Interview: chef Susan Feniger (Border Grill + Mud Hen Tavern)Kajsa Alger joined Susan Feniger alongside the first Mud Hen Tavern Christmas tree.
Chef Susan Feniger has already found considerable success with business partner Mary Sue Milliken on Border Grill, a Mexican concept that now has three locations and a truck in L.A., and a second branch in the works for Las Vegas. She’s also earned acclaim on TV, first with Milliken on the Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales,” and more recently, with a deep run on “Top Chef Masters.” Mud Hen Tavern is her latest L.A. effort, with Kajsa Alger, in the former STREET space in Hollywood. The neighborhood pub is rooted in Feniger’s Toledo childhood, but draws on seasonal ingredients and global influences. On December 10, I met with Feniger at Mud Hen Tavern, and she shared insights into the new restaurant, and her approach.
I remember the Toledo Mud Hens from M.A.S.H. Jamie Farr used to wear their hat.
I know. It’s funny. In just these couple of days, we’ve had three or four different parties come in, either Mud Hen fans or reminiscent of Toledo.
Do you remember going to Mud Hen baseball games?
My dad was a big Mud Hens fan, so I would go to games with him. Not tons, but enough, and then we’d go to this place – of course I don’t like to say my dad took me to bars – but this one place called Andre’s, where we used to have fried bologna sandwiches loaded with mustard. I was young, but it seemed like everybody knew everybody, and there was this really wonderful energy. It was like you were walking into Cheers. Even before, with STREET, and we just didn’t get there, I wanted to have a neighborhood hang. I wanted to have a place where people could drop in. The other night, a few people dropped in. One of the guys is on the Board of the Gay & Lesbian Center with me, and he just dropped in to see the place. They were coming from a Christmas party. They had already eaten and had been drinking. They were going to get a beer, the three of them, and they ended up sitting for two-and-a-half hours and had three drinks and hung out.
When we were going through this remodel, obviously we wanted to focus on the bar. It felt like we had not focused on that initially. This is a great, warm, cozy, old – not that this is a dive bar – but have that feel. It was just a place you could go in. It didn’t have to be snooty. It didn’t have to be a big scene, but it could be this great place where you could come in, hang out, it was friendly and warm and the food was really good, and the drinks were great, the beer selection was great, and it wasn’t a big scene. We want people to be able to come in, they can feel like they know the bartenders, they know the staff is really warm and friendly, and hang out. That’s the kind of place I love to go.
What does a dish have to be to go on the menu at Mud Hen Tavern?
Delicious. Really, we wanted to make the menu interesting, and exciting for people that are foodies. And we wanted to make the menu really accessible and comfortable for people that just want to come in, not have to have a special occasion, and just get – if they want it – a great burger. Or come in and get a great salad and a bowl of soup. Or come in and get a pierogi, and not have to push them to understand exactly what the menu was, or have it to be too complex, yet, we also want to keep that balance of having it be interesting. It’s challenging to do that and not have the menu be so overwhelmingly big because we’ve got a pretty small kitchen. I still want to have someone think they’d be happy to come three nights a week. They didn’t want to have it be a big deal. They wanted to walk over after work, get a beer and a panini, and read the newspaper. That’s sort of the feel of what we were trying to accomplish, not only with the place, but with the food too.
Tell me about your collaboration with Kajsa. How do you two work so well together, and what’s the process like?
So many years. You know how Kajsa first came to work for us?
I don’t, actually.
At CITY, and I don’t think it was year one, but it might have been year three, I think a friend of hers used to work for us, and our pastry person used to come in at like 4 a.m. to get started, and Kajsa somehow or another – maybe she knew the pastry person, or knew one of the prep people – but she ended up working in our kitchen for two weeks until either I walked in or Mary Sue walked in. Who is this person? She had been working for us. We had no idea who she was. She wasn’t on the payroll, and that was sort of the first instance. Eventually, we hired her. She was a line cook, a young punk, and she eventually ended up overseeing Pasadena, Santa Monica, and downtown. Maybe even Vegas. She worked for us for many, many years, probably 18 years, on and off. She left, moved to San Francisco and worked at Zuni and a couple different places up there. Maybe seven years ago, I called her up north and said, “Look, I’m going to open something. I don’t know when, but I’m going to open something in the next year or two. If you’re thinking about it – and she had moved to Seattle at that point – come open.” I always felt like she was an amazing chef, incredibly hard working, really creative. She has that really great ability with staff. She’s a great teacher. She’s really wonderfully creative. She’s also a really smart businessperson. That combination doesn’t usually happen. Usually they’re either really great with people, or they’re great chefs and they’re not great with people. Or they are thinking about food costs, labor costs. She is just this really wonderful balance of all that. I love working with her. She’s fantastic to work with. She’s great to collaborate with, doesn’t have a big ego, so the collaboration is really easy and fun.
What’s an example of a recent dish that the two of you worked on together? Tell me about how you kicked it back and forth until it ended up on the menu.
Last night I came in and tasted a bunch of different stuff on the menu. For example, we just wanted to put a simple green salad on the menu. I don’t think people order green salads, but everybody seems to think they do. But we put it on with figs, because now there’s not that much in the fruit world. We roasted figs and did it in our fig infused bourbon with brown sugar and roasted them in our wood-burning oven, and we did it with our pomegranate vinaigrette and fresh pomegranate seeds, and goat cheese, but I still felt like it was flat. Even if it’s supposed to be simple, it wasn’t quite interesting enough, so we’re taking our raw dough and putting it into sandwich press, and it makes this really wonderful flatbread that we’re serving with our Mediterranean platter, so we just took a piece of bread and did it in the press, but then topped it with goat cheese and the roasted figs and pomegranate, as a crouton on the salad. It shifted that salad, to me, to make that more than a simple green salad, by adding an element. Kajsa will often get a dish to here, and then I will up and come and taste it and push us to re-taste it. When you’ve got so much that you’re trying to get a dish to where you want it, and you think it’s there, it usually needs to go from here to here again. When you’re under that time pressure to get everything done and going, often, that next step gets a little bit skipped.
In this industry now, there’s so much on chefs’ plates that 30 years ago, we didn’t have, between HR and Health Department and labeling everything in the refrigerator and testing for temperature control, things that 25 years ago, chefs didn’t have to think about it. We thought about it, but we didn’t have to do it to the extent that chefs do now. It’s really a push for chefs to constantly be staying focused…little tweaks that take time to catch, and to make sure they constantly get done. I think menus are always a work in progress, and if you don’t think that you have to continue checking and re-checking and tweaking, that’s why you often times go into places and dishes can be flat and they’re not seasoned properly or balanced. It’s a living process.
What are your favorite parts about running restaurants, and how does that differ at an established concept like Border Grill, versus a brand new concept like Mud Hen Tavern?
A new restaurants, everybody’s got to get in their groove. You have new employees. People have to get trained, and you have to get your sensibility about taste and flavor, or how much salt when you’re making a salad, how each ingredient needs to be seasoned. It’s a combination of those things, plus you’re doing new menu items, but in general, the principle that runs through is the same. Everybody wants to do a good job, but the staff can get lazy. They made it 100 times, so they don’t taste it as much. They’re in a rush and they’ve run out of chopped shallots, so they put less shallots into the dish. It’s constant. It’s not because you don’t want to do a good job, but they get comfortable in their groove and then all of a sudden, they get 10 orders of something, they’re short on something, and it’s short. Our position as chefs are to be constantly looking at food coming out, and tasting it, and questioning it.
What are some of the things you do to keep staff from getting complacent at a restaurant that’s been around for awhile like Border Grill?