Street Food at Home

It started as a story about watching people cook, but it turned into a study in mentors and protégés.
susan feniger

For the October issue of Gourmet, I visited two chefs to write a story on how they were going about developing a menu for their about-to-open restaurant. But as I reflected on my visit, I kept gravitating towards the relationship between the two, between mentor and protégé, and ended up with a different story that grew out of the text for the magazine. Here is that story.

Kajsa Alger has worked for Susan Feniger for nearly half her life. Today she’s up in the hills, cooking at the boss’s house. Outside, in the garden, there are lemons as sweet as oranges and oranges as sweet as anything, curry leaves and kaffir limes and a view of the ocean reflecting sun so fiercely it looks like steel. And in the kitchen Kajsa is warping the wallboards with steam from her pots, burning holes in the upholstery, and standing over the boss’s shoulder, scolding her for being careless with the salt. Kajsa Alger is living the dream.

To be fair, Susan isn’t Kajsa’s boss anymore. Despite being in elementary school when Susan opened her first restaurant, Kajsa is her partner in their new place, Street, and, at the moment, she is the Sheriff of Recipe Forest. The two chefs are beating up the house together, hammering out dishes for Street’s opening. Kajsa takes pictures to remember the consistency of batters, to recall plating styles, and she takes notes on everything, every step, every measure of every ingredient. “I’ve got a bad memory,” she says, “and we have to be precise so the cooks will have guidelines to work from.”

But of course, there aren’t any cooks yet. Doing all this work at home means no one to prep, no onions already peeled, no cups of tamarind paste already cleaned. Even for a lifelong cook it can be a painful tedium, but Susan is working with visible joy, her face all smiles behind Bunsen Honeydew eyeglasses. “You feel so much more connected to the dishes. The reality of them is right in front of you,” she says while tossing a salad with her hands. She shakes a pan over a wild flame with steady movements, the comfort of someone who’s been cooking a long, long time. She dips her finger into it, I thought to steal a quick taste, but she dips it so far, pressing against the bottom of the pan, I realize she’s trying to feel the sauce. When she talks about being connected to these dishes, it’s literal.

“Is this weighed out?” Kajsa asks while pointing at a bowl of vegetables.

Susan looks up with a caught-in-the-cookie-jar face. “Why?”

“So we know how big the salad is.”

“Oh, I know how much stuff is in there,” Susan says with the sly grin of a bullshitter.

Chastened, she starts fussing with parsley leaves, plucking and piling them on the scale, from which they keep tumbling off. “Thank you for measuring out the parsley,” Kajsa says with a squint. “Sometimes I need a master chef around to help me out.”

“Exactly!” Susan laughs. “I think you’re going to find that the parsley is really what makes the salad.”

It’s funny to watch these two friends work, to watch Kajsa ribbing Susan, considering that, at first, Susan didn’t want Kajsa around much at all. Twenty years ago, age 16 and needing work, Kajsa walked into Susan’s restaurant for an interview but didn’t get the job. She puttered around and someone mistook her for an employee. So she did what only someone in a sitcom would do: she put on an apron and started working, coming back the next day, and then the day after that. For weeks. Kajsa told me this story, and I gave her my best you-did-what? stare. “You know, it was the 80’s, and there were no computers to keep track of things,” she said, explaining about ten percent of what was weird about the situation. Eventually, though, Susan’s partner Mary Sue figured out that she had someone employed in the pastry department who wasn’t actually employed and fired her. “Well, can you really call it getting fired? She asked me to stop coming,” Kajsa said with a gentle chuckle. “But before I left, she offered me a job.” You have to be a special person—and definitely a special cook—to turn a situation in which you might get arrested into one where you get hired. Kajsa made the most of it, working her way through Susan and Mary Sue’s kitchens, honing her talent under tutelage, until Susan asked her if she wanted to go in on a project together.

During a taste-test to round out their beverage lists, Kajsa pours her new beer into the spit bucket by mistake. Susan, staring at her tasting notes, does the same. Marisa, Street’s manager, gets them new pours. Kajsa swirls her beer, but then catches herself, saying, “Wait, this isn’t wine.” I look over and Susan is absent-mindedly swirling her glass too, stopping only when Kajsa stops, and we all suddenly realize Susan is mimicking her. “I love this beer,” Kajsa says. “I love this beer,” Susan says, laughing, and then Kajsa puts her knee up, resting her foot on the base of Susan’s chair, and takes the lead in discussing pricing and strategy with Marisa.

Later, privately, Kajsa tells me, “Susan gives me so much control and freedom. But if I’m taking control of the conversation, it’s because I’m speaking for the both of us, and vice versa. We taste things the same. It’s a unique dynamic. Sometimes I think I’m so out of my element around this powerful, educated, savvy businesswoman; I feel like a school kid learning my way through it. Street is really Susan’s baby, she’s been dreaming about it for so long. For her to let me into it shows a lot of trust.”

Back in the kitchen, Kajsa turns her head and sees Susan spooning dressing onto a salad they’re working on.

“Did you measure that!?!” she blurts.

Susan’s head shoots up, eyes wide.

“…two heaping tablespoons!” she manages to say.

“You didn’t!”

“I’ll show you!”

Susan waves a spoon in the air covered in dressing.


Subscribe to Gourmet