There’s a reason celebrity chef and restauranteur Susan Feniger was so eager to show young people from the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Youth Center how to make dishes from produce they had grown themselves.
“I think food, eating and gardening is very nurturing to the soul and all of us need nurturing,” she explained.
So Feniger, a member of the Center’s board of directors, recently set up a makeshift kitchen at the Mansfield Community Garden where more than a dozen youths interacted with the charismatic chef who has logged many hours on various television cooking shows.
“Doesn’t anybody want to taste a tomato coming right off the vine,” Feniger asked the group at one point. “These are all tomatoes from your garden and they are amazing.”
As Feniger passed the tomatoes around on a plate, her enthusiasm for them and everything else was infectious.
She was joined by chef and YouTube personality Theodore Leaf for the lesson, in which they transformed tomatoes, cilantro, green peppers, jalapenos, corn, basil and other ingredients from the garden into fresh salsa, a salad and non-alcoholic mojitos.
“We’re going to make a salad with the mint and the basil,” Feniger announced. “When you’ve got a garden and you’re cooking at home, you don’t have to follow any rules. If you like it and it tastes good, it’s the perfect dish.”
Feniger added: “You don’t have to have a permit to have a garden. You can have a little pot and grow tomatoes and mint. You don’t need to have a plot.”
The Youth Garden is one of the newer additions to a wide range of programs and services offered by the Center for LGBT and questioning youth. With some of them experiencing homelessness, the garden has become a haven that offers them a rejuvenating space of their own.
“For them to actually put seeds in the ground, water them and see what happens, I just think it’s so important,” Leaf said. “They are actually learning how to use the produce that they’re growing and not waste it. It connects you back to the earth and it shows you where your nutrition is coming from.”
The youth garden program is funded by the John N. Calley Foundation and was created by its executive director Shawn Kravich who is chair of the Center’s Young Professionals Council and a longtime volunteer.
“The program is so nurturing,” Feniger said after the cooking class. “I feel so lucky to be able to be a part of this work and get the opportunity to be able to be here and talk to a few kids.”
It helped that Feniger also treated the group to chips and guacamole from one of her restaurants and served carne asada tacos as well as tacos filled with sweet potato and black beans.
Feniger and longtime collaborator Mary Sue Milliken starred in nearly 400 episodes of Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour for the Food Network and in 2009 competed on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters.
“I never thought I’d have a top celebrity chef cook for me!” a youth named Anthony excitedly said after being served up some tacos by Feniger.
Anthony later said: “Meeting Susan was pretty great. I did not know that she was also queer. She’s someone who donated her time to come cook for us and she really cares. Tasting her food you can feel that.”