Susan Feniger grew up with a fierce attachment to traditional Ashkenazi Jewish foods. “My mom made brisket, always,” she recalled. “Fattier the better for me and my dad.”
Feniger’s connection to Jewish food has evolved far beyond her mother’s kitchen in Toledo, Ohio. Feniger, who lives in Los Angeles with her partner, Liz Lachman, has enjoyed a career spanning nearly 30 years in L.A., dating to when she and longtime business partner Mary Sue Milliken opened the seminal City Café and CITY Restaurant. But these days, the chef best known nationally for her television appearances on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters and the former Food Network program she shared with Milliken, Too Hot Tamales, which focused on regional Mexican cuisine. Her latest book, Susan Feniger’s Street Food: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes, was published this summer.
Yet while she plans eclectic menus at her restaurants—she is owner and chef of Street restaurant in Hollywood as well as co-owner with Milliken of the three Border Grill restaurants—Feniger is always conscious of how to adapt her passion for regional foods from around the world to suit the Jewish tastes she grew up with. Raised Reform, Feniger spent time as an adult on Kibbutz Ruhama in the Negev desert. Today, she says she is “not religious, but I love being Jewish.” And Jewish holidays in particular have provided Feniger with the chance to hold on to her Jewish background, while reinterpreting time-honored foods through the lenses of other culinary cultures that inspire her.
Feniger views her restaurant as a larger version of her mother’s kitchen, with her guests serving as an extended family, so special holiday menus at Street nod to Jewish customs. Last year, the restaurant hosted a Seder, with a rabbi present to lead a brief Passover service, and a group of Israeli musicians to enliven the gathering. The meal featured a wide range of dishes, such as smoked fish and potato combined into fried bimuelos, warm Halloumi cheese served over a salad spiked with citrus and grilled treviso, and Moroccan lamb and vegetarian tagines. All the elements together were “warm and wonderful,” said Feniger, “just a perfect evening.”
For Rosh Hashanah last Sunday, Feniger and Street’s executive chef Kajsa Alger’s holiday offerings included roasted fig flatbread with a Yemeni spice mix, as well as crispy chicken livers with Moroccan spices, and striped bass combined with smoked potato and Japanese spinach. For a meat course, she and Alger skewered brisket yakitori style, perforating tender meat next to coal-roasted shisito peppers and sake-soaked beets—quite different from the way her mother used to make it. In some ways, though, it was a typical Jewish New Year meal, incorporating influences from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe.
Feniger will be hosting a break-the-fast at Street for the conclusion of Yom Kippur on September 26, featuring artichoke-and-feta frittatas and Sephardic pumpkin puree. But for those who can’t make it to L.A. to share the feast, she offered some suggestions for making a break-fast at home that reflect her instincts as a chef, combining traditional foods with unexpected points of reference. There’s even just enough dairy to satisfy American Ashkenazi hankerings for milk-based products after the sun sets. But it’s a change of pace from the more common American break-fast, which is more likely to include bagels and lox along with the usual fixings, or a spread with kugel and blintzes—basically, no-fuss foods that can be prepared in advance and easily set out for family and friends to eat at home after services are over.
Feniger described her recipe for pan-fried spinach varenyky (Ukrainian dumplings) as “similar to something my grandmother made for us growing up.” The addition of lemon marmalade also reminded her of “having toast and jam on the plate, and somehow having it all mixed into one bite.” The sweet and sour condiment balances the richness of the sour cream and butter.
Feniger’s distinctive method for cooking Brussels sprouts with goat cheese, apples, and hazelnuts makes for a rounded combination that’s creamy, nutty, sweet, and just a tad tart thanks to the Granny Smiths and lemon juice. She also vouches for its ability to convert skeptics of this unfairly maligned vegetable. And her Burmese gin thoke melon salad—bolstered by ginger and kaffir lime leaves to go with an earthy mixture of lentils, peanuts, and coconut—takes advantage of lingering melon season. “I don’t have a sweet tooth, so this is perfect for me,” Feniger said. “Sweet and salty.” All the better if it follows a glass of typically Sephardic sweet, fragrant pepitada drink made from melon seeds.
So, save the bagels and lox for Sunday brunch, and take a tip from a chef who knows how to respect traditions and broaden culinary boundaries simultaneously. You’ll have a break-fast that’s most festive, more inclusive, and more delicious for all your guests.
Jessica Ritz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.