Susan Feniger is chopping, knife moving faster than Zatoichi’s sword, all the while laughing and schmoozing and greeting new arrivals at her Brentwood home. Friends perch on stools around the kitchen’s center island, mojitos in hand, anticipating the dinner to come. Others, standing on the deck just outside the kitchen, take in the Santa Monica Bay views and play with Feniger’s mop-like Goldendoodles, Augie and Chewie. As the party progresses, guests drift down the brick stairs to the pool area, where occasional cries from the pingpong players are heard above the Latin rhythms of the Buena Vista Social Club. It’s a typical Feniger party, as casual and comfortable as the food for which she is known.
With longtime business partner Mary Sue Milliken, Feniger owns three restaurants: Ciudad in downtown L.A., Border Grill Santa Monica and Border Grill at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The pair have coauthored five cookbooks, hosted nearly 400 episodes of their cooking shows on the Food Network and developed a line of pepper mills and prepared foods. Currently they’re hosting a weekly two-hour radio program, “In the KFI Kitchen with Mary Sue and Susan.”
Add in dozens of cross-country trips to food and wine festivals, lectures, cooking demonstrations and charity benefits--Feniger cooks for the Scleroderma Research Foundation’s annual fundraising event, Cool Comedy-Hot Cuisine--and you have an idea of her schedule. Oh, and she teaches cooking classes and works in the Border Grill booth at the Santa Monica farmers market.
In her scant spare time, Feniger loves to entertain. “Just about any excuse for a party will do,” she says. “All the holidays, of course--Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day--then there’s the Emmys and the Oscars, sometimes it’s just a Laker game, whatever.”
On Oscars weekend, for example, she attended the Miami South Beach Wine and Food Festival, where she cooked for 1,000 people, caught a red-eye back to L.A. in time to host her 9 a.m. Sunday radio show, then rushed home to prepare dinner for 20 or so friends who were dropping by for “a little Oscars party.” The key to her entertaining success is her cooking (no small thing, that) and her laid-back style. “I keep it simple,” Feniger says, “so I have a good time too.”
This Saturday’s outdoor barbecue party celebrates her life partner Liz Lachman’s directorial debut, “Getting to Know You,” which recently won an Out Far! Lesbian & Gay Film Festival short-subject award. Some of the cast are invited, and a few other friends will drop by as well. Feniger is not exactly sure how many. “Our parties just sort of grow,” she says.
The menu--an updated version of surf ‘n’ turf with boiled shrimp and grilled seeded lamb chops--is pure Feniger, with lots of comfort and finger foods. She cooks the shrimp with whole artichokes and piles them high on a newspaper-covered table. “I put out a few dipping sauces and napkins, then everyone digs in and eats with their hands,” she says. Likewise, the lime and cayenne-buttered corn on the cob are grilled in their husks, which are pulled down and used as handles to hold the hot corn. A big bowl of large strawberries, with creme fraiche and brown sugar for dipping, is another easy favorite. Down-to-earth s’mores--recalling Girl Scout campfires and roasted marshmallows--end the meal. “They’re gooey and a little messy,” says Feniger, “but delicious.”
Although Feniger prefers to do the cooking herself, she is not above picking up marinated steaks and romaine and croutons from Border Grill if she gets into a time crunch: “There is a real luxury in having your own restaurant.”