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Chef Susan Feniger Is Cooking With Fire to Protect Restaurants

Lesbian Chef Susan Feniger (seen here with fellow chef and biz partner Mary Sue Milliken) is Cooking with Fire to Protect Restaurants
Susan Feniger (R) pictured with fellow chef and longtime business partner Mary Sue Milliken. All photos courtesy of Socalo.

The lesbian creator of some of L.A. and Las Vegas's hippest Mexican restaurants reflects on her nearly four decades in the industry -- and wonders about its future.

As a successful restaurateur in the Los Angeles area for over 35 years, out chef Susan Feniger thought she'd seen it all -- earthquakes, social unrest, recessions -- that is, until the spring of 2020, when the global pandemic reared its ugly head.

"This is, by far, way more intense," Feniger says of how the crisis has affected the restaurant and hospitality business. "I mean, when you're shut down for four or five days, it's one thing, [due to] riots and curfews ... but this is very hard to navigate, I think, for everybody. It really threatens the business in a way that nothing else ever has."

This is why Feniger says it's of the utmost importance for folks to be aware of and support legislation that could provide relief for the suffering industry in which over 6 million people have reportedly lost their jobs.

"One of the things I think everybody is trying to put out there is about supporting the Restaurants Act," she says. "So, trying to get people to write their congresspeople, to talk about this act and why they should be supporting this -- because otherwise, their neighborhood restaurants are not going to make it through this.... [Congress] needs to sign this bill. And whether that happens or not, my biggest concern, over and above my business, is that we get this president [Donald Trump] out."

Though there is no convenient time for a pandemic to occur, it's certainly exceptionally bad timing for it to happen just a few months after opening a hot new L.A.-area eatery. Last December, Feniger and longtime business partner Mary Sue Milliken opened their latest endeavor, the casually chic California canteen and Mexican pub Socalo.

Feniger and Milliken's friendship and business partnership goes way back. In fact, when considering their nearly 40-year history, their paths seemed destined to intertwine.

Picture it. Chicago, 1981.

"When I was in Chicago and working at this French restaurant, there was only one other woman in the kitchen -- and that was Mary Sue, which is where we met," Feniger recalls. "The chef there was really a total jerk to me. There were all guys in the kitchen except for Mary and me ... and in the afternoon on our break, I would go in the bathroom with Mary Sue and ... just break down into tears." (Feniger says that same head chef ended up coming out as gay a few years later -- and even applied to work for the duo at one point.)

Baja Seabass by Socala

Baja Seabass from Socalo.

As two of the very few successful working female chefs at the time, the women bonded and developed a strong friendship. By 1985, they had launched their first Mexican-themed eatery, Border Grill, in Los Angeles. Since then, they have opened several uber-popular restaurants in L.A. and Las Vegas, have been pioneering TV chefs (on their '90's Food Network series, Too Hot Tamales), and have even shared a husband. Seriously.

"I wasn't a lesbian until much later in life. I had no idea!" Feniger admits with a laugh. "Now, as for my wife [filmmaker Liz Lachman] -- we've been together 25 years -- she knew from the time she was like 5 years old."

Since she realized she was into women and ended her marriage, Feniger says she and ex-husband, Josh Schweitzer, have been able to remain friends and even work together on occasion.

"Many years later, I introduced him to Mary Sue -- and they've been together for about 30-plus years now," Feniger says of how nicely that worked out.

On her experiences of being an out lesbian chef for several decades, Feniger says she feels her gender, more than her queerness, has impeded her success.

"One of the things I believe is true for women in the industry is that it can be harder for women to grow their business," Feniger explains. "It is a much tougher road than, I think, for men. I think when the investment community, the private equity community, looks to invest, they look to men."

This is why she says many female chefs end up becoming restaurateurs. She explains that while running a restaurant is no easy undertaking, women chefs often find it easier to grow the businesses they helm, rather than trying to climb up through the still mostly male-dominated ranks in corporate-owned kitchens.

As for being out in the kitchen, Feniger says "I never struggled with it.... I was always open in the work environment ... there were so many LGBT people in my industry ... at least of all the servers and front-of-the-house people. There were so many people, mainly gay men, that were out and open. And I think that gave the industry way more flexibility."

"When I probably felt a little bit more hidden was with media," she admits. "I remember doing an interview and I was very nervous about saying that I was a lesbian. I remember feeling like it could affect my career."

These days, Feniger, like so many, is simply struggling to adapt and survive in a world turned upside down. Until the latest lockdown, most of her and Milliken's restaurants were at least partially open, including Socalo, which she says they were fortunate to have been able to convert to a charming outdoor eatery.

"Our landlord at Socalo is so wonderful," says Feniger. "He owns the Gateway Hotel [where Socalo is located] and he gave us half the driveway, so we went out and got 40 bales of hay and put up twinkle lights -- and now we have this great outdoor dining area." (It's now closed due to the most recent California stay-at-home order.)

They are doing lots of take-out too, of course, and are now selling DIY to-go meal kits, so you can prepare amazingly delicious Mexican-themed delicacies safely at home. Each one includes premeasured, organic, sustainable ingredients and easy-to-follow preparation instructions. I highly recommend the Brunch at Home and Chicken Enchilada meal kits. Oh, and they also have fun to-go Margarita and Bloody Maria drink kits to keep the fiesta going.

Aside from trying to keep her business afloat, Feniger stays busy as a cochair of the board of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where she helps manage a culinary program for LGBTQ+ youth. She has also recently worked with orgs like World Central Kitchen and the U.S. government's Federal Emergency Management Agency, spending several weeks serving hundreds, sometimes thousands, of meals a day to essential workers and folks experiencing homelessness.

Ultimately, Feniger is trying to stay positive and says the resiliency of her fellow hospitality industry workers helps keep her motivated.

"We have such a vibrant industry, and I think people are so willing to support each other and share information, which is an amazing thing," she says. "There is something really special about being able to feel like the industry supports each other."

Chinola Margarita by Socala

Chinola Margarita

1 ounce Chinola Passion Fruit Liqueur
1.5 ounces Casa Mexico Tequila
1 ounce lime juice
1/4 ounce agave
Tajin chili lime salt
Mint sprig

Combine liquids and agave. Add ice, shake, and strain into glass rimmed with Tajin. Garnish with mint sprig.

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