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In their own words: Susan Feniger

Co-chef and co-owner: Border Grill Santa Monica, Border Grill Las Vegas and Ciudad in Los Angeles

Back story: Susan Feniger and partner Mary Sue Milliken have gotten their share of credit for pioneering fusion cooking, first at the 39-seat City Cafe and now across an empire of trendy restaurants. But let’s not forget that these celebrity chefs were among the first women to break into the male-dominated kitchens in the ’70s. And over your next mojito, remember that they helped open our eyes to a new world of beverages. And all those loud, hip hardscape restaurants so popular today? They helped spawn that trend too. Feniger, who receives the Silver Plate Award next month, sat down to talk about her life and career.

Co-chef and co-owner: Border Grill Santa Monica, Border Grill Las Vegas and Ciudad in Los Angeles 

Back story: Susan Feniger and partner Mary Sue Milliken have gotten their share of credit for pioneering fusion cooking, first at the 39-seat City Cafe and now across an empire of trendy restaurants. But let’s not forget that these celebrity chefs were among the first women to break into the male-dominated kitchens in the ’70s. And over your next mojito, remember that they helped open our eyes to a new world of beverages. And all those loud, hip hardscape restaurants so popular today? They helped spawn that trend too. Feniger, who receives the Silver Plate Award next month, sat down to talk about her life and career. 

A huge part of what we do is communication. Employees with managers, employees with guests, managers with managers. It’s a puzzle that gets put together, and it all has to work really well. If communication breaks down in any of those areas you have a problem. Communication is right up there with food preparation.

I’m really good at listening to people. I’m calm, I don’t get upset by lots of things going on. I think I’m really good at getting the team to feel that I’m there, one of them, supportive.

I don’t feel like we ever developed a strong knowledge of who our customers were. Maybe because Mary Sue and I were always in the back of the house. We didn’t have a strong front-of-the-house person who developed that knowledge. Like Tom Kaplan from Spago, you’ve got somebody with a front-of-the-house focus, that’s there thing. They train their managers to do that. I think we’ve probably lacked that. I think in some ways we’re still at a weakness in that area.

Opening up Las Vegas was one of the best decisions we’ve made. It’s a great market. Labor, business. It’s a great restaurant city. I still think it is. The job force there is fantastic. Talking about doing volume you can’t do in L.A.

I’ll eat at a restaurant, maybe I know the chef and it’s supposed to be really good, yet I’ll taste a salad and I’ll think, “Maybe their eye isn’t on the ball.”

Does that chicken taco blow you away? If not we should be making changes.

More than TV, radio, writing books, my passion is still being in the restaurant, tasting food, dealing with customers. And that’s more than 30 years later. I feel like I’m incredibly fortunate in that.

We did a party once with a set menu. We didn’t prepare a couple of the appetizers they had ordered. To fix things we brought the appetizers they had ordered and also brought all the other appetizers from the menu they didn’t order. But there was one person at this table of 12 that wouldn’t let up. She’s had everything on the menu, and I couldn’t get her happy with it. She was more interested in complaining about it than letting me solve it. That is the most frustrating. Somebody is unhappy, we bend over backward and we still can’t get there.

Bad days have to do with what’s going on inside and how I’m feeling. I don’t think it has to do with what’s going on outside.

At one point in my life my partner—not my business partner, my life partner—was probably, maybe frustrated or jealous because I worked so much. I thought, “Is this really the career I want to be in?” We’re not together anymore.

For many years, I felt like I didn’t have much time for hanging out with friends or for finding that balance between work and my personal life. I sort of burn the candle at both ends. We’re up early, by like 6:30, and my girlfriend and I, we meet late for dinner, 9 or 10 at night. It’s an unusual night that I’m in bed earlier than 1 a.m., and it’s unusual that I’m not up by 7 a.m. It used to bother me, I don’t know if I really have enough of a balanced life. But I think I made a decision that I love what I do, I love all of it. I feel like I’ve been doing this pace for a long time, I don’t feel like I’m harming my health or anything. But it’s an intense pace for sure.

I’ve been in years of therapy. That helps.

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