Susan Feniger is a Los Angeles-based award-winning chef, restauranteur, cookbook author and tv host (Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour). She has two restaurants with long-time collaborator Mary-Sue Milliken, Border Grill and Ciudad, and recently opened her first ever solo venture, STREET. Competing on behalf of the Scleroderma Foundation, she won $32,500 before being eliminated this week and is the fourth chef to go home from the Champion's Round.
Almost everyone else on the show has had moments of being intensely annoyed with each other, but you seemed to be far and away the most loved person in the kitchen. Tony Mantuano told me last week that working with you was one of the highlights of his life.
Awww. You know, I love Tony. We'd never met. I loved working with him, it was fantastic. He's sweet and caring, and he's a great chef. I mean, obviously everyone's got strong egos or you wouldn't be able to open restaurants and be in this, but to be generous and helpful? We were all—well, obviously, some more than others—setting that tone of, okay, we're going to have fun, this is going to be fun.
Every break that we had, at the end of the day, having the cocktails, a glass of wine; it was a wonderful experience. You get to know people quickly in that kind of intensity. It's different if you go to lunch with someone or just meet them or you do an event. It really brings closeness because you're with someone for so many hours, for so many days straight.
So what's with all the jewelry? You wear so much!
My first trip to India was 25, 26 years ago and I was really influenced—I completely feel like I might've had another life in India—and just fell in love with everything about the culture: the look, the colors, the food, the spirituality. People who have nothing are completely full of heart and soul and generous. And you know when I was in India, it was everything I totally related to. Lots of people with pierced ears! My first trip back from India, you know, all over in this tiny town there were these shops of plastic colored bangles and I came back with bangles from my wrist all the way up to my elbows. And I was cooking on the line with plastic bangles, which was just the stupidest thing, but it just became part of who I was. Everything about it, even the kinds of colors that I'm drawn to now, like turmeric and cayenne and mustard. Those sorts of very earthy colors. And when I go to Mexico, I see those. I'm just drawn to those cultures. Particularly in India, many people wear jewelry, bangles, earrings—it's just part of their look. After my trip, it just became part of mine too.
What are your favorite places for street eats?
I love eating street food every single place I'm at. It is the food I'm drawn to. Wherever I am, I very seldom think about eating in restaurants. What we love to do is walk—walk and walk and walk, and find either tiny little dives or someone cooking on the ground, on the streets. A few years ago, my most recent trip before I opened Street, I met my friend who lives in India and we went to seven cities in fourteen days eating all day, all night on the streets. I love, you know, being in Istanbul, eating on the streets and traveling all over Turkey. I love being in Oaxaca, eating in the markets—in the Yucatan, in Merida, eating on the streets. I love going to the produce market, to the fish market, because there's always someone who has got a little stand or two, or three, or five little stands all through the market. They're poor people, they have these stands that are their sort of restaurants on wheels. I had great street food in Calcutta. I was traveling through Spain a few years ago and we just took long long long walks; we were in Madrid and just the most amazing place to have these espressos with shaved ice. Just great things. If I had to say which would be my most favorite, I would probably lean towards India. But in my heart of hearts, that's probably my most favorite food anyway.
I was in Guadalajara with some of our chefs a few years ago and it was eleven o'clock at night and we found this place—this one woman, she only came out at ten o'clock at night and made these amazing pressed, like cubanos, sandwiches. We sat there for an hour, just eating. This was the most incredible sandwich I'd ever had. There's a place in Oaxaca, these two families would come out on this one side street, come out at like eleven o'clock at night. There'd be huge crowds. They'd just make food for three hours at night. I had my first paratha on the streets of India, one was stuffed with brown sugar and nuts—but then right here in Los Angeles, there's a great little Korean market that's got a paratha-type thing. You know, just totally delicious. You can find fabulous street food everywhere. certain places have more of it, for sure, but you've got to be willing to walk and dig and try and experiment. But you can sort of see if something's going to be interesting, get a vibe about it.
Anywhere you haven't been that you're dying to go to?
Yeah, I'd love to go and travel in Vietnam. I mean, there are tons of places—tons, tons, tons. But I've eaten Vietnamese food and I think that would be a fantastic trip.
Have you always been an adventurous eater? Did you grow up that way?
My mom was a fantastic cook. Not that it was adventurous, but she was a fantastic cook. Really great with seasoning and she could make—if it was a salad, she'd just make it great. She got seasoning. And so I think it just made me someone who liked seasoned food; not necessarily spicy, but maybe. Even just plain old American food: if it's well-seasoned, it's fantastic.
· Feniger's Kaya Toast Recipe [Eat at Street]
· The Chefs of Top Chef Masters Season 2: A Field Guide [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Coverage on Eater [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Exit Interviews on Eater [~EN~]