a female chef kneels by a small fire pit in an orange-walled restaurant
Susan Feniger at her first solo restaurant, STREET, in Los Angeles Credit: Courtesy Liz Lachman

Living in Chicago, we hear these amazing restaurant success stories that sound like unimaginable adventures. Too often, these tales have undergone massive editing and polishing to the point where even the worst struggle sounds like a finely crafted Shakespearean sonnet. We rarely see the raw truth. We look at successful restaurants and chefs with their list of awards, and the first thing we think is that they are different from people like us. Then an independent documentary like Susan Feniger. FORKED shows up.

As one of the featured titles at this year’s Reeling Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival, FORKED shows a different side of the restaurant industry. Produced by Feniger’s spouse, Liz Lachman, the documentary is a tender, unfiltered narrative about how one woman works in an industry dominated by men.

An award-winning chef, Feniger and her lifetime culinary partner Mary Sue Milliken, began as cooks’ assistants in the back kitchen of Chicago’s iconic French restaurant, Le Perroquet. A 1986 Chicago Tribune article on the two shortly after leaving Le Perroquet describes their initial forays into the culinary world—among them shared struggles with closet-sized spaces and problematic chefs.

They ended up a legendary duo in the culinary world, opening popular Los Angeles restaurants focused on Mexican-influenced cuisine like City Cafe, Border Grill, and Ciudad in the 80s and 90s, writing half a dozen cookbooks into the 90s, appearing on TV in their own popular 90s television shows Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour, and winning several awards. In 2013, Feniger won the California Restaurant Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. And in 2018, she won the Julia Child Award. 

The 90-minute film suggests that Feniger never intended to become a legend. She and Milliken didn’t even know what they were doing when they started Too Hot Tamales, one of the most loved shows in the Food Network’s history, judging by its 400 episodes. (The show ran from 1995 to 1999.) They simply did what they wanted to do and hoped it worked out.

Throughout the verite documentary, the one thing we hear Feniger say the most is how she had no idea where she was headed. The film doesn’t shy away from showing her difficult times. At one point we hear her admitting that they were cooking food on a hibachi grill in their cafe’s parking lot next to their customers’ cars when they first started. We see a chef who once dominated the Food Network tell us she was miserable at her first restaurant job and often cried in the cooler, as we all did. 

These insights are what make FORKED a refreshing culinary documentary. Feniger didn’t enter the scene with a massive culinary heritage like many Chicago chefs and restaurateurs. This lack of inheritance surprisingly liberated her from all rules and restrictions. What she didn’t know, she chose to explore and learn. Whatever she felt herself drawn toward, she incorporated into her menus from the beginning. 

She calls her focus on multiethnic cuisines “global.” It’s a term not without its detractors, but we often take for granted today that many ingredients had barely entered common American cuisine when she began her career. Passion fruit, avocado, tuna—what we see as regular food items on modern restaurant menus were the crab nobody had eaten back then.

The film shows how early on she sought out ingredients and dishes from Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand. As Feniger put it, too many people were afraid to eat like the locals when they traveled, but that was usually where the best food came from. So she went out into the world, walked the streets, and tasted the food in its most authentic forms. Then she came home, cooked her heart out, and dealt with restaurant construction failures, city health regulations, financial struggles, infestations, and who knows what other nightmares that didn’t fit into the film. 

By 2009, Feniger decided to open her first solo restaurant project, STREET. It lasted four years, but she wasn’t deterred. She jumped into a new project in 2013, Mud Hen Tavern, which ran until 2016. Since then, she’s been appearing in cooking competitions and making guest appearances on various television programs with her trademark warm smile that reveals her energetic curiosity, evident in one of her first television appearances, on Julia Child’s Cooking with Master Chefs.

Susan Feniger. FORKED
9/24, 4:30 PM, Landmark Century Centre Cinema, Theater 4, 2828 N. Clark
$12 general admission, $10 Reeling members
Stream online starting 9/29, $10 streaming ticket

FORKED is primarily focused on the struggles that Feniger faced in opening her own restaurant during a time when there were so many more reasonable and less costly options. But in the end, it’s an intimate and raw documentary that highlights the chaos, distress, tears, laughter, failed experiences, and triumphs behind anyone with determination and desire. The documentary is a feast for the eyes and the soul, and reminds us of our most fearless selves going boldly out into the world.


Reeling returns

Chicago’s LGBTQ+ international film festival celebrates its 41st year with stories of found family, gay disco, bigoted parasitic worms, and more.