warns those just starting out not to get too ahead of themselves or romanticize the business without first gaining experience. Her advice for any young Angeleno looking to make it in the industry is this: "A lot about being in the restaurant business is gaining experience and learning and growing and understanding people and what makes it all work." And of course, the passion must be there too.

Giving Back

Even before she made it in LA, Susan Feniger was as committed to her involvement in the community as in her businesses. "Mary Sue and I have given back from day one. And here, Kajsa and I give back at Street," because, she explains "we've been supported by the community, and we need to support the community." Feniger has been a board member of the Scleroderma Research Foundation for 25 years. Feniger had a friend who suffered from degenerative disease before losing her battle to it eight years ago, and remarks that she is happy to use her status to help fund research for Scleroderma. The foundation has produced 23 installments of its fundraiser, Cool Comedy, Hot Cuisine, which pair's food with big comedy acts in cities like New York, LA and San Francisco. "We net about 1 million dollars a year for research," Feniger beams, "and we've had performers like Ellen DeGeneres, Conan and Leno. We have one coming up on May 4th in San Francisco with Dana Carvey and Jeff Garland." Feniger is committed to offering her time and skills through auctions of private dinners, cocktail parties and fundraisers.

She's also an active board member for the LA Gay and Lesbian Center. "It's unbelievable," she gushes about how proud she is of the work the center does "for seniors and kids on the street, and with its medical facilities." Ultimately, Feniger hopes that her work in the community will inspire others. "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."