Susan Feniger – OUTspoken Role Model

In Honor of Pride Month, Three Lessons From My Chef Mentor

By Lorraine Moss

At a bit of a culinary crossroads in my own career, I noticed an obscure tweet mentioning a professional mentorship for mid-level female cooks. The James Beard Women in Culinary Leadership Mentorship program paired women cooks with successful mentors to help us take the next big step.

Soon after applying, I got an email explaining that chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken were interested in meeting me. I tried to pretend at first, like it was no big deal. Yeah, I could be working, cooking directly under the Too Hot Tamales as their sous chef at Border Grill in Downtown Los Angeles. I would just be learning recipes and techniques from two female icons in the food universe. O-M-G.

Over the course of the 9 month mentorship, I learned a lot about Susan. She may chop onions, but she doesn’t mince her words. When I sat with her in biweekly mentor meetings, she was always transparent about how she thought I could grow as a chef. Even as she praised my new gazpacho, she’d also offer a tweak that would take the cold, tart soup into the sublime. Lesson One: as a chef, you can always be better.

When we traveled to Nashville for its annual Music City Food & Wine Festival, we ate THREE lunches in one day for R &D. Call it taco research and development. I’m serious. That eating extravaganza took place in between a live KitchenAid food demonstration, a few hours prepping guacamole with some super excited culinary school students, and a book signing! Later that night, we served more than a thousand BBQ rib tacos and finished the night having drinks at a jazz club. Lesson Two: a great chef is indefatigable; there are no limits on your stomach or your ability to multitask.

And to the most essential lesson: PASSION. I spent long mornings honing my tortilla pressing skills, hot afternoons roasting peppers to perfection for numerous salsas, and messy nights mixing just the right ingredients to make the most delicious vegan cupcakes possible. At the time, I was exhausted. I had never spent that many hours in the kitchen. But even at the end of a 12 hour day, Susan stopped to check in and joked with me that I was too young to be so tired. When I’d get home at night, I’d realize she was right. Covered in flour, smelling like fish, I was still happy.

And to this day, I can still call her up or text her for advice. Susan is exactly how you see her on television, hear her on the radio, and enjoy her food through YouTube or cookbooks or her restaurants. She’s smart, energetic, zesty, and most importantly, all HEART.

Listen to Susan Feniger on our podcast, 2 Sharp Chefs & A Microphone. To celebrate Pride Month, she’s talking to us about an exciting culinary program at the Los Angeles LGBT Center that pairs teens and seniors in the kitchen. She also tells us what’s always in her fridge, and offers advice on how Louiie and I can succeed in our new podcast.

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