Food As Sustainable Messaging with MudHen Tavern & Border Grill’s Susan Feniger

May 1, 2015

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JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. This is the Hollywood edition of Green is Good with my friend and co-host, Debbie Levin. Debbie is the President of the Environmental Media Association. It’s such an honor to have with us today for the first time on Green is Good Susan Feniger. Welcome to Green is Good. SUSAN FENIGER: Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Such an honor to have you with us today. We’re at the SLS Hotel, by the way. SLS stands for SLS Loves Sustainability. DEBBIE LEVIN: I just wanted to jump in because I wanted to introduce Susan, because Susan and I have known each other for 15 years. You were my first chef for the EMA Awards the first time that we did it in 2000. Amazing. SUSAN FENIGER: Yeah, and it was way small back then, right? DEBBIE LEVIN: It was way small, and you were like my celebrity crush and I thought if I could possibly get Susan and Mary Sue to cook for the first time that I did the EMA Awards, I would have made it. We’re going on 16 this year, which is incredible. You guys are just the most wonderful, amazing, philanthropic, most incredible people, and the best chefs, by the way, and the greenest. SUSAN FENIGER: Is there more to this show now? DEBBIE LEVIN: No, we’re done. But I do want to say, the other thing is my very special program, the EMA school garden program, you guys are our only chefs that were associated with this, and you help us every year. SUSAN FENIGER: That’s just inspiring for us when we go to the garden. It’s inspirational, and it makes you feel like, oh my God, any little bit we can do to be involved. DEBBIE LEVIN: It’s so beautiful. We actually do a luncheon once a year where Susan and Mary Sue, we gather the veggies and herbs from all the schools, and they cook lunch for all the kids and the celebrities and the parents and the teachers. It’s the luncheon that you cry because it’s just so beautiful every year. SUSAN FENIGER: It’s so sweet. You see this incredible garden. It makes me realize what a horrible gardener I am. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s the three of us. For our listeners and viewers out there, to find Susan’s great work, you got to go to Let’s be honest now. It’s been a hell of a journey. SUSAN FENIGER: It’s been a long time, for sure. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And you were really a celebrity chef with Mary Sue before there was even the Top Chef craze and all that other stuff was going on and Emeril Lagasse. You were two hot tamales. SUSAN FENIGER: Yeah, we were there when Food Network first started. We taped 470 shows or something. When Food Network first started, we were on six times a day, seven days a week, so we walked through the streets of New York and the firemen would be like, “Hey, there’s the two hot tamales!” We were big celebrities. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I remember the humble beginnings of going to your restaurant as a special night out for my wife and I and our children. You’re much beyond Santa Monica. Share with our listeners and viewers a little bit of the journey of starting humbly here in southern California and where you are now. SUSAN FENIGER: I still feel like I do the same thing. I end up at the dish station, I end up bussing tables, but beyond that. We opened our very first restaurant in 1981 called City Café. We had literally a hot plate and two Hibachis in the parking lot out back, and one double door refrigerator. We literally had to call wolf so he would call his produce company to say, “You have to deliver them three cucumbers a day if that’s what they need.” DEBBIE LEVIN: That’s where I found you. I used to go to City. SUSAN FENIGER: And then we opened our larger restaurant, City, and put a tandoori oven in ourselves. Then we opened Border Grill in Santa Monica in 1990, which is still there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And that was it, that was the beginning of the whole revolution. SUSAN FENIGER: It was. We did Good Food. We started a show, Good Food, on KCRW and did Food Network when it first started, Two Hot Tamales, and opened Border Grill downtown, Border Grill Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay, Mud Hen Tavern up in Hollywood, now another Border Grill at the Forum Shops, Border Grill trucks, Border Grill at the airport. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How do you do it and maintain the unbelievable tasty, yummy food that you make that’s also sustainable and also high-quality and get more than just one restaurant? How do you do that now? SUSAN FENIGER: You work long days. I think both Mary Sue and I are very hands-on. We always have been very hands-on. I think we have a great team of people that work with us. I’ve always been political, even when I was a little kid, so I think there’s important issues to us and we use that platform. We have like 500 employees now; it’s totally crazy, compared to our very first restaurant that was literally nine tables. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do you both feel that you’re as creative, if not more creative, than ever right now in this period in your life? SUSAN FENIGER: It’s interesting what happens. I think what happens is as you grow and your business becomes more about running the business, I try to really make a point of staying hands-on and involved and going to the farmers’ markets and being in there, in the kitchen with our team. But I think the creative process changes, and you start to expand what you do and you get more involved with the things that are interesting to you and you try to keep your chefs motivated and inspired by those things. For example, when we do the EMA Awards, when we go to the garden, we try to get our chefs and our managers excited about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I think part of our role is to have our team be inspired too, so as they grow older, they decide to give back. I grew up in a Midwest Jewish family, and literally, from the time I was a kid, it was about giving back. My family was always about how do you give back? I grew up with that in mind, for sure. DEBBIE LEVIN: In terms of the sustainability and looking for more organic and local, did that evolve, do you think? Or was that something you guys woke up one day and you were like, oh my God, we have to do this? SUSAN FENIGER: No, I think it definitely evolved, for sure. There’s many people who do it better than we do, there’s no question about it. We take baby steps and feel like each step you can take is good and important. DEBBIE LEVIN: You guys have been doing this for a long time. SUSAN FENIGER: We have. I think our very first real diving into it as a business was back in the mid-eighties. We were driving down to Chino Farms, and decided that was way too long of a drive to be spending two hours to drive down there, and we ended up developing a relationship with the Veteran hospital. They had a garden in Brentwood, 15 acres, and they were growing all organic produce and it was a horticulture therapy program that they were doing. We started working with them and they started growing things for us, like mizuna. I brought back mustard seeds from India, and they sprouted mustard seeds. The vets would pick it, they would wash it, bring it to us, and then ask us how much we wanted to pay for it. It was one of those great relationships. I think that got us thinking more and more about how cool it was. Here we were getting things that were being picked five minutes from our restaurant and being brought over to our restaurant. That got us involved initially. Then, we started working with Santa Monica Farmers’ Market very early on, and I think there we developed relationships with farmers and saw the importance of it and how it could motivate our team. Then, I think, in the early 90s, I was one of the founding members with Chefs Collaborative. There were maybe 10 of us, and they wanted to use chefs as the spokespeople. How do you, as spokespeople, as chefs, relate to your customers and to the public about eating healthier, about buying locally, about trying to protect our environment? This was back in the early nineties. We’ve been working with Debbie for 15 years. We’ve been partners with Monterey Bay Aquarium for the last 13 years and their seafood watch program to save the ocean. I’ve been working with One Night One Drop, which is the Cirque fundraiser they do to try to create clean water around the world as much as possible. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Susan, you and Mary Sue are true celebrities, not only in the chef sense, but celebrities. You have a big platform. You have, like you said, 500 employees, lots of properties around the United States, so you have a big voice. How does food, politics, and sustainability converge for you to make the world a better place and be an activist in the issues that are important to you and Mary Sue? SUSAN FENIGER: The great thing that we have is that everybody wants to eat. People love to eat. They see it as entertainment. Obviously, if you just look at the pure pleasure part of it, chefs have gotten this great platform for being a voice. It just depends on how you, as a chef, use that voice. I think both Mary Sue and I, and also my partner at Mud Hen Tavern, Kajsa Alger, we feel that it’s important that we speak out about the things that are important to us, and therefore, I think important to the people that work for us. I think, really, they feel great, then, about who they’re working for and what we stand for. I think what happens is that you get certain things, like at the EMA event. For example, it’s a great place where people can go, they can have a fantastic time, they eat fabulous food, and yet, there’s a message there about why this is important. I think when you combine food and entertainment, but there’s a strong message, it’s a great way to be able to get people educated almost without forcing them to sit in a lecture. It becomes part of the evening, and I think it is a great way, at fundraisers like that, where people become excited about the event, and then they get moved by the important message. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’ve proved that you can do well, but also do good along the way. SUSAN FENIGER: Absolutely. There are certainly challenges. I think one of the challenges in running a business is, of course, we always look at top line and bottom line, and there’s no question. For example, all of the meat that we serve is all antibiotic-free, hormone-free. All of the fish that we serve is all sustainable. Our rice and beans are organic. We recycle our oil to fuel some of our truck elements. We recycle our oil and use it as soap in the restaurant. Lots of those things are great for us as something we believe in, but there are certainly costs involved. You do have to make a choice, for sure. Something may cost more, which it does, but what will happen is the more and more people that get behind this, the more competition there will be and the more things will come into line. Trans fat oil will become less expensive. GMO-free oil will become not twice as expensive, but maybe a third. And then it will just keep dropping. All of us make decisions in our life about what’s the right thing to do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What’s the next step? You and Mary Sue don’t have any intentions on retirement, it doesn’t seem like. SUSAN FENIGER: No, not at the moment. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So where do you take how you are working with sustainability, of course, with food, and with politics, and take it to the next level now, to activate change? SUSAN FENIGER: I think we both try to be out there and speak about the things that we believe in. Let me give you a perfect example, the water issue. We now in our restaurants, we do the triple distillation, either through nature or through whatever. We stopped at one point selling bottled water. For our team, that’s a huge negative in some ways because now their bonus is based on sales and blah blah blah and all that. You really have to be the spokesperson to get them emotionally attached to why are we doing that. Of course, we have another struggle here in LA because of the water shortage. How do you address it? We try to get as many staff as we can to come and work events so they can hear the message and they can understand why is it important. People sometimes say you don’t want to be too political in your restaurants. We, of course, believe the opposite. We feel like you have to be political, and that’s what we would do, because otherwise who wants to do that? JOHN SHEGERIAN: People love you because of what you stand for, like you said earlier. DEBBIE LEVIN: And how much do you talk about how you guys both live personally with your homes, with solar? You both live very, very green in your own homes. How much is that known in terms of the public and how much do you talk about that? SUSAN FENIGER: It’s interesting. It probably doesn’t come up as much as it could. It’s true. It probably doesn’t come up as much as it could. Our whole house is solar. That is an investment that one has to make, but we, of course, feel like it’s the smartest thing to do. We have one full electric car and one hybrid car. We should probably ride our bicycles more, but we don’t. I have a garden. Mary Sue has a garden. At our house, we probably eat almost 95 percent of a vegetarian diet. I love meat, and I grew up in Ohio, but I think there’s all the consequences, obviously the health issues about what you eat. We eat all organic at home. We go to the farmers’ market all the time. Mary Sue is very similar. DEBBIE LEVIN: Don’t you think that that is really is a great thing to support what you’re doing in the restaurants for you employees, in terms of saying these are the reasons and we’re doing this at home, and this is to role model what we’re trying to do in terms of our message. SUSAN FENIGER: Yes, for sure. There’s no question. What you have to do is always be understanding about for some people and what’s involved that makes it challenging to do that. We try to always encourage, whether it’s with our public, when we’re teaching classes, when we’re on the radio, whatever it is. Do a little bit. Take that one step. Do Meatless Monday or try to think about an 80/20 diet. We have that on our menu at all the restaurants, where it’s 80 percent plant-based, 20 percent not. We try to encourage people and try to bring in different grains that they may never have eaten and tried. At Mud Hen, so many people get all the vegetarian dishes, and they’re not vegetarians. They’re not vegan, necessarily, but as long as you can create food that’s interesting and exciting, I think you send the message indirectly, and then you have to reinforce it with talking about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re almost at the end today, Susan. If Debbie and I could go to dinner tonight with you and Mary Sue, and geography didn’t matter, money didn’t matter, and it couldn’t be one of your restaurants, who’s doing food in a way that’s really exciting that you want to show us and that you’re excited to eat yourself tonight? Anywhere else in the U.S. SUSAN FENIGER: How are you going to put that out there? What am I going to say? JOHN SHEGERIAN: Where should we go, just for fun? SUSAN FENIGER: Let’s go to India. DEBBIE LEVIN: That’s a good idea. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s go. SUSAN FENIGER: And eat on the street. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Really, street food, India, that’s really great. SUSAN FENIGER: I do love that. Of course, it’s the flavor profiles that I love. I can’t say one person. I’d be killed to say that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Border Grill, Susan, last plugs. What do you want to plug before we sign off today? You’ve spent 25 minutes with us today sharing your journey in both food and sustainability. Any message you want to share with our listeners and our viewers today? SUSAN FENIGER: I think it’s really important for the public to support the restaurants and the community that are doing things that they believe in. I love it when we do an event where people see Border Grills there, Mud Hens there, and then those people, in turn, end up at one of our restaurants. That’s great. But really, I think it’s about young chefs that are coming, and we have a great voice. I think the more we can do to educate the culinary schools and have those young kids think about their messaging going forward so that we save our oceans, we save our environment, that our health system gets better because we’re taking care of our body through what we eat, those are messages that are important to get out there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re a legend and an icon, and it’s a true honor to have you on our show today, honest to God. Debbie Levin and I say thank you so much for joining us. To learn more about Susan and Mary Sue’s great restaurant and all the great work they’re doing in sustainability and beyond and food, please go to We’re at the SLS Hotel today, who were so kind to host us. SLS stands for SLS Loves Sustainability. Susan Feniger, you are truly living proof that green is good. SUSAN FENIGER: Thank you so much. Thanks, Deb. DEBBIE LEVIN: So fun. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you for joining Debbie Levin and I for the Green is Good Goes Hollywood with Debbie Levin today. Thank you for joining us and we’ll see you in our next episode.

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