By Mara Papatheodorou, your Tastes & Traditions Expert
The Matfer Team had the honor to enjoy a delicious and inspiring flavor-filled day with award winning Chef Susan Feniger at Border Grill in downtown Los Angeles where she presented a stunning ceviche with plantains using ideally matched Matfer tools!
Susan Feniger is a celebrated and award winning chef, author, and entrepreneur. Her professional collaboration with Mary Sue Milliken (CITY, Ciudad, Too Hot Tamales) has led to the groundbreaking Border Grill empire with locations in Santa Monica, Downtown LA, LAX Airport’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay, and a second outpost in Las Vegas at The Forum Shops. In 2013, Susan welcomed her new solo venture, the beloved Mud Hen Tavern in Hollywood.
As an award winning established Executive Chef of your own restaurants what inspires you?
Flavors and their cultures. My Mom had a great sense of flavor and in many ways she passed that on to me. Flavor is key for me in whatever I do in the kitchen for the table. It keeps everything authentic and interesting. I’m drawn to the street foods of countries because it’s the people and their traditions that keep the recipes and ingredients real. They’re eclectic. The spices, the herbs, the elements all contribute to the heart of the matter that becomes the meal. To experience that from others and then to share that knowledge and dishes with restaurant guests inspires me.
What do you like about being the Executive Chef/Owner of both Border Grills, and the Mud Hen Tavern?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved the whole process and every part of the restaurant business. I still do. I took a course in college that was an independent study with my Economic professor where I designed a restaurant and business plan from start to finish. I thought about the table sizes, the layout, the menu and the details of it all. I’m an entrepreneur at heart so opening my own restaurant was just a matter of when not if. I love cooking, the high energy of the kitchen environment and the creativity that goes along with that. After Mary Sue and I had worked in fine kitchens in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles our sense of taste and work ethic complemented each other. Nothing is more important to us than how the food tastes coming out of the kitchen to the table. We taste everything.
Ceviche is a South American specialty with many countries claiming it as their own with different interpretations. What makes your version unique?
Ceviche combines everything I love about cooking. It’s just so interesting! It has terrific flavor and cultural ties based on its ingredients. When Mary Sue and I first went to Mexico at the invitation of guys we worked with in restaurant kitchens, we were blown away by the diverse tastes of the country especially thanks to the use of citrus and chilies in everything!
We then did a drive around the country to places like Oaxaca and Vera Cruz where the seafood was amazing. Ceviche just made a lasting impression on me. It became a must-have part of our original menu when we opened Border Grill. I like the diversity of the dish, its unique flavor profile and fiddling with the components from time to time. This Peruvian ceviche highlights the bite of their awesome aji chilie. My added touch is also the pickled onion garnish done in beet juice. For a twist, I serve it with fried plantains instead of tortilla chips or tortillas.
How do you go about preparing your various dishes?
I am a hands-on chef. I love chopping, slicing and dicing. It makes me happy and keeps me connected to what I do. Obviously, I always use the freshest of ingredients and I love the different flavor profiles they represent. I have a great team in the kitchen too and we work really well together.
Advance prep is key when you are running a restaurant. I like having all of the elements in front of me when I’m cooking. That way I can concentrate on the process and result. For example when prepping the ceviche, I like that the olive oil is in the glass measuring pourer and the citrus juicer is ready for juicing.
The aji Amarillo peppers, the citrus, onions, avocadoes and cucumbers are all in the cool looking Matfer Banetton Bowls and the fresh tuna and halibut are right there in the Matfer Stainless Steel Seafood Tray. I’m set to go. When it comes time for the heat, you’ve got to be prepared. I taste as I go so having items all around me helps. For example, when I make the pickled onions in beet juice in the very effective Matfer Copper Frying Pan, I can pay attention so that they’re perfect.
As one of the first extremely successful woman chef’s and restaurant owners how does it feel to be a trailblazer for all that you have done and continue to accomplish in the culinary world?
Wow, trailblazer is a big word! I learnt a lot from trial and error. Some ideas worked and others were ahead of their time. But you have to try and when it worked it really worked! I just know that I love what I do and feel fortunate to be able to do it. I appreciate the people connection that this industry has allowed me to cultivate. To be able to open restaurants and even have a food truck where people can come to eat and to enjoy and even taste items in a way they might never have before is exciting to me. If my career sets an example with its ups and downs and encourages other women to get cooking in the restaurant world, then I say go for it!
Personally, what are your favorite ingredients?
For me it is all about acid and salt and how they enhance a dish! I also like olive oil, vinegar and chilies. I’m a big fan of avocadoes and artichokes too.
Winona La Duke, an American activist, environmentalist and writer said, “Food has culture. It has history. It has a story. It has relationships.” Do you agree?
Absolutely! I love this quote because for me when I travel tasting food from street stands in neighborhoods and being invited into someone’s home tells me more about their culture and life. These experiences create the stories, memories and friendships that for me make traveling so exciting. The food language has no barriers. It says it all about who we are and where we come from.
Matfer is honored to be a sponsor of the upcoming Autism Speaks to Los Angeles Celebrity Chef Gala on October 8th. You and Mary Sue will each be participating that evening. Can you tell us about your connection to Autism Speaks?
Cooking is all about give and take and giving back. The public supports us as chefs and restaurateurs and in return we need and want to support them. Autism Speaks has real purpose and makes a difference to help people in need. We support that message so participating and cooking at this special dinner is a great thing to do. We’re delighted that we get to do two tables one for Border Grill and the other for Mud Hen’s Hut. We’re inspired!
More About Chef Susan Feniger
A classically trained graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she began at Chicago’s famed Le Perroquet as one of the first women in the all-male kitchen. Following that, Feniger worked at Wolfgang Puck’s infamous Ma Maison in Los Angeles, and then further honed her culinary skills on the French Riviera. She opened the worldly eclectic City Café in 1981 followed by the much larger CITY restaurant in 1985. This was a pivotal year in which the former tiny space was transformed into the first Border Grill, a “taco stand” serving authentic home cooking and street foods of Mexico. In June 2013, Susan and Mary Sue were awarded the California Restaurant Association’s Elizabeth Burns Lifetime Achievement Award and most recently were inducted into the 2014 Menu Masters Hall of Fame.
Susan has co-authored six cookbooks, including her latest, Susan Feniger’s Street Food. Susan is a veteran of The Food Network’s popular “Too Hot Tamales” and “Tamales World Tour” series and competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” in 2010.
She shines a light on a number of worthwhile organizations such as the Scleroderma Research Foundation, the board of the L.A. LGBT Center and is involved with Share our Strength and the Human Rights Campaign. She’s an active member of the culinary community, providing a leadership role in many organizations including the Chefs Collaborative, the LA Sports & Entertainment Commission and Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.
More on Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks is the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Mr. Wright is the former vice chairman of General Electric and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal. Since its inception, Autism Speaks has committed more than $560 million to its mission, the majority in science and medical research. Each year Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in nearly 100 cities across North America. On the global front, Autism Speaks has established partnerships in more than 70 countries on five continents to foster international research, services and awareness. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit AutismSpeaks.org.
Tools for the Taste
As an executive chef, you know that the success of a dish comes down to the perfect balance and blend of fresh ingredients with just enough spice and seasoning. A superb ceviche exemplifies this beautifully especially when using Matfer's Stainless Steel Seafood Tray, Citrus Juicer, Mandoline 2000s, Copper Round Frying Pan, Hemispherical Bottom Mixing Bowl and Sugar Measuring Pourer.