Susan Feniger on Business Partners, Hiring and Giving Back
The Border Grill restaurateur and “Too Hot Tamales” co-star spoke to students at the Institute of Culinary Education in Los Angeles.
Entrepreneur, author and TV personality Susan Feniger didn’t dream of a career in the restaurant industry. While studying business and economics, she worked part time for a chef and former army cook who suggested she shift to a focus on the culinary arts. In her last year at Pitzer College, Susan took that advice with an independent study at the CIA in New York. The project: design and create financial projections for a vegetarian restaurant. A few short years later, she found herself one of two women in the kitchen at Chicago’s famed Le Perroquet, where she met her business partner for the following 38 years, Mary Sue Milliken.
The two became an unstoppable duo, opening their first restaurant together, City Restaurant, on La Brea Boulevard in 1981. They cooked on hibachi grills in a rear parking lot, and dishes like veal tongue drew the likes of Julia Child, who invited them to be on her PBS show “Cooking with Master Chefs.” The appearance was a jumping off point for Susan and Mary Sue’s hit Food Network series, “Too Hot Tamales.” Susan shared highlights from her career and advice for students at our Los Angeles campus in this month’s Meet the Culinary Entrepreneurs lecture.
Mary Sue has been your business partner for 38 years, what makes your relationship work? What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Over the years, the reason our partnership has worked is, first of all, we have different strengths. We both love cooking, she in the beginning was more interested in pastries and pantry, and I liked the chaos of being on the line and that energy. She was way more detailed and anal, which is a good thing, and I was more all over the place. We brought different strengths — and we still do. We’ve allowed each other to grow and do the things that we’re each passionate about.
We also impeccably trusted each other, and we would compromise. I would want to do six courses, she would want four and we’d wind up at five. We’ve learned when one of us wanted something really bad and the other didn’t care as much, the give and take that happened. What’s been great about our partnership: When times are tough, it’s really fabulous to have a partner to figure out how to get through it, work through it and make things happen. Perhaps we’re strongest when things are tough.
What do you look for when hiring new employees?
When we’re looking at hiring, first I look to see who they worked for that I know. Everybody that knows anyone calls to find out if they should hire that person or not. It’s a small world. I look for longevity, how much they jumped around, and when I see short stints I want to know why. I also look at the kind of restaurants someone works at. Not necessarily Latin American or Mexican, I want to see if they are good restaurants. When I’m interviewing, I look at their passions, what they do on their time off, if they’re working while in school — I always think that’s a good sign, it shows me that they’re driven — whether getting paid or not. In our world, many of us are still working 12- to 14-hour days. And I look for people’s spirit and how they get along with other people. Of course, we love someone who speaks Spanish.
After four decades in this industry, what has been the highlight of your career?
There are so many fabulous highlights. Compared to my friends who hate what they’re doing, I feel like I’ve been so lucky because I love what I do. I’d rather not have so many meetings, but I do love it. I still feel like I learn a ton and grow. Now, this is many years later, I have to say I do love the ability to have a voice out there for things that are important to me. For example, right now we’re launching this new kitchen at the LGBT center that’s going to have probably 100 students a year, homeless youth or seniors, that go through a 12-week training program to give them the skills to work in a kitchen and open a door there. I just came from a fundraiser in D.C., Cool Comedy Hot Cuisine. I’ve been doing this for the last 30 years with Bob Saget for the Scleroderma Research Foundation. By doing the food for this, we’ve raised over $48 million for scleroderma. My college roommate died of scleroderma. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to have a voice. For me these are an important part of what I can do through food. I love that part of my career now.
I also love traveling and eating street food and being invited to someone’s little place in India. I love the process of creating through food and being inspired by new ingredients. I love the mentoring of people that work in our kitchen. We have a very open-door policy. I moved my office from the 28th floor to a little store room behind the deep fryer so I that I would be more accessible. For me that’s the most rewarding part: seeing young kids that are learning and excited about food.
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