Good Taste: Out in the kitchen with Susan Feniger

Along the way to this “new normal” world of celesbian chefs, out chef Susan Feniger is a trailblazer, having starred in hundreds of episodes of the Food Network’s Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour in the ‘90s with her business partner, Mary Sue Milliken. She also co-founded City Cafe, CITY Restaurant, Border Grill, and Ciudad. Her latest project is a solo venture, the restaurant Street. The menu is composed of street food recipes sourced from around the world.

Feniger also appeared on Top Chef Masters in 2010. She’s on the boards of the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the Scleroderma Research Foundation.

On the phone, she’s a voluble lady mensch, bubbling over with thoughts, insights, and personal history. The next time I’m in LA, you can bet I’m going to pay Street a visit and enjoy all the scintillating tastiness of street food without the sensible apprehension of food poisoning that goes along with it. Lots of celebrities (and celebrity chefs) have come out in the last ten years. But you were out even before Ellen. What was that like?

Susan Feniger:
It feels like I’ve been out forever. The restaurant business is like the entertainment world — it’s filled with lots of gay men and women and it always has been.

Twenty-five to 30 years ago, I was out to everyone around me, but when I was being interviewed [by the press] … I wasn’t hiding, but I also wasn’t putting it out there. I wasn’t out to the press. In the beginning, I was aware of not saying anything.

Being openly out has been something that’s very natural, and I feel that it’s created an environment for many people who worked for us that feels really safe. I love that. Even 25 years ago, we’d have staff parties, and you’d have a couple of the guys who’d come dressed up as women singers for talent shows and they’d sing. It was really sweet. People would feel comfortable to be who they were. Thirty years ago, that was a big thing.

Susan and partner Liz Lachman

AE: As a woman in a kitchen in a male-dominated field, how did you break through?

I was really passionate about being a chef and loved my career, loved learning about food, and everything about being young and in my career meant. I was excited and worked really hard — that was my MO. I worked in the south of France 33 years ago, in the three star-restaurant L’Oasis. When I was in cooking school, I stopped reading novels, and only read cookbooks.

I never thought about how “I’m a woman in a male-dominated world.” I thought, “I want to learn as much as I can.” In the end, even if it was a man’s kitchen, when you’re a really hard worker, that seemed to be the thing that stood out. For sure, there are kitchens where you can’t break through, but I never had that issue.

There was one chef I remember who was an a–hole, in a Chicago restaurant. We worked long hours, and it turned out that many years later — eight, nine, 10 years later — he ended up coming out. So maybe he was mean to me because I was out. The chef in France was very strict and was an intense chef, but I worked my butt off, and he and I had a great relationship. I wanted to take it all in, work day and night. In LA, I worked under Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison, and then nights at City Cafe (the cafe Feniger opened with her business partner, Mary Sue Milliken, in 1981).

AE: You and Mary Sue did almost 400 episodes of Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour on the Food Network in the 1990s. Did you see the beginnings of the chef-as-celebrity thing?

For sure you could see it beginning to change then, when that was happening. It took us to the next level.

AE: You were also on Top Chef Masters last year—the last female chef to be eliminated.

People are such fans of that show, I was blown away. I had never seen it, but people were pushing hard for me to do that show. I don’t think I had any idea of how many people really watched it.

AE: As a result of your participation, you raised $32,500 for the Scleroderma Research Foundation.

Yes, I felt that if I could use the opportunity to benefit the Scleroderma Research Foundation, I should do it. I lost my oldest, closest friend to scleroderma [a chronic rheumatic autoimmune disease], and I’m on the board of the Scleroderma Research Foundation. I’m also on the board of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, but scleroderma was less out there in the world. Being able to be on national tv and give it a face was a more important statement, and they’d end up filming my partner and me; it made a statement out there to the public that I was openly out, so that was good. In the end, it ended up being a great thing for me. I raised a bunch of money, and got sweet notes from people who have scleroderma or know someone who does.

I just thought, “Don’t let me lose in Round 1. After that, I don’t care. Now it’s about having fun.” It was stressful, definitely. Because chefs want to cover all their bases. If you’re out catering, you have a Plan B. On Top Chef Masters, you can’t have a Plan B, you have to come up with it in the moment. You’re used to being supported by prep people and sous chefs. Cooking in an hour — for 100 people — what can you do? I had to really be thinking, “What can I get done in that much time, for so much money and so many people … it’s incredibly challenging. It’s all about challenging yourself, that’s how I saw it. Not about who you’re competing against — you’re competing against yourself.

AE: Susan, you’ve accomplished a lot, but you’re definitely not complacent.

No, I’m not there yet. I have two pretty major projects on the table right now, and I’m working on a Border Grill at LAX, maybe next year, besides that, can’t really talk about the other things yet.

I’m also trying to grow Street and Border Grill. I’m really still passionate about the work. Wouldn’t it be nice to have time to hang out, go on vacation? My partner, Liz Lachman, is a writer and a director, and she’s on her own schedule. We’re both hard workers. We stay up late at night, get up early in the morning. We’re both very driven and want to grow our careers. One of the great things about being in a great relationship is allowing the other person to be who they are.

Coming in Part 2: How to get more exciting with your home-cooked Mexican foods, Susan’s mother’s role in her development into a chef, and creativity vs. flavor. We’ll leave you with this Border Grill recipe to tide you over until next week.

Sautéed Shrimp with Ancho Chiles and Garlic

Serves 4
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
25 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 3/4 pounds medium shrimp*, peeled and deveined
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 large ancho chiles, wiped clean, stemmed, seeded, and finely julienned
1 cup fish stock or clam juice
Juice of 2 to 3 large limes, about 1/2 cup
1 bunch Italian parsley, leaves only, chopped
Sauteed greens, for serving
Rice, for serving

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook the garlic slices until tender but not brown. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels and reserve.

Turn the heat under the pan up to high. Quickly toss the shrimp with the salt and pepper in a bowl. When oil is nearly smoking, add the shrimp. Sauté, stirring and shaking the pan to prevent sticking, 3 to 4 minutes or just until the shrimp are still slightly undercooked. Remove from the heat. With a slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to a platter, leaving as much liquid as possible in the pan.

Return the pan to the burner and reduce the heat to medium. Add the garlic slices and anchos and sauté, stirring frequently, until the oil begins to turn orange from the toasted chiles, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the fish stock or clam juice, lime juice, and parsley, along with the shrimp and any juice that has collected on the platter. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat. Serve immediately over greens sautéed with a touch of olive oil and garlic and your favorite rice.

*According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, when it comes to sustainable seafood, U.S. wild-caught or farmed shrimp is a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative”. Be sure to avoid imported shrimp. For more info about sustainable seafood, go to

Copyright © 2011, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger,

Candace is the co-editor of Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women (Seal Press, 2010), and Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On (Seal Press, 2009). She is currently working on a memoir-with-recipes for Seal Press called Licking the Spoon. Candace is also the features editor at Mothering magazine, mama of two, and enamorata of smarty-pants Laura, her live-in recipe tester. Follow Candace on Twitter @candacewalsh.