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Published: Tuesday, 9/25/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Celebrity chef Susan Feniger has a passion for street food

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Chef Susan Feniger. Chef Susan Feniger.
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The future celebrity chef Susan Feniger was still at Ottawa Hills High School when a trip to Holland changed everything.

Now a nationally known restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality, Ms. Feniger was still in her teens when she went to live with a family in the Netherlands. It wasn't the history she found there that changed her future. It wasn't the people. It was the french fries served with mayonnaise.

That was probably the first time she'd ever had street food, she said recently in a call from her home in Los Angeles. Along with a later trip to India, it opened up to her a universe of foods and flavors beyond anything she knew in her native Toledo.

Though she is best known for making Latin-American food, she is now focused on cooking the food sold at stands and kiosks throughout the world. Her newest restaurant, Susan Feniger's Street, has been dishing up food from the street and ethnic families to crowds of eager customers in L.A. since 2009. Her latest cookbook, released this summer, features recipes for some of the most popular dishes she serves there.

Artichokes with Lemon Za'atar Dipping Sauce? It is in Susan Feniger's Street Food. The same goes for Turkish doughnuts with rose hip jam, Thai drunken shrimp with rice noodles, and Korean glazed short ribs with sesame and Asian pear.

Ms. Feniger has come a long way from her youth in Old Orchard and Ottawa Hills, when she used to eat fried bologna sandwiches at Andre's Lounge in North Toledo. But her culinary roots are still here.

Sashimi, a dish created by Chef Susan Feniger for her new book 'Susan Feniger's Street Food." Sashimi, a dish created by Chef Susan Feniger for her new book 'Susan Feniger's Street Food."
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"My mom was a fantastic cook, so I have tons of great food memories from my mom. They threw great parties all the time," she said.

Her mother's fried chicken was "fantastic," she said, and she remembers the two of them making fudge together and putting it in the freezer. And because it was the '50s and '60s -- Ms. Feniger is 59 -- she remembers making Cheese Dreams, slices of Wonder bread with the crusts cut off and rolled up with margarine and melted Velveeta cheese.

Coming from a primarily Russian Jewish family, she also has fond memories of her Aunt Faye's eggs scrambled with chicken livers and her Grandma Morgan's potato pierogi.

Her award-winning career as a chef began as a teenager in the kitchen of Smith's Cafeteria on the corner of Madison Avenue and Erie Street. She enjoyed working there, she said, but she did not think about making a career out of food preparation until she had dropped out of one college, Goddard College in Vermont, and was going to another, Pitzer College in California. Working at the school cafeteria while studying psychology, she was approached by the chef who suggested she might think about cooking for a living. She took an independent study program at the Culinary Institute of America and never looked back.

At the famous Le Perroquet restaurant in Chicago she met Mary Sue Milliken, who has been her business partner for the last 30 years. After working in that kitchen -- they were the first two women to work there -- they kept in touch and wound up apprenticing separately in France. They met in Paris over a bottle or two of wine and talked about opening a restaurant together. That plan came to fruition in 1981 when they opened City Cafe in L.A.

It was a tiny place, Ms. Feniger recalled, with just 11 tables. Patrons had to pass the kitchen to use the restroom, and when they became popular the chefs instructed the staff to give celebrities a lot of water so they could meet them. It was there that they met Julia Child, who later had them on one of her television shows.

"Susan Feniger's Street Food" "Susan Feniger's Street Food"
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That was a pivotal moment for the two, because they proved to be telegenic and personable. Those were qualities the Food Network would later be looking for, and between a couple of shows for the network they shot nearly 400 episodes.

But before they became stars, they opened City Restaurant in a larger space. The menu was different here, because they were influenced by the culinary world opened to them when Ms. Feniger made her first trip to India.

"That changed my view of food for sure," she said. "The flavor profile in India really woke up something inside of me in terms of what I was eating."

She was inspired by the bold flavors, the combination of spices, and the food available on the street. Subsequent trips to other countries, especially in Asia and South America, continued to broaden their perspective and open them to new flavor sensations.

Before opening Border Grill, the restaurant for which they are best known -- they now have four locations plus a taco truck -- they knew they wanted to serve Mexican food but they did not know what to make. So for two weeks just before they were scheduled to open, they and their prep cook piled into a Volkswagen Beetle and drove around Mexico, sampling the fare. They spent the first week with the prep cook's mother in Mexico City, learning how to make her best salsas and sauces. After the second week on the road, they wrote the menu for Border Grill in the Beetle on their way back to Los Angeles.

The restaurant was a hit, and it gave them a national reputation. They have opened several restaurants together since then, have co-written a few cookbooks, and remain business partners as well as close friends. How close? Ms. Milliken is married to Ms. Feniger's ex-husband, and it was Ms. Feniger who suggested they might be a good match.

But Street restaurant was something she decided to do alone. Ms. Milliken was busy with her two children and was not ready to open another restaurant; "Mary Sue and I talked; she was totally fine with it," Ms. Feniger said. But she was still hesitant to run a restaurant solo until she allowed herself to be talked into it by her life partner of almost 18 years, the Emmy-winning composer, singer, and screenwriter Liz Lachman, who kept saying, "Just do it."

The restaurant is located just on the Los Angeles side of Hollywood, near Paramount Studios. It is in a residential neighborhood, which allows Ms. Feniger to achieve the neighborhood-restaurant vibe she craved.

The menu changes every quarter and is frequently tweaked in between. At the moment it offers such appetizers as edamame hummus and "angry eggs" (deviled eggs with homemade green sriracha) to go with an assortment of meatballs (Thai chicken, Swedish, Korean, Syrian lamb, and veggie) and such meat dishes as Jamaican gingerbrew chicken and tataki (momentarily seared) salmon.

"We make a big effort that the servers know and are comfortable with explaining the food. We try to make it that there are plenty of accessible dishes on the menu. We recently put a burger on in. It is a fabulous burger, but it has an Asian twist with yuzu kosho mayonnaise.

"We might do Korean dumplings. We try to make sure there is stuff people are comfortable with, noodle dishes.

"One of the things I've learned over the years [is that] people need to know how to pronounce the words. They don't want to be intimidated, especially with business meals. They want to be cool."

One of the most popular dishes in the restaurant and also in the cookbook is the Ukranian Spinach Dumplings, which she serves with lemon marmalade and sour cream.

She based them on her Grandma Morgan's pierogi she remembers from her youth.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

Tunisian Chicken Kebabs with Currants and Olives

1/2 cup dried currants

4 ounces (1 cup) jarred Peppadew peppers, PLUS 1/4 cup of their juice (see cook's note)

1 large red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, and seeded

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes

Tunisian Relish (recipe follows)

Cook's note: Peppadew peppers can be found in cans or jars in specialty grocery stores, and sometimes are available fresh in olive bars. If you can't find them, any sweet pickled pepper could work.

Put the currants in a bowl and add 1/4 cup warm water. Let sit until the currants have plumped, about 10 minutes. Drain the currants and put them in a blender. Add the Peppadews, their juice, the bell pepper, oil, and 1 tablespoon salt, and puree on high speed until smooth. Pour half of this mixture into a bowl, add the chicken, and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up to 4 hours. Save the remaining puree for a later use.

Heat a grill or griddle to high. Slide 4-6 cubes of chicken on each of about 8 skewers. Salt the chicken to taste, and then grill, turning the skewers so that the chicken browns on all sides, 5 minutes total. Remove from the grill, brush with the reserved puree, and top each skewer with a spoonful of the relish.

Yield: 4 servings

Source: Susan Feniger's Street Food

Tunisian relish

1/2 cup dried currants or black raisins

1 cup pitted green olives (such as Manzanilla), chopped

1/2 cup Peppadew peppers, finely chopped (see cook's note)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup aged sherry vinegar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Cook's note: Peppadew peppers can be found in cans or jars in specialty grocery stores, and sometimes are available fresh. If you can't find them, any sweet pickled pepper could work.

Put the currants in a bowl and add warm water to cover. Let sit until the currants have plumped, about 10 minutes.

Drain, discarding the water, and put the currants into a bowl. Add the olives, Peppadews, oil, vinegar, and salt. Stir well to combine, and serve. You can make the relish up to 2 days in advance and store it, covered, in the refrigerator. Bring it to room temperature and stir it before serving.

Yield: 1 1/2 cups

Source: Susan Feniger's Street Food

Egyptian Bus Stop Kushary

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 cups chopped white onions

1 cup dried brown lentils, rinsed

3/4 cup basmati rice

1 tablespoon ground cumin

Kosher salt

2 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water

1 cup straight-cut macaroni (ditalini)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon harissa (I used sriracha)

1 bunch fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped

In a large saucepan set over medium-high heat, heat the canola oil and butter. Add the onions and cook until they start to caramelize, about 4 minutes. Add the lentils and rice, and toast, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Add the cumin and 2 teaspoons salt, and stir to combine. Cook for 1-2 minutes to toast the cumin.

Then add the stock, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, until the liquid has been absorbed and the mixture is starting to crackle and toast on the bottom, about 30 minutes. (You may need to stir the mixture occasionally to make sure that the rice and lentils don't burn on the bottom of the pan. You will know that the mixture is done when the rice and lentils are tender and cooked through, but are not mushy or soft.) Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl and set it aside to cool at room temperature.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain well.

Heat a saute pan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the drained pasta and cook until it starts to crisp and brown, 3-5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and add the harissa and a pinch of salt (or to taste).

Add the pasta and the chopped parsley to the rice mixture, and stir to combine. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 6 cups, 6-8 servings

Source: Adapted from Susan Feniger's Street Food



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