Susan Feniger, Bringing Mexican Food to the Masses
CIA Alumni Bio
Susan Feniger is the co-chef and co-owner of the Border Grill empire in collaboration with longtime business partner Mary Sue Milliken, with three locations in the Los Angeles area, one in Las Vegas, and one very busy Border Grill Food truck. She is a prolific cookbook writer with six titles in publication. Her latest book, Susan Feniger’s Street Food: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes, debuted in 2012.
Inspiration From Home
Susan grew up in Ottawa Hills, OH. “I was totally inspired by my mom,” says Susan. “She’s a fantastic cook and makes wonderful brisket, noodle pudding, and homemade fudge.” While studying business and economics at Pitzer College, Susan worked at the school cafeteria. Her supervisor, a former Army cook, recognized Susan’s affinity for the kitchen and suggested culinary school. She convinced her economics professor to let her complete her degree by doing an independent study at The Culinary Institute of America and never looked back.
The Perfect Partner
After graduation, Susan landed a job at Chicago’s famed Le Perroquet, where she met her future business partner, Mary Sue, followed by stints at Wolfgang Puck’s Ma Maison in Los Angeles, and Restaurant L’Oasis in Mandelieu-la-Napoule, France. Susan and Mary Sue convened in Paris and spent a month cooking, eating, and exploring the city. “One night we made dinner and we were probably on our second bottle of wine when we sort of decided we would open a restaurant together,” recalls Susan. The duo opened the 11-seat City Café in Los Angeles. Their success led to the larger CITY restaurant, where the menu was influenced by Susan’s trip to India. “The flavor profile in India really woke up something inside of me,” she says. “I felt my taste buds shift and it changed the direction of my career.”
Too Hot Tamales
Julia Child was an early fan of City Cafe and invited Susan and Mary Sue to appear on her PBS series Cooking with Master Chefs. The two proved to be telegenic and personable—qualities the Food Network was looking for—and so began their 396 episode run of Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour.
In 1985 Susan and Mary Sue transformed CITY into the first Border Grill, serving authentic home cooking and street foods of Mexico. In preparation, Susan and Mary Sue piled into a VW Beetle and drove to Mexico, where they learned about making the best salsas and sauces, and the techniques of market and street vendors. On the way back to LA they wrote the menu for Border Grill. “We were just blown away by Mexican cuisine,” says Susan.
In 2009, Feniger opened her first solo project, Street. The multi-ethnic eatery featured street foods from around the world. “There’s a cultural connection found on the street,” Susan explains. “I connect that way to food and to the people making it.” In 2013, Street became Mud Hen Tavern, a neighborhood bar and restaurant. “When I was a little kid my dad and I would go to Mud Hens baseball games in Toledo, OH,” says Susan. “Afterwards we’d go to a bar called Andre’s for fried bologna sandwiches. I wanted to create that kind of neighborhood place that feels easygoing and warm, where you can share a beer with friends, hang out, and have some great food!” Mud Hen Tavern closed in 2016.
Susan serves on the board of the Scleroderma Research Foundation and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, and is involved with Share our Strength and the Human Rights Campaign. She’s an active member of the culinary community and is a founding member of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. In 2013, Susan and Mary Sue were awarded the Elizabeth Burns Lifetime Achievement Award by the California Restaurant Association. In 2014, the two were inducted into the Nation’s Restaurant News MenuMasters Hall of Fame. In April 2015, Susan received the Augie Award at The Culinary Institute of America’s Leadership Awards Celebrating Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. In 2018, Susan and Mary Sue received the Julia Child Award from the Julia Child Foundation
Susan Feniger majored in culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. She is a chef, author, TV personality, and the owner and partner of the Border Grill restaurants based in Los Angeles, CA.