What is it about food documentaries that make our mouths water? Is it that they lull you in with images of mouth-watering four-star meals followed by a hit you over the head with incredibly tense drama? Such is the case with Liz Lachman’s biographical documentary, Susan Feniger: Forked, A Culinary Disaster.
You are probably familiar with the name Susan Feniger. She is a celebrity chef in every sense of the phrase. Fans of the early days of the Food Network, like me, know Susan and her culinary partner, Mary Sue Milliken, as the cooking duo “Too Hot Tamales.” Every day, they would prepare Latin American, though primarily Mexican cuisine. I’ve seen way too many episodes.
Forked opens with a quick background on Feniger, who first met Milliken in Chicago at the renowned French restaurant Le Perroquet. After a successful run as the restaurant’s first and then only female kitchen staff, the pair went to Paris…separately…to broaden their culinary horizons.
Seeing that their very different personalities served only to inspire one another culinarily, the two joined forces and opened their first restaurant in Los Angeles called City Café. The cafe was known for innovative and unique dishes. Every day, the menu changed based on the fresh ingredients available to them and how they were inspired. Word of their restaurant got to famed food personality Julia Child, who, in a way, became both their friend and mentor.
The success of City Café led to their second restaurant, Border Grill. This success put the pair in the spotlight on the Food Network, and the rest is history. Throughout their professional lives, Feniger and Milliken were tied to the hip.
“…a cinéma vérité documentary following Feniger’s first solo restaurant called STREET…”
Forked is not just a retrospective of Susan Feniger’s career. In fact, it is primarily a cinéma vérité documentary following Feniger’s first solo restaurant called STREET, which features street food Feniger discovered on her international travels. If you’ve ever tried to start your own storefront business (like I once attempted), Forked is going to feel very familiar to you.
Feniger is the perfect subject for documentaries about starting a business. She’s optimistic. She’s a leader, and she’s resourceful when she needs to be. Filming starts during the design phase of STREET. We then follow her to Vietnam and Shanghai, exploring the world of street vendors, their exotic ingredients, and their street cooking techniques.
Then, like starting any business, it never runs smoothly from appeasing building and health inspector demands to now solving one problem after the other. As the “Culinary Disaster” portion of the title indicates…STREET was not exactly a hit.
If you’re going to watch a business fail, at least you have Susan Feniger to watch as it happens. Not that I wanted to see her fail, but her positive attitude, enthusiasm, and never-say-die attitude are infectious and a joy to watch, and you can’t help but root for her success.
If there is a complaint about the film, it’s that it balances food and business fifty/fifty, when really you want a lot more food over video of food construction. Also, most of the footage is shot on low-end cameras. But filmmaker and Feniger’s spouse, Lachman, gets right into the middle of the action on the streets of Asia and in the middle of restaurant construction in Los Angeles.
If you’re a fan of Susan Feniger or if you’ve ever opened or plan on opening a business, Susan Feniger: Forked, A Culinary Disaster is that sweet-tasting dose of reality that you need to inspire your creative and business-minded juices while keeping you grounded at the same time.
Susan Feniger: Forked, A Culinary Disaster is screening as part of the 2024 Sundance Foodtank in Park City, Utah. FOODTANK is taking place on Saturday, January 20, at Park City Brewing, 1764 Unita Way #C1 in Park City.
"…if you've ever tried to start your own storefront business...Forked is going to feel very familiar to you."