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Spice girl

September 19, 2009

Restaurant years are like dog years. If a restaurant survives one year, it's like seven in the real world. So when two women chefs make a go of it for nearly 30 years -- not only one restaurant but several, and TV and radio cooking shows, cookbooks, merchandise, catering and a heavy schedule of fundraisers for their favorite charities -- it's nigh on miraculous. Susan Feniger is one-half of the Too Hot Tamales; with her business partner and friend, Mary Sue Milliken, she's entered the pantheon of L.A. uber-chefs, with Mexican-inspired restaurants Border Grill and Ciudad. Knowing when to hold 'em and also when to fold 'em is a mysterious skill even among restaurateurs, and both Feniger and Milliken possess it (though many Angelenos still mourn the end of their first hole-in-the-wall effort on Melrose, City Cafe). As of this spring, Feniger has also struck out on her own with Susan Feniger's Street, serving her versions of street food. She makes a daily loop among her restaurants, new and old, and the Brentwood house she shares with her life partner, filmmaker Liz Lachman, and alights at Street to talk shop.

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What was your first restaurant meal?

I have a very clear memory of going on my birthday, [at age] 6 or 7, to this place called the Willows in Toledo, and I'd get lobster tail. I fell in love with lobster tail, so it became my birthday dinner.

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How did a girl from Toledo, Ohio, cultivate a palate for Third World cuisine?

My mom was a really great cook -- not that she did exotic things, but if she was making a salad, she'd make the dressing and add seasoning. If she was making a lasagna, the tomato sauce would be a complex tomato sauce, not just out of a can. So I learned from her it's all about the seasoning. My first trip to India influenced how I saw food. I love Latin America, love being in Mexico, but when I was [in India], it was like, these are my people. And the colors -- the olive greens and mustards and cayennes.

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You describe colors in food terms.

It's true, it's how I think.

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Come on, what's your favorite junk food?

One of my favorite things to eat [as a child] was a box of frozen Birds Eye green beans, the French beans. I loved those. I wasn't a big sweets person and I'm still not. I love Cheetos or popcorn. I eat popcorn a lot.

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Why don't all chefs weigh 5,000 pounds?

I wouldn't want to sit and have a big meal, because I want to be able to go into the kitchen and taste everything, and once you've had a big meal, things taste very different. My Chinese doctor wants me to eat in the morning, but I just can't do that, because I want to walk through the kitchen and taste every single thing, even if it's just a spoonful, and that's like having a meal. The only time I really eat a big meal is if I'm sitting down and having a meeting. Or I'll eat late at night. If it's not popcorn, I'll have a drink and cheese and crackers and an artichoke and avocado, and it's 1 o'clock in the morning.

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You met your business and cooking partner, Mary Sue Milliken, when you both worked at a Chicago restaurant almost 30 years ago; your ex-husband married her. How is it, not working with her for the first time?

It's really great for my own sense of who I am. It's been majorly exciting, inspiring, freeing, invigorating, challenging. What's scary is, now, you can't blame [problems] on anybody [else]! So we'll see. We're in a miserable economy right now, but we have a great company with great people.

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You two have had so much going: cookbooks, TV and radio shows, teaching, even souvenir shirts and caps. Do you ever worry about getting too far from the food?

No. I feel I have stayed very hands-on in all the restaurants. When Street opened, I can honestly say my days were 16, 18 hours, seven days a week, for the first four months. Intense. I was in front of the wood-burning oven, 800 degrees, 12 hours a day -- I lost 10 pounds in the first six weeks.

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For years in L.A., it seemed like there was just Chasen's and Perino's on the high end and coffee shops and mom-and-pop places for the rest of us. Why did L.A. experience the Big Bang in restaurants?

I started working at Ma Maison in 1978 or 1979. In 1981, I went to France for a year to work, came back, we opened City Cafe and, around that time, Wolf [Wolfgang Puck] opened Spago, and that's when it all started. All of a sudden people started looking to chefs instead of to restaurants. It became very chef-driven.

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Is there anything you won't eat?

Drinking turtle blood, something like that! I don't need to try every single thing just to say I tried it. Some people do. I don't. I'm curious, but if it grosses me out, that's not a challenge. If I truly spent the time thinking about it, I would be a vegetarian, but I love meat so. ... So much of street food is vegetarian. Many of our dishes are either vegetarian or have a little bit of meat, minimal. We almost use meat as a condiment.

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One criticism of Street is that it's expensive for street food.

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