Used to be, if you wanted to be a chef, the path was fairly straightforward. You begged to be allowed entry into a working kitchen, you slaved and learned, slaved and learned. After years of being too poor to eat anywhere but at work, you might advance in the ranks. Someday, if you were lucky and hard-working and imaginative and perhaps bold, you would find yourself the head of your own kitchen--maybe even owner of the restaurant.
Then you would do your magic and, if all the elements fell into place--if your decor pleased the senses and the food was up to snuff and in line with current tastes; if you were located where the rents weren't prohibitive, the local business ordinances not too restrictive--customers from your city would flock, and your reputation would grow. If everything was clicking, positively humming along (Your Restaurant's Name Here) would be a must for anyone who lived in or was visiting (Your Town's Name Here)
Today, a chef's life can be much more complex. It might not be enough to feed the town. With the onslaught of cable and satellite television, carrying a food channel as well as cooking shows on the Discovery Channel and PBS, today it might just be your desire to feed the world.
Witness Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.
Starting in 1981 with City Cafe, a tiny restaurant on Melrose Avenue, these two have survived rocky economies and civil unrest and emerged as two of the hottest celebrity chefs on the national food scene. They have a popular radio show, an active Web site (one of the first restaurant Web sites in existence), a CD titled "Cocktail Hour," a line of gourmet dried chiles that can be used in many of the recipes from their four briskly selling cookbooks, two cooking shows that are available to 30 million viewers many times daily, and plans for multi-location signature restaurants.
In an industry with a nasty divorce rate, they have survived a 16-year partnership spent finishing each other's sentences and traveling the world. And in a town not known for praising famous women, a town where success breeds either fawning or hopeful animosity, everyone loves the Too Hot Tamales.
At this moment they are on the fourth floor of the L.A. Mart in downtown Los Angeles, in a room large enough to accommodate a good-sized senior prom, rushing. There isn't a sense of panic, merely a fast-paced, complicated choreography that includes perhaps a dozen people. They are preparing a presentation for the well-behaved mob--owners of gift-basket companies and fine-food shops from around the country--waiting outside the ballroom. It is just before 1 in the afternoon; the line of conventioneers started forming at 10. Susan Feniger scans the table laid out on a stage, a makeshift kitchen--too close to show time, there appears to be an absence of garlic.
Feniger, 44, is the smaller of the two, the one with darker hair, a brasher countenance, seemingly louder--the one with the more pronounced Midwestern accent. She assesses the problem with that constant state of distraction particular to busy empresses. So much to do, so little time.
An assistant is dispatched to retrieve from the adjacent service kitchen a bowl containing a small mound of peeled garlic cloves. These are placed on the table with bowls, cups and platters filled with, among other things, olive oil, chopped Roma tomatoes, diced red onion, cotija cheese, cilantro, rock shrimp, fish stock, limes, Italian parsley, fresh cactus paddles, ancho and serrano chiles.
Feniger's partner, Mary Sue Milliken, 39, emerges from backstage, tying an apron around her waist. She is the one with blond hair in a sensible bob cut, the one who smiles a lot. There's a distracted focus about her. She climbs up onstage and the two make last-minute preparations, sharpening knives, placing hand towels on their persons, just so. It's like watching Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders in the Dallas Cowboys locker room, minutes before the game--taping their ankles, adjusting the tightness of a shoe's laces. There are rituals involved here, instinctual preparations. Each woman produces a list, against which the ingredients are triple-checked.
Someone reminds everyone that it's a quarter after 1. Feniger and Milliken unconsciously draw a deep breath, in unison, and together exhale. The matter of whether to be on or off the stage as the crowd files in is briefly discussed, and the decision is made to enter after the crowd does. While only a demonstration, this is, after all, a show, and there are expectations for shows, roles for the audience and certain conduct becoming the stars.
After the two are safely offstage and out of view, the doors to the ballroom are opened and 200 assorted people file in and take their seats. They are made to wait an additional five minutes to let anticipation build. When Feniger and Milliken finally are introduced, they enter and take the stage to thunderous applause.