Interview: chef Susan Feniger (Border Grill + Mud Hen Tavern)

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Kajsa Alger joined Susan Feniger alongside the first Mud Hen Tavern Christmas tree.


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?

My role is to keep management motivated and inspired. Because I’m in the restaurants all the time, I feel like I’m always trying to inspire and motivate the staff. The biggest thing with the managers is to keep the team passionate, motivated and learning and not being a jerk, but holding people to standards. I’ve never been a fan of being an asshole. I’ve never been a fan of that’s how you intimidate staff. That never was motivating for me when I worked for chefs who were jerks, so I don’t find that to be the way. I just don’t think with our chefs or managers, that’s ever been, or ever will be. Maybe people find it effective, I just don’t want our staff to work in environments where it’s not respectful and caring. I’d rather motivate people through loving where they’re working and making them loyal, than being intimidated. It’s constant to keep staff going.

Who else do you turn into in the restaurant industry for inspiration, guidance or advice at this stage?

Mary Sue and I have always been very connected to people in the industry. Always. We’ve always called everybody all the time with all our questions. We’ve never been hesitant to do that. In terms of sort of input and advice, I find myself leaning towards, not necessarily chefs.

For example, Big Spivak, who’s from Daily Grill and The Grill, is a huge inspiration for me. He’s someone I talk to often. He’s a smart businessman. His temperament is very similar to mine. I feel like his staff loves him. He’s respectful to them. He loves the business. He lives the business. I just think he’s an incredibly smart businessman. I have coffee with him often.

David Swinghamer, who’s Danny Meyer’s partner, I’ve known for 25 years. David Swinghamer and Gerard Centioli used to be – Gerard still is with Joe’s Stone Crab and he’s a partner with Lettuce Entertain You – David used to be the CFO there, and now David is Danny’s partner. I’ve stayed close to both of them.

We were struggling at Border Grill Santa Monica, way back. This was probably 30 years ago, at the James Beard Awards, when we were both bored with the awards, we were out drinking in the bar while the awards were going on, and I had always, like many young chefs, turned my nose up at the big corporate chains, and I ended up having a conversation with this guy, and I loved him, and he was so smart, and it turned out it was Rich Melman. Rich has been an incredible friend ever since, and he sent David and Gerard out to help us when we were looking out what to with Border Grill Santa Monica and buying our partners out at CITY. He sent them out for like three days, not us paying, he just sent them out to help us for three days, to help us through that. I had a conversation with David Swinghamer three days ago. Gerard helped us with our newest venture in Vegas, with the lease negotiation. There’s no reason, there’s no pay, there’s no anything, other than that they’re friends. I’ll call Rich if I have questions. They come from a different world.

Doug Cavanaugh with Ruby’s has been an old friend that I connect with if I have questions with stuff.

Mary Sue and I met with Paul Fleming many years ago with questions.

It all comes from sort of the same world. I don’t know what that is, but there’s a way of looking at our business from a perspective that’s very different.

Then, I’ve also had many conversations over the years with Joachim [Splichal]. David Burke is a good friend. David is an incredible chef, and an incredible businessman. I call David for input on business stuff. Charlie Palmer, same thing. Many of those chefs are definitely strong business people. I don’t feel uncomfortable calling people in our industry to ask questions. Nancy [Silverton] and I talk all the time. Suzanne Goin, she’s a friend from many, many years ago. She came in when she was in college to get my input when we had CITY to get our input about her career, and now we’re peers. She just sent me a text saying, “How’s the airport doing?” There are different things that we touch base on different levels. It might be Suzanne and I, or Nancy and I, different than when I talk to Bob Spivak. Or I might call Larry Mendel, who used to be with I Cugini. He’s an old family friend from the business.

Another person I talk to quite a bit is Jonathan Waxman. Jonathan couldn’t be more generous, open, willing, always ready with input and advice I trust impeccably.

Is there a chef or restaurant that doesn’t exist in L.A. that you would like to see open in L.A.?

I don’t think about it. I don’t have time to go to enough of the restaurants I love to go to in L.A., anyway. I don’t think about that. I think about, when I’m in New York, I try to push myself to go to new places, but I love Spotted Pig. I love Casa Mono. Barbuto, I think is great.

How often are you able to get out in Los Angeles and try new restaurants?

Not very much. I’ve had a really, really busy few years, so not a lot. I have to call my nephew to find out where to go out to eat.

Is there who you call to find out where to go?

Yeah, I do. My nephew, Ben. He’s an actor and he’s a foodie, so I call him all the time. “Where should we go eat?” “God, how could you not know where to eat?”

With all this going on, you open at the airport, you open Mud Hen, Border Grill, how is it that you’re able to find balance? What is balance for you?

We’re very close to signing another deal in Vegas. We’re excited about that too, so that’s been consuming. I have an amazing partner. I have a girlfriend who’s incredible. She’s a writer-director, but we went through this transition, she was a huge part of making this restaurant happen, and helping deal with everything here. Poor Liz [Lachman], we’re both pretty consumed. We don’t sleep very much, and we’ve been together now 18 years, so she’s used to this. Luckily, she used to be a singer-songwriter, so she’s used to late hours. Late at night, it will be, come home, have a drink, maybe take a hot tub, and then, it’s up early in the morning, going, and trying to pay attention to our animals and go full-force at work. My struggle emotionally has always been, “Do I have enough balance in my life?” The problem is, I love what I do, so I never think that it’s out of balance until I think, “Oh, my God, I have no time to myself.” I think about it for a minute, then I’m back into it. I don’t think I’m a workaholic, I really don’t, but I do love what I do, and I feel like I really enjoy the people I work with. There isn’t really a negative. The only negative for me is that I don’t have enough time to do everything. This has always been my issue.

When I was in college, for five months, I tried to see if I could live on three hours of sleep. Even the other night, I said to Liz, “The thing is, I don’t even like to sleep that much.” I’ll come home, it will be late at night. It will be one in the morning, and I’ll convince her, “Let’s stay up, let’s make a big bowl of buttered popcorn, and let’s watch Rachel Maddow.” Or let’s watch “The Americans.” It will be 2:30, I’ll get to bed, and let’s say I set my alarm for 11 to get up, it will be 6:15, I’ll wake up and feel fine. Well, I’ll just get up, because I get an extra hour. I have never been someone who’s a big sleeper. I have a fair amount of energy.

I can tell. How much more can you take on? You said you have a restaurant in the works in Vegas.

Well, it’s about having a great team around you, and we’re small, so it pushes you, but really, it’s about having a great team, to be able to be there day in and day out, and keep quality up. I don’t know. Right now, I definitely feel like I have enough on my plate for the moment, but that can change at any moment. That is a problem. When I get something presented to me that’s interesting, it’s very hard for me to say no. It’s very hard to say no.

What is the concept that you’re looking to do in Vegas?

Another Border Grill.

Is there anything you feel like L.A.’s missing, in terms of food or drink?

One thing I think L.A.’s really missing, and I may not be able to do it yet, but it would be my dream of dreams, is a great little place like this with live music. I am a music person, which is probably why I got drawn to Liz 20 years ago, cause she’s a singer-songwriter. There are not many places to go sit, hang out, and hear great music. When Liz and I first started dating, we used to go to Bob Burns because there was a great piano player. At some point, I would love to just have a great old bar with great food, great drink, and a piano, and have someone playing jazz.

I don’t know if you buy music at this point, but what was the last music that you bought or downloaded?

Liz and I saw her four years ago on the Promenade, playing, Chelsea Williams, she is amazing, and I love her music, and I’m sure she’s probably a big star now.

She was out on the Third Street Promenade, just performing for tips?

Yeah – and honestly, Liz is pretty demanding. She was a jazz singer and grew up in Detroit, she was a jazz singer from the time she was 12 and sang in big bands. I’m so lucky to have an incredible partner…I don’t know much of anything, but I love Bill Evans, I love Chet Baker. I love Annie Lennox. There are tons more I love. I love classical music.

Do you decide what music you play here or at Border Grill?

Well, I say what I don’t like.

Which is what?

I don’t like a lot of rock and roll, sort of Led Zeppelin. Liz always says, “You can’t play any of that music. That’s for old people like you.” I don’t know what it is I don’t like, I just know I don’t like it, when I’m hearing it. Our bar manager, Morgan, he did a lot of the programming for the music we’re playing here. Our regional manager at Border Grill, did all the programming for Border Grill. We go through constant changes. First it’s Pandora, then we program it all, then it’s CDs. When we opened here at STREET, my assistant did all the programming on her iPod, and I loved it, and was great, but after five years, everybody’s so sick of it that suddenly you have CDs from all over the place going on. I try to take our cue from the kids that are younger that know what’s in and interesting and eclectic. Really, in the restaurant business, you have to be constantly changing and keeping your finger on the pulse and listening to your staff. They’re out listening to the public, they are in touch with what’s going on. And it’s not necessarily that they’re young and know what’s going on, but they’re there listening to the public and they get feedback. If you don’t listen to your staff, it’s crazy.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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