Jetsetting With Chef and Restaurateur Susan Feniger
Travel is essential for Susan Feniger. The chef, restaurateur, and author takes inspiration from locations that have delicious food and shares her finds with diners in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. She currently helms Mud Hen Tavern in Hollywood; Border Grill in Santa Monica, Downtown LA, and Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino; and the Border Grill Truck. She shares her favorite meal and dishes about which countries act as her cooking muses.
Q: What type of traveler are you? (i.e., adventurer, cultural explorer, free spirit, rejuvenator, spa aficionado, etc.)
A: I would have to say I am a cultural explorer interested in learning about different cultures through their food, walking the neighborhoods, and exploring a lifestyle through cuisine. I find that by walking into various neighborhoods and eating on the street people tend to open their homes to you and open their hearts through their food. Whether you speak the language or not, it doesn’t matter, it’s the language of food and the experiences shared.
Q: What types of activities do you like to do on your travels? Do you look for a place where it’s quiet and you can relax or someplace that has great activities or nightlife?
A: When we travel, there are two types of trips for us. One is for sure a quiet place that is beautiful and peaceful, and we hang, sit, read, and read, and read, swim, and get massages, and it’s a very laid-back, relaxed time. I don’t take many of those, but every once in a while I love that. Generally it’s to explore a place we’ve never been, where I’m interested in the food. Typically those places often have great street music, too, which is an added bonus. But my most favorite thing is to find someone who lives there that will take us into areas I might not find on my own. So, for example, in Saigon or in Shanghai it’s so big and there are so many cool alleys, neighborhoods, and tiny street stands I could never have enough time to find. Going with a local, going into their lives, gives you a glimpse of something very special. For me this is just the gem of traveling.
Q: When thinking about where you will travel to next, what inspires you to make a decision? And what, if any, research do you do about that destination?
A: I tend to be drawn to places I think must have fantastic food. So I lean toward countries such as India, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Israel, etc. We are trying to go to Ireland this summer because my partner is very interested in the place where so many amazing artists came from, so I am now looking at exploring the pubs, taverns, and food there and seeing what sounds exciting. I start by exploring the food scene and the music scene.
Q: What is the most memorable trip you’ve taken and why?
A: The most memorable trip … wow, that is very hard to say. If I had to say what country has most influenced me, I’d have to say India. My first trip was 30 years ago, and I was absolutely blown away by the smells, the colors, the people, the jewelry, the food, the energy, and the spirituality. I felt like I walked through the neighborhoods with my mouth wide open, amazed at each and every thing I saw. I remember thinking back then, here is a country where people appreciate the littlest things in life, where it’s about a spirit, a force. The flavor profile I experienced back then changed the direction of my thinking about food. It moved me from the French kitchen toward a flavor profile with much stronger flavors.
Q: What is the best food you’ve ever found on a trip?
A: If I have to pick one dish, which is absolutely impossible, I might say Kaya toast in Singapore.
Q: What, if anything, do you always take with you when you travel?
A: Homeopathic herbs for my stomach and a notebook.
Q: What’s your best piece of travel advice?
A: Best piece of advice is to stay away from the tourist traps. Explore the neighborhoods, experience the cuisines, and stay away from fancy restaurants. Walk the walk.
Q: Is there a destination to which you can’t imagine not returning?
A: Oh my goodness, so many places … India, China, Vietnam, and many more.
Q: Where are your favorite weekend getaways?
A: Two Bunch Palms for doing nothing but reading and hanging, New York City for theater and walking.
Q: Where would you like to travel to next?
A: So many places, but I can imagine Korea, Brazil, Portugal, Indonesia, and Peru.
Q: Tell us about your upcoming project(s)?
A: For now, the next project is opening Border Grill at the Forum Shops at Caesars in Vegas. We just opened Mud Hen Tavern in Hollywood so I’m busy working on that (we started serving brunch). I’m also exploring other locations, shooting a bunch of online cooking tips, and trying to figure out how to have more balance in my life (my lifelong upcoming project!).
Susan Feniger’s Bio:
Susan Feniger’s passion for food has propelled her into a three-decade career as a successful chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, and media darling, with the Los Angeles Times saying, “She deserves an Emmy for energy.” She spends most days dividing her time between her new restaurant, Mud Hen Tavern, and the Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica, Downtown LA, and Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, as well as the Border Grill Truck, co-owned with chef Mary Sue Milliken.
A veteran of nearly 400 episodes of Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales” and “Tamales World Tour” series along with Milliken, Feniger also co-authored five cookbooks including “City Cuisine,” “Mesa Mexicana,” and “Cooking with Too Hot Tamales.” After a top-five finish on season two of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” where she raised $32,000 for the Scleroderma Research Foundation, she was a featured chef at the 2010 US Open and cooked for the “Real Housewives of Orange County.” Susan shines a light on a number of worthwhile organizations and currently sits on the boards of the Scleroderma Research Foundation and the LA Gay & Lesbian Center.
Follow Susan on Twitter and Facebook.