LA Chef Susan Feniger

(Originally published March 4, 2013 on Examiner.com).

Note since this article was originally published, Chef Feniger re-concepted her Street restaurant.

Look up a definition for the verb “connecting” and you’re likely to find a picture of Chef Susan Feniger. On her travels, she connects with street vendors to learn about their cultures. In her restaurants, she connects with her customers through friendly rapport as well as with her staff via respectful communication. And in her community, she connects with even more people who share her concerns and convictions through her active participation on boards of organizations and in numerous events.

 Chef Feniger’s bridge to other cultures, people and her community is food. When she travels the globe, through a translating guide, she communicates with street vendors selling their food in markets, as well as on carts and in alleyways, and then often ends up in these vendors’ kitchens learning family recipes. This is what happened thirty years ago, on her first trip to India and what continues to occur on here more recent culinary adventures.

On her most recent trip to Shanghai, China, with the assistance a Chinese speaking Aussie guide in the food industry, Feniger was up early eating on the streets at four thirty in the morning with great breakfast food including both salty and sweet sticky rice stuffed in donuts and then served respectively with pickles or sugar. These breakfast desserts were then washed down with freshly homemade soy milk. Here at this sticky rice and soy milk cart, this early morning street dynamic helped her connect through the food to the family making it. That family consisted of a husband, his wife, their two children and a cousin.

Depending on the demands of her growing number of restaurants (Street, several Border Grill locations plus the Border Grill trucks), Feniger travels as time allows. Now most of her vacations she ends up filming either for content for the web or for potential television shows. Her trip to Shanghai was with the California Board of Tourism. The year before Susan visited Vietnam. When she’s visiting these other countries and eating the food, for her restaurant menus back home, Susan’s searching for what’s the most interesting and exciting food that her customers will love, not the most bizarre foods for shock value.

So in Chef Susan Feniger’s restaurants, Border Grill and Street, with her respective business partners,Mary Sue Milliken and Kajsa Alger, the menus take these exciting dishes that these three have tasted on their respective travels (that may or may not be familiar) and bring them back here to Los Angeles. They think these items are great and most suitable for their customers’ palates. The kaya (coconut jam) toast, the Singapore hangover cure, one of the most talked about items on Street’s menu, is just one example of such an item. When Street opened four years ago to the best of Feniger’s knowledge no other restaurant in the country had that dish on its menu. Now two other restaurants in Los Angeles are doing kaya. So for Feniger, and her respective business partners, they translate dishes sometimes authentically, sometimes not, to what their customers want often pushing boundaries with what’s unfamiliar, but not necessarily bizarre.

Since Feniger’s restaurants have globally inspired food and street food on their menus translated for American palates and presented in restaurant environments, price points are adjusted to reflect better ingredients as well as the higher level of ambiance and service. Higher food costs for many exotic or unusual ingredients like lime and pandan leaves are also factored into establishing price points since many of these unusual ingredients can be quite expensive here in Los Angeles. Lime leaves for example are nine dollars a pound, which is quite a bit for produce. In Los Angeles though with its many ethnic markets, Feniger is able to source most of the ingredients she needs for her cuisine.

To keep her staff on its toes, account for seasonality, and keep her regular customers coming back, menu changes, specials, and special events are frequent. Up to eighty percent of the menu may change every few months. Special events are advertised via social media. One recent event at Street, a vegetarian dim sum brunch featured versions of many of Feniger’s favorite dishes she experienced on her trip to Shanghai.

One item Susan found really interesting in Shangai were pancakes made of rice flour, water and baking soda steamed between garbage can lids fed by a steam pipe until the pancakes were all puffed up. However the American pallet doesn’t connect with just a rice flour pancake. According to Susan, for the American pallet, items need to be either savory or sweet. So for her dim sum brunch Feniger took that gluten free rice pancake and served it as a breakfast pancake with coconut cream in the center and black sesame syrup.

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Despite the demands of numerous locations, and being torn between a ton of stuff like books and media, Chef Feniger still finds time to actively engage and connect with her staff in the kitchens of her various restaurant (Border Grill and Street) locations for tastings for these menu changes, specials, and special events. Often she’ll also work the line for an hour during rush especially in the downtown location of Border Grill. So she’s in her kitchen a ton, as well as on the flooring engaging and connecting with her customers and front of house staff.

With both her back of house kitchen, and front of house crews she treats everyone fairly, communicating with her staff, from dishwasher to her general managers, in a respectful way. There’s no yelling or screaming. If someone is going to be fired, that person is given reasonable forewarning that he or she is doing a bad job. Additionally the relationship between her front and back of house staffs is great. They work closely together. Restaurants just don’t work well when there is animosity.

According to Chef Feniger, in restaurants where the “Hell’s Kitchen” stereotype is the philosophy, “…you don’t get loyalty or employees who want to be there for you.” Feniger further asserts that, “you can be a strong boss and give people direction without having to scream.”

Plus a large part of what Chef Feniger does is mentoring. She advices her line cooks and sous chefs that they need to work their respective ways up through a kitchen, for a couple years and then move on to several other kitchens to do the same so that these young cooks and chefs learn how four or five different kitchens work as well as what it’s like to work with different chefs; getting to know each chef’s style of management and different techniques. Feniger emphasizes that young cooks and chefs need to “absorb it all so you can develop your own style” plus “understand food costs, labor costs, HR issues as well as be creative in how you manage these costs” before opening their own restaurants. .

As an early participant on the Food Network as well as a participant on Top Chef Masters, Chef Feniger feels all the cooking shows are great because they open peoples’ eyes to the world of food. However she cautions young chefs to be careful, especially the ones who become popular through participating on these shows, since many of the chefs don’t have all the experience required to run a restaurant. Thus these young chefs often instead learn the same lessons Susan teaches her staff the hard and costly way.

One huge lesson Chef Feniger teaches her crew at her restaurants Border Grill and Street is the importance of giving back to the community. Feniger says, “we support the community because the community is where we live and who supports us. Plus it’s a really great way for the team to see the importance of giving back. If you can teach young kids the importance of giving back, it’s really great.”

Feniger and her team give back in a variety of ways especially through participation in a number of events as both the “headliner” providing all the food or as one of many restaurant participants. As a long time member of the Gay and Lesbian Center, Feniger co-chairs the upcoming fundraising event for this center called “Simply Divine”, a food and wine event on Sunday April 7th that takes over Melrose Pace with twenty restaurants, twenty vendors, numerous wineries and local breweries. Feniger’s Streetrestaurant this year is also providing the food for the Scleroderma Research Foundation’s “Cool Comedy – Hot Cuisine” hosted by Bob Saget at Beverly Wilshire Hotel with great comedy and music. Feniger has been on the Scleroderma Research Foundation’s board for over twenty five years. Additionally a Border Grill food truck will be present at an upcoming event for Planned Parenthood.

So again community involvement is paramount for Chef Feniger and is a value she strongly instills within the staffs of her different restaurants. This value is shared by her business partners. Mary Sue Miliken, for example, sits on the board of Share Our Strength actively supporting this group’s events.

Another community with which Susan interacts is the community of chefs in Los Angeles. Feniger feels that this community of chefs makes the Los Angeles restaurant world special. This community has always been supportive rather than competitive. This camaraderie, along with the natural bounty of produce in this region, is one of the most significant things that Feniger feels distinguishes Los Angeles from other restaurant cities in the U.S.

So whether it’s with other chefs, her staff, her patrons, outreach to her community or interactions on her travels, Chef Susan Feniger is always connecting with other people through her generous and gregarious nature and with her food. Her passion is contagious. Plus her language is unambiguous and sincere. As Feniger opens additional locations of her concepts, and does additional culinary adventures, she’ll have even more opportunities to connect with even more people. And for Feniger the restaurant business is a people business, for her there isn’t anything more important than people, whether it’s the staff who works with her, or the customers coming in. As Feniger definitely stated “it’s all about people.” Yes, indeed it is.

 

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