Writer Andrew Friedman was our guest on the Splendid Table Selects episode "Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll." He shared this excerpt from his book by the same title.


“HE OFFERED ME A JOB AS A HATCHECK GIRL AND I CRIED.”

Susan Feniger had been raised in a Midwestern Jewish family that valued good food; mom could cook anything, from noodle kugel to lasagna to fudge brownies, and was uncommonly attuned to the seasons, making vibrant salads in an iceberg wedge era. Feniger’s first kitchen job was at Smith’s Cafeteria in Toledo, Ohio. She loved it, but started college, dropped out, then found herself working for a cabinetmaker in Vermont. Returning to college, this time in California, to study economics, she took a job in the school’s cafeteria, learned rudimentary preparations, and loved the environment. Her boss pulled her aside one day, told her she should be studying cooking. She convinced her economics professor to let her spend her senior year in a customized, independent-study program at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where Feniger became hopelessly devoted to kitchen life: “I loved the camaraderie of it, I loved wearing uniforms, I loved eating and creating. It fit for me.”

Feniger was the only woman in her class, but didn’t feel the crush of sexism: “Here’s the thing: When I was in high school, I was this total Ayn Rand freak. I was this total libertarian to the fullest. I was studying philosophy and psychology and I was reading Nathaniel Branden and then I ended up reading John Hospers.” The libertarian bent toward self-sufficiency bucked Feniger up against the chauvinism and harassment of the time: “I probably was in total denial to thinking that was happening. I was, I think, pretty strong and confident. I was a tomboy as a kid. I’m sure it was there. I just didn’t feel it. It clearly still is there but it’s just not one of those things that came into my consciousness.”*

Feniger shifted her attention to cooking. Her family, unlike many of the time, supported it, but her father had one requirement: that she learn the business of running a restaurant. Feniger worked for a hot second at The Quilted Giraffe, a new restaurant in New Paltz, New York, in its formative years, then other jobs in upstate New York and for Gus Riedi’s La Bonne Auberge in Kansas City, and gave up novels and philosophical treatises for cookbooks. After two years, she moved to Chicago and took a job at Le Perroquet, a nouvelle cuisine restaurant and one of Chicago’s finest, where she became the second-ever woman in the kitchen; the first, still there when Feniger arrived, was Mary Sue Milliken.

Milliken grew up the youngest of three sisters in an East Lan- sing, Michigan, family, discovered cooking during high school in home ec classes and working in a pizzeria and a donut shop. She also had an epiphany when “I met a guy who was a chef in Chicago, a friend of my sister’s, and he cooked dinner in, like, forty-five min- utes before my very eyes. I was sixteen, and in that moment, at that dinner, I decided I wanted to be a chef. And I went back to East Lan- sing, graduated from high school, and moved to Chicago. I really had no idea what kind of a career it was going to be.” She went to what she calls “chef school” in 1976 or 1977 at Washburn Trade School, which she describes as “a trade tech on the South Side with a bunch of plumbers and pipe fitters and auto mechanics.” To ready students for the rigors of the industry, the school was open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. She supplemented her classes with restaurant work at night.

Milliken was, she believes, one of two women in a class of one hundred. “I think when you’re in the middle of that kind of a situa- tion you don’t allow yourself to acknowledge that it’s harder for you than it would be if you were a different gender. So you just barrel through and try to make it happen,” she says. “But in retrospect you look at it and you can see that it was definitely challenging and hard. But I have the kind of personality that likes a challenge and likes to be a little bit of a rebel. So I think it fit me. But I had to go to the tequila bar after school and drink as much as the guys. I had to prove myself in kitchens. I had to lift heavy things. I was trying to really be as competitive as I could on that stage.”

Milliken had heard of Alice Waters, but only vaguely. As with most people east of the Rocky Mountains—and with Californians, for that matter—her attentions were focused on France. She found direction when Madeleine Peter’s Favorite Recipes of the Great Women Chefs of France was published in 1979. “I read it, like, five times. I couldn’t believe it. Finally I’ve found some role models.” This was typical of the time. With scant coverage or even real awareness of chefs, aspirants were hard-pressed for industry knowledge. “There was no Internet. There were very few of us, and chefs in those days, we worked sixteen, eighteen hours a day, every day, day in and day out. And you didn’t read lots of newspapers or magazines. Where were you going to get intel?”

Milliken worked for the Conrad Hilton Hotel, then did a stage at Maxim’s in Paris. Returning to Chicago, she wanted to work for Jovan Trboyevic at Le Perroquet, which had never employed a woman in the kitchen.

ALT INFOChefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll
by Andrew Friedman

“He said, ‘I can’t hire you because you’re a woman and you’d cause havoc in my kitchen,’” says Milliken. “I said, ‘How will I do that?’ He said, ‘You’re too pretty. All the men would go crazy.’ I just couldn’t believe that. He offered me a job as a hatcheck girl and I cried.** And then I started a letter and phone call campaign where I called him every  five minutes, wrote him letters. And he finally said, ‘Are you going to sue me?’ I said, ‘No, I just want a job.’ So he said, ‘All right. Come in tomorrow. It’s three twenty-five an hour, minimum wage.’ Of course, now he would get sued over it. But then, you know, there were times when, like, seventeen-year-old boys would be making twelve—I can’t remember, maybe it was eight dollars an hour, and I would be making five fifty, and I was two years older, with four years more experience. But that stuff happened and you just persevered and kept going.”

Feniger arrived about eighteen months after Milliken. “I think he thought he had the best deal on the planet because I was working circles around all the guys in the kitchen and I was so cheap, so he took another,” says Milliken. “I had never worked with anybody who had the same sensibility, the same work ethic. We really enjoyed working together.”

“The chef there at that time was a total asshole to me,” says Feniger. “Complete. But he was a great chef and I felt like I learned a ton from him. It was a totally great restaurant. And it was a great experience, it was the beginning of nouvelle cuisine and they were just doing amazing things. We both learned a ton there.”

Feniger arrived about eighteen months after Milliken. “I think he thought he had the best deal on the planet because I was working circles around all the guys in the kitchen and I was so cheap, so he took another,” says Milliken. “I had never worked with anybody who had the same sensibility, the same work ethic. We really enjoyed working together.”

“The chef there at that time was a total asshole to me,” says Feniger. “Complete. But he was a great chef and I felt like I learned a ton from him. It was a totally great restaurant. And it was a great experience, it was the beginning of nouvelle cuisine and they were just doing amazing things. We both learned a ton there.”

Feniger moved to Los Angeles, and Ma Maison, in 1978, and fell right away for the laid-back culture, calling Milliken to breathlessly report: “I can’t believe you can wear tennis shoes here, you don’t have to wear a chef ’s hat.” She also shared a detail that amuses Milliken today: “‘You’re not going to believe this weirdo who’s in the kitchen here. He doesn’t even know how to do the ordering. We have three cases of avocados and he orders three more. They’re just going to spoil.’ We chuckle about that, because it was Wolf.”

Around the same time that Feniger pushed off from Ma Maison

to work at L’Oasis, Milliken embarked on her own stage under chef Dominique Nahmias at Olympe in Paris. The two kept in touch that year and, when it was over, met up at Milliken’s apartment in Paris’s Fourteenth Arrondissement, killed a few bottles of wine, and as a rainbow appeared in the sky, came to a conclusion: “We decided that we had to open a restaurant together,” says Milliken. “I think being a woman in a man’s field, you kind of quickly learn that if you want to call the shots, you’re going to have to start out small and do your own thing because trying to work your way up through the hierarchy in a male-dominated field is just pretty hard.” (Milliken, along with Lazaroff, New York chefs and restaurateurs Lidia Bastianich and Anne Rozenzweig, Providence’s Johanne Killeen, and Califor- nia’s Elka Gilmore, helped start Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, spearheaded by chefs Barbara Tropp and Joyce Goldstein, in 1993. A similar organization, the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, was founded by Sara Moulton and Maria Reuge at Sally Darr’s La Tulipe restaurant in 1981. Both continue to thrive today.)

Both cooks were broke—Milliken had even sold her car to finance her European adventure and lived off her savings overseas—so they went where the short-term money was: Milliken to Chicago and a private chef gig; Feniger back to L.A., where she picked up lunch shifts at Ma Maison. By night she moonlighted, running the kitchen for the owners of an espresso bar located next to their L.A. Eyeworks shop, also on Melrose. It was modest, to say the least, a nine-hundred- square-foot cafe with nine tables, eleven barstools, a pastry case, an espresso machine, and no proper kitchen. The owners, over the novelty of running a food-service business and frustrated by the daily grind, asked Feniger if she’d like to run it. She seized the opportunity, shortcomings of the space be damned, setting up two hibachis, a hot plate, and a prep table in the parking lot out back.

“The first special I ever ran was veal tongue with lobster sauce and sautéed pears. I made it on a hot plate,” said Feniger. “We were two years into it before the health department came by to say we really couldn’t do that.”

Milliken came to L.A. in February 1981, overcame her Mid- westerner’s wariness of California—known back home as “the land of fruits and nuts”—went back to Chicago, packed up her things, and by early spring she and Feniger were together in the kitchen at what became City Café, drawing primarily on their French back- grounds, with an emphasis on country over nouvelle: “Confit of duck on a salad with pickled cabbage. Or we would do cold poached salmon with tomatoes and herbs and olive oil and salt. Or we would do grilled turkey. We couldn’t afford veal so we were really into turkey for some reason. We’d slice it thinly and pound it and make turkey escalope with lemon and shallots and brown butter.” Because they had no refrigeration and required a daily delivery, local purveyors didn’t want to service them. Puck, flexing his growing muscle, intervened on their behalf.

Feniger and Milliken found their customers as open-minded as Waxman did, so they began adding organs such as lamb kidneys to the menu. “There was a dialogue and an interchange between the customers and the kitchen,” says Milliken. The interaction was enhanced by the fact that the bathroom was through the kitchen. “Whenever a movie star would come in, we’d tell the busboy, ‘Give them lots of water so they have to come in the bathroom.’ ” (High- lights: Gilda Radner, Stevie Wonder, and the giraffe-tall Julia Child, who bumped her head on the pots and pans hanging like a mobile over the kitchen.)

“They would ask about the food,” says Milliken. “They’d sit at the bar. They’d look through the window to the kitchen, and we were just bursting with excitement about cooking. We would cook from morning until night, every day, six days a week, and then on Mon- days we would just sleep all day. We had so much fun. We’d write the menu on a chalkboard every day. We’d be out there filling the pastry case with homemade desserts. We had a huge pastry menu, too; as soon as I got in the cafe, I was like, ‘We’re not going to buy any desserts from the outside.’ There was a lot of excitement around the food. And I would do things like lamb’s tongue salad that people loved. I was just very impressed. It was an artistic thing, eating in L.A., more so than it was in the Midwest.”

Emboldened, the women began expanding their repertoire into unprecedented eclecticism: Feniger returned from a trip to India, added potato samosas with chutneys, a vegetarian plate with dals, and lamb curry to the menu. Milliken returned from Thailand and on went a Thai sausage salad, duck red curry, eggplant curry, and pickled tomatoes. A trip to the Japanese fish market was followed by monk- fish liver. They persuaded a garden in Brentwood to grow organic produce for them, including black mustard sprouted from seeds Feniger brought back from India.

“We weren’t making it accessible,” says Feniger. “We were just doing the food we loved. As long as people were buying it, we never thought about it. We never thought about what the press will say; we didn’t go there.”

One day, it hit Feniger in a flash—the same way it had hit Wax- man and Puck in that passing glance at Ma Cuisine—that step by step, imperceptibly as it had happened, she had entered a new world. “Oh my God,” she thought. “We can do whatever we want!

 

Footnotes

* This experience contrasted sharply with that of other women such as Helen Chardack, who attended the CIA around the same time and remembers: “You wouldn’t walk into the cooler on your own. There were a lot of chefs, kids, or guys who would walk in after you. And then you’d have to do the whole I’m-being- cornered routine and squirrel out. Even in some of the kitchens in New York. Passing by the dishwasher station could be tough. You’d get lots of comments.” And Napa Valley chef Cindy Pawlcyn recalls that when she applied to the CIA in the 1970s, “I got rejected because I was a woman and they’d filled their quota for three years. I got a letter.”

** The hat check job offer was extreme, even by the standards of the time. A more common act of chauvinism was to confine women to pastry or garde-manger (salads and cold prep). The great Boston chef Lydia Shire recalls the summer day she auditioned for a position at Maison Robert as it was preparing to open in the early 1970s: A self-taught, divorced mother of three at the time, she produced an elaborate seven-layer cake from a recipe by Raymond Oliver, called herself an air-conditioned taxi, and arrived at the restaurant unannounced. Her artistry and “chutzpah” earned her a spot in the kitchen, but “as a salad girl, because I’m a woman and I was young and American. I was part of the opening team, in garde -manger, opening oysters and slicing pâté, watching cooks cooking and thinking that’s what I wanted to do; that’s when I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” (She eventually decamped for Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in London, returning to Maison Robert as a line cook and working her way up to chef of the main dining room, then moved on to the more progressive Harvest restaurant.)


From CHEFS, DRUGS, and ROCK AND ROLL by Andrew Friedman. Copyright 2018 Andrew Freidman. Excerpted with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.