Susan Feniger and longtime business partner Mary Sue Milliken teamed up to open their first restaurant — City Cafe — in Los Angeles in 1981. In the three-plus decades since, the duo has opened Los Angeles landmarks Border Grill and Ciudad and starred on Too Hot Tamales, the Food Network show that ran from 1995-1999. Feniger stopped by a recent episode of the Eater Upsell, and explained to host Greg Morabito how she thinks they’ve managed to stick together through restaurant openings and closings, PBS specials, and Top Chef appearances.
When they first met at Chicago French restaurant Le Perroquet, Feniger and Milliken bonded quickly over being two of the only women in the kitchen — plus, both chefs were from the midwest, Feniger tells Morabito. But, even in the early years, Feniger and Milliken had differences that allowed them to work well together. “[Milliken is] German and very detailed. I'm not German and way more sort of loose out there,” Feniger says. “I tended to lean more towards the chaos of the hot kitchen, she sort of focused more the cold kitchen and pastries, but we both did both.”
And while initially Feniger and Milliken did everything from collaborating on dishes to visiting the fish market together, Feniger says that their different interests, plus the birth of Milliken’s first child, quietly led to the two chefs taking on differing roles at the restaurants they shared. “She ended up not being there at night and there more in the days. As a result, that sort of pushed her a little bit more maybe into office, behind-the-scenes stuff. I ended up more operational,” Feniger says.
Feniger considers these separate roles the key to the long-lasting relationship. “I think we both take on our own responsibility for the stuff that we bring to the picture and the stuff that we have to deal with, and I think it's part of why we've been able to give each other breathing room to do what we want to do and to also start to do the things we're more passionate about,” she explains.
Because of this understanding, according to Feniger, both she and Milliken have been able to support different causes: Feniger is on the board of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the Scleroderma Research Foundation, and the Los Angeles Convention and Tourism Board, while Milliken works with Share Our Strength, and the James Beard Foundation. The freedom that they’ve allowed each other has also led to Feniger’s own restaurant projects, like Street, which opened in Los Angeles in 2009.
The opening of Street, Feniger’s street-food-focused restaurant, marked the first time the chefs agreed to present separate faces to the press. “When I opened Street, we had sort of said, ‘Okay. I'm going to start to do stuff, and you're going to start to do stuff,’ and now we've sort of figured out how to each do separate stuff and still do stuff together,” Feniger says.
Feniger turned Street into Mud Hen Tavern in 2013 before closing the restaurant last year, but the decision to work both apart and together remains. “I think we figure out when to give and take, when one of us gives up and one of us stands firm,” Feniger says. “Certainly over the years at times I think, Should we stay partners? Do we not? But I don't think we've ever really explored that to a place where either one of us had the interest of not staying connected.”
Hear the complete interview with Susan Feniger as she discusses learning to cook Mexican cuisine, her stint on Top Chef Masters, and what she loves about the LA restaurant scene. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes right here on Eater.