A three-week trip to an ashram in the Indian town of Ahmednagar in 1981 shifted Susan Feniger's (Street, Top Chef Masters, etc.) aesthetic and approach as a chef. Before then, her professional purview was almost exclusively located within traditional French restaurants on the East coast to the West, including Ma Maison in Los Angeles with then-chef Wolfgang Puck.
"I was completely blown away by the flavors. It really changed the direction of my palate and what I was drawn to," says Feniger. "I loved the whole culture. It was my first introduction to bangles and I've worn a million bangles of all different styles ever since then. I'm still drawn to those colors too, like turmeric, cayenne and cumin."
"I got exposed to an Indian kitchen in a very different way than I've ever been with Indian food in this country. I've never seen black mustard seeds. I've never worked with chili seeds toasted in that way. I knew lentils, but I never worked with all these different styles," says Feniger.
When Feniger returned from her trip, she and long-time business partner Mary Sue Milliken opened City Café, where they introduced vegetarian plates that echoed some of the flavor profiles and culinary lessons she'd learned.
"At the time, vegetarian plates usually consisted of steamed vegetables. We put together a vegetarian plate that would include things like dal, curry, rice, raita and chutney," Feniger recalls. "Sometimes, it would be sweet and sour eggplant with rice or we might do spaghetti squash with tomatoes and parmesan. The plate was very labor-intensive, but it made for a complete meal."
They sourced some of their ingredients from a 15-acre garden in Brentwood that opened around the same time as City Café, which grew for them black mustard seed sprouts Feniger brought back from India as well as mizuna and dandelion greens. The chefs would put forth platters of vegetables that were unpopular at the time: parsnip chips, rutabaga purée, and sautéed shaved Brussels sprouts with lime and cumin seed. The vegetables were served family-style alongside entrée orders.
"I remember us discussing how we were going to put forth vegetables people hated -- and then see if they'd eat them," says Feniger. They found that the vegetarian platter would be a popular order even amongst non-vegetarians.
"When we went on our first cookbook tour, I remember Mary Sue and I being blown away by the lack of vegetables on menus. Even on an entrée, you'd get like three snow peas and two baby carrots," Feniger says. "We were like the opposite of that. We would always have all these vegetables to accompany an entrée because we didn't want someone just to get a steak and order a side of vegetables."
"At Border Grill, we do an 80/20 menu all the time. Eight percent of the dishes is plant-based, while 20 percent is not. It's just something Mary Sue and I have always believed in."
The menu at Street comprises a similar ratio, with 65-70% vegetarian or vegan dishes. To Feniger, the content of the dish is not as important as the texture and taste.
"Kasja [Alger, executive chef and partner at Street] and I put a ton of effort into making sure that a vegan dish is as great as the meat or vegetarian dishes, losing none of the richness or full-bodiness. It's about figuring out how to make a vegan dish that's as great as a vegetarian dish that has cheese or a meat dish that might have pork."
Her first trip to India may have exposed her to newer flavors, but Feniger has long gravitated to vegetarianism. "When I was at the CIA, I did a project where I designed a menu at a vegetarian restaurant."
At home, Feniger keeps ingredients that allows her to put together a quick dinner for herself and her partner of 18 years, who is a vegetarian. Although she's an omnivore, she finds that she tends to eat vegetarian meals anyway.
"We always have soba noodles, quinoa, rice, sesame oil, ponzu, soy sauce, lentils, and pasta. I always have ginger and tofu in the refrigerator. I have edamame in the freezer. I always have the kinds of things that can sort of last like carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, broccoli and cauliflower," says Feniger.
'With my go-to stuff, it's dal and rice, soba noodles and vegetables, rice with sautéed vegetables, or rice with furikake [a Japanese condiment], Japanese spices, and tofu. I know if I don't have anything else in the house, I can have a great dinner with these ingredients."
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