It's not like chef Susan Feniger needed more on her plate. She's got Susan Feniger's Street, in addition to the Ciudad and Border Grill restaurants that she owns and runs with her Too Hot Tamale compadre, Mary Sue Millikan. So how is it that she ended up in the Season 2 premiere of "Top Chef Masters"?
"I would have never, ever, ever done it -- but it was for Scleroderma," she said simply.
That's the Scleroderma Research Foundation, founded by Feniger's close friend, Sharon Monsky, who was diagnosed with Scleroderma in 1984 and later died from its complications in 2002. Difficult to diagnose, Scleroderma leads to painful tissue loss, vascular deterioration and a ravaging of the body's immune system, among other symptoms. Its cause is unknown, and an estimated 300,000 Americans currently suffer with it.
"Top Chef Masters" pits the country's culinary kingpins against each other in a series of culinary throwdowns. These veteran chefs agree to put their reputations on the line because they win money -- and, more importantly, awareness for their favorite charities. Feniger emerged victorious Wednesday night and will return to fight again in the championship round. (One of the challenges Feniger faced: making two dishes using ingredients picked up in Chinatown -- a Chinatown gas station, that is.) Undaunted, by night's end Feniger had won $12,500 for the Scleroderma Research Foundation. (Read more about the episode at our entertainment blog.)
Amy Hewitt, executive director for Scleroderma Research, was also at Street, and said she was thrilled at the awareness offered up by the TV show. She said the organization noticed an uptick in Web traffic leading up to Wednesday night's episode -- no doubt caused by advance word of Feniger's appearance. "It's just such a little known disease," she said, that the organization needs to scrape and fight for every penny. "It's just very challenging. Something like this," she said, pointing to the TVs, "goes a long way."
Feniger hosted a viewing party at Street and contributed 50% of the proceeds of the night to the foundation. She said she first worried whether anyone would want to come to a restaurant to watch a reality TV show. In no time, she had more than 300 reservations and a different worry: "I don't know where I am going to put all these people," she fretted earlier in the week. "I'm worried the fire marshal is going to shut us down."
It was standing room only at Street, with house specialties such as the battered fried chicken, paani puri Indian bites and Vietnamese pork sliders passed about along with the liberal dispensing of tamarind and ginger cocktails. It was so crowded that the height-challenged Feniger had to stand on a window sill to address the masses who cheered when she appeared on the TV screens mounted throughout the restaurant.
"Does it look like I'm stressed?" on TV Feniger asked the crowd. "It was unbelievable how truly stressful it was."
There was one serious downside to the competition, said Feniger, who described the challenges and filming as a madcap dash to the finish line.
She was surrounded by gorgeous looking dishes cooked by some of the nation's top chefs, but "I never tasted one other person's food the whole time I was there!" she said.
Feniger will continue to have viewing parties at her restaurants for the rest of the "Top Chef Masters" season. Another fundraiser -- Cool Comedy - Hot Cuisine, featuring comedians Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano, Bob Sagat and fare served up by Feniger and Millikan -- is set for May 25 at the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
-- Rene Lynch
On Twitter @renelynch
Photo: Susan Feniger at her restaurant Susan Feniger's Street. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times