7/20/2012 12:23:00 PM

Susan Feniger on Her New Cookbook, Her Love of Street Food and More

On Tuesday, legendary LA chef Susan Feniger released her latest cookbook, Street Food, which compiles 83 of her favorite recipes inspired by dozens of different world cuisines. While Feniger is most recently famous for her LA eatery Street, her love affair with street food began almost 30 years ago with a trip to India. But this well-traveled chef has also spent time in the South of France, Vietnam, Singapore, Turkey, Mongolia and countless other countries, deriving inspiration for both her food and her life. We recently caught up with Susan to talk about her recent travels, what ingredients she thinks are underrated and what exactly is going on with that ABC TV pilot. Check out our chat with her below.

Zagat: Was there a defining moment or trip that you took that really piqued your interest in street food?
I've always been very interested in street food. I think probably the most influential thing that ever happened to me was probably 27 or 28 years ago. I had done all my training in French kitchens and worked in the South of France and in French kitchens in this country. I took my very first trip to India, and I was going with a couple of friends who were going to visit an ashram, and I thought, "What the hell, I'll go because I was dying to go to India." Literally when I stepped off the plane in Mumbai, I fell in love with everything about India, with the spices, the smells, all of the unbelievable vendors.

On the street then, 30 years ago, I just fell in love with everything about the street culture. The feel of it, the jewelry, the colors you saw going through a market. None of this was familiar to me at all. I mean my training was all in the French kitchen, and I really think it had a huge influence on the direction that my food sensibilities went. So I think that's sort of the beginning of it, and then that first trip there really shaped it. It really took me away from the French kitchen in a big way.

Zagat: What were some of the highlights from your recent travels?
I haven't been traveling as much as I would love to, but probably this trip I took to Vietnam was pretty fantastic. I don't really feel like I have much time at all - between the four restaurants and the trucks and kiosks, it feels like I'm pretty torn. So that was my first trip to Vietnam and Singapore, it was seven days in Vietnam and a couple of days in Singapore. And again, it was one of those trips that was just like seven days of eating. I've been to India probably now six times. And the trip I took to India, right before opening Street, to get my head out of Latin America and into another world and another set of spices. On that trip I met my friend, and we did seven cities in 14 days. And all we did was eat on the street from 7:30 in the morning until 10 at night.

Vietnam was that same kind of trip. There were a couple particularly memorable experiences. One of the things that blew me away was one of these places where they make these very thin crêpe-like pancakes, and there's three cooks sitting on stools outside. In front of them are like five little fires, and each fire has a pan on it, and behind them, low stools that are like a foot tall. Behind them in the alley, there are like 20-foot tables, like ten of them, all full of people, making this pancake which is like a coconut-milk crêpe, and then putting shrimp, sprouts and a fried egg in it, and fat that kind of goes from one pan to the next and gets flipped and put on a big full plate with all these fresh herbs. And then there's of course fish sauce with palm sugar and chiles, and then everyone gets that and eats the pancake with this dipping sauce.

There was this other place in another neighborhood - they had their long grills that were six feet long and a foot wide, and someone kept coming along with this pan full of kindling burning, and this woman was doing all these marinated pork skewers. You're literally in the alley with mortocycles going by, and this is some of the best food I've ever eaten. There's something really wonderful about that. There's an element you don't get if you're just in a restaurant, you don't get people curious about why you're there. It's a great way to build a relationship in a foreign country where you don't necessary speak the same language. What I found is people become curious about where you are from, and often times you get invited into someone's home.

Zagat: What destinations have you yet to visit that are on your list?
A ton - I mean that's been the most incredible thing about food, and for me in particular, but I think for any chef - take me anywhere and I would be interested. That's how I feel. I probably am less drawn to places like France and England and Spain, while I certainly love those as places to go visit. My passions are places that feel very different than anything I'm used to. I'm very interested in Eastern Europe - you know there's a million places I haven't been. I'd love to go to Korea. I'd love to go to China. I've thought a lot about Korea - it sticks out in my mind and what that would be like, and Morocco would be very cool. I haven't been to Israel for a long time - I was there when I was 18 and I love Middle Eastern food. I love the food in Turkey, I thought that was fantastic. I could just close my eyes and just put my finger on the map. It's one of the great things about what I do. I keep learning and growing and learning about cultures.

Zagat: Do you have a recipe from the book that you're particularly excited to share?
You know, I think the Indian puffed rice; you see it every once in a while on a menu but not that often, but it's one of those very traditional street-food dishes you see in India. There's this wonderful mixture of spices and flavors, and you get this great tamarind sauce that goes over the top, and I really like the combination of everything together, so I think bhel puri was one of those ones that excited me in a big way. 

Zagat: What's going on with that TV pilot based on you and Mary Sue [Milliken]?
It was purchased, and we don't know if it's going to get made or where it goes. It's based very loosely on our partnership. We were included in Michael Eisner's book on partnerships, and we were really honored to be in it. It was totally a cool book, and Michael Eisner felt like it was a great story.

Zagat: What do you think are the most underrated ingredients?
There's so many ingredients from ethnic cultures that I think are underutilized - achiote for example. There's a lot of interesting ingredients like tamarind and pandan that are out there that we don't use because it's just not the palate of many of the restaurants. I think that for a long time, when Mary and I first started working together, we used very few ingredients that were expensive, probably because we were cheap. We used to use lamb breast, because back then skirt steak was not being used very much, and you know we'd serve lamb kidneys, stuff like that. So I think now that everything's available through the internet, there's a lot more chefs using a lot more ingredients that were previously underutilized. 

Zagat: How do you feel about the foie gras ban?
Well, I don't think we've ever served foie gras in any of our restaurants. I have to say when I did my first year working in the South of France, I was cooking fresh foie gras then, and this was 32 years ago. I'd never tasted fresh foie gras. I was blown away with how fantastic it is. I went to a foie gras farm many, many years ago - if I ever thought about it too much, I would be a vegetarian. So when I went to this farm, it felt very inhumane to me, and I think, you know, much has changed since then.

I'm pretty liberal - I sort of am a big believer in taking care of humanity and animals. We're partners with Monterey Bay Aquarium about supporting sustainable seafood, and I feel like I'm willing to be inconvenienced. I'm willing to make strong statements for what I believe. I don't have a hard time with it. But with foie gras, you know, it doesn't really affect us since we don't serve it. If it is inhumane treatment, because it's not something we've ever served, I'm not very knowledgeable about that. Then for me it's like fine, don't serve it. I don't have a problem with it; I do feel like I'm a big supporter of taking care of our animals and treating them humanely. If I was a stronger person, I'd be a vegetarian.

Zagat: What else are you working on right now?
The cookbook has me consumed for the next few months. I'm doing a bunch of TV for that. Of course, Hawaii Food and Wine, LA Food and Wine. We're looking pretty seriously for another Border Grill expansion, and we're looking for another location in Vegas and in the San Diego area. We've got this other thing that's in the works for Street, website stuff. We're not yet looking for a new Street location, but we've certainly been talking about it, and talking about another Street book


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