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FALL DINING GUIDE: Learning Curve

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Learning Curve
A well-seasoned Susanna Foo ponders the recipe for success.

In the middle of the week on a summer morning, Susanna Foo is having breakfast at the Radnor Hotel, 100 yards or so from her Gourmet Kitchen. Over poached eggs, sausage, toast and coffee, she talks about her upcoming consulting trips to California and Japan, the wine dinner she’d hosted the night before, and her son Gabriel, who came into the business last May.

Her face lights up when she mentions Gabriel’s zeal for learning the ropes.

After giving up so much of her early motherhood to run restaurants, she’s relieved to see her eldest son embrace her newest restaurant—an unconditional acceptance she hopes to see among Main Line patrons and critics, whose initial welcome was lukewarm at best.

When questions arise as to her state of mind after the not-so-glowing reviews of Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen earlier in the year, her smile fades. Then she asks if we’re going to write about why her restaurant is failing.

For the record, it’s not failing—nor, as rumors have indicated, is it closing. “Not exactly thriving” is more accurate, which Foo finds unacceptable. “Because of my name, everyone expected me to be perfect,” she says. “I don’t like to fail.”

Foo has been one of the area’s leading chefs and restaurateurs for 20 years. Internationally recognized, with an impressive roster of accolades, she is unquestionably one of the elite role models for women in the culinary arts.

Foo is known for her soft-spoken, Zen-like demeanor, which came into question following last September’s well-publicized altercation with a Philadelphia Parking Authority meter maid. The bizarre incident earned her a night in jail, six months probation and 50 hours of community service. But in truth, Foo’s calm exterior masks an inherent propensity for worrying. These days, her list of worries begins and ends with Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen, the “casual, family-style dumpling house” she opened next to Fleming’s Steakhouse near the Radnor Hotel in November.

The eatery is grander than originally intended and, as such, not quite in line with its original concept. The chic décor and edgy vibe rival that of Nectar in Berwyn; entrées hover in the low to mid $20s; and, really, no toddler deserves such high-end fare. To be honest, first impressions of the new Foo’s caught everyone off-guard—including its namesake.

“Center City [Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine] and the Borgata [Suilan] were instant successes,” says Foo. “I didn’t think I’d have any problems here.” But almost as quickly as Foo says this, she admits she didn’t open with the right chef. Her first choice was Robert Boone, who’d begun his training at the Center City location last May. “He was gone by December,” Foo says. “We had different philosophies. Maybe I should’ve given him more time, but I grew unsure of him and I felt I had to make a change.”

Foo was especially frustrated with Boone’s crispy duck, one of her signature dishes. “We had a lot of problems,” she admits. “The coating wasn’t right—it was either too dry or not crispy enough.”

With Boone gone, Foo occupied the kitchen until Feb. 1, working 13-hour days for three months, making it to Center City just once a week. Then Joe Zhou, her chef at Suilan, took over. Foo closed Suilan last August upon realizing she couldn’t handle three restaurants.

As for her Gourmet Kitchen, Foo has other reasons for its slow start. “We opened in a rush, a couple weeks early. I wanted to let people see the space and taste the food,” she says. “I didn’t have enough time to adjust; we were busy right away. The concept threw people off; they wanted Center City and Suilan.”

But while patrons wanted a taste of their favorite dishes without having to drive to Walnut Street, critics complained that the menu wasn’t adventurous enough. Even the wait staff was grumbling about the selections.

“They said the prices were too low and that the dishes were too different,” Foo confides. “They worried about making enough money. Everyone was tense; it was not relaxing. A restaurant should be a place to go and feel happy, at ease. We were too cold.”

Almost immediately, Foo got hit with comments about the service—all the more frustrating because she’d counted on three to six months to “organize, train and tweak.” Since then, a third of the original staff has been let go.

“They didn’t care about the restaurant or the customers,” says Foo. “People don’t want formal anymore, but they still want upscale. Service needs to be attentive and warm. Good wine and cocktails are also important. I translated casual into less expensive wines to keep prices reasonable and got complaints about the list. I was definitely a little confused.”

WHILE BAD REVIEWS AND an overnight stay in jail might seem like the lowest of lows, Susanna Foo admits she’s seen harder times. “1981 was the worst year,” she says of Hunan, the restaurant she and her husband opened for his family. “I cried a lot. I was working so hard I couldn’t take care of my kids. The kitchen resisted me, and then we got a terrible review from [former Inquirer food critic] Elaine Tait. We had to cut back on staff. I was hosting and cooking, and every day we didn’t know whether or not we’d make it.”

Back then, Foo proved everybody wrong—including her mother, who told her she’d never marry because she wasn’t a good cook. And even if she didn’t anticipate her current challenges, she’s well fortified to fight her way back again.

“Georges Perrier gave me some good advice: Whatever the customers want, give it to them,” she says. “If they want a hamburger, make them a hamburger.”

There are no hamburgers on Foo’s Main Line menu, but she has added fun items such as popcorn dumplings. She’s also planning cooking classes for both children and adults this fall; it’s a way to get to know the clientele better. Live acoustic music (on weekends) and additional wine dinners are in the works as well.

“I want to make money, but I really want this to be a fun place where people can come and feel happy,” says Foo.

All ideas evolve, so it’s no surprise that Foo’s casual dumpling house morphed into something more dramatic and pricey—especially with a highly polished neighbor such as Fleming’s to compete with.

“Main Liners are a steak group,” says Aleksey Belinskiy, the senior designer at Karen Daroff Designs in Philadelphia who worked with Foo on the look of her Main Line restaurant. “If you’re going to do something different, it has to be special. And if you’re going to spend $1.5 million, you have to question the kind of food and service you want to have. You can’t put a Ferrari engine in a Hyundai car.”

Actually, costs at Gourmet Kitchen doubled to $3 million. So when Foo heard the rumors she was closing, she was astonished. “That never crossed my mind,” she says. “I have too much at stake with this restaurant. Once I put my heart into something, I don’t quit.”

Opening a restaurant on the Main Line has been Foo’s dream for years, but she never found the right location until now. The price was right, but the deal-maker was the floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor patios in back. An accomplished gardener, Foo embraced the notion of having not one but two intimate dining rooms. And she was sure that when she and Daroff were done, guests would fall in love with the place.

“I didn’t need to open another restaurant,” says Foo. “I already had two that were highly successful. But I’ve always dreamed of having a more casual family-style dumpling house. Years ago in Center City, my restaurant felt like a private club. Here I wanted something similar but more informal—a neighborhood place.”

Foo also learned a thing or two by watching her father retire—“too young”—at age 59. “He had so much energy, but he wasn’t focused,” she says. “People are healthier and living longer lives; I don’t want to be idle.”

Idle isn’t a word anyone would use to describe Foo. Six nights a week, you’ll find her behind the line, tasting sauces, observing staff or out front greeting customers. She still shops for both restaurants and is an active consultant to a handful of national and international chefs and restaurateurs hoping to emulate her distinct Chinese fare.

Surviving nearly three decades in the restaurant business is pretty impressive, even for someone of Foo’s stature. But she doesn’t want to merely survive.

“Susanna is a very forward-looking person—more modern than you’d expect,” says Belinskiy. “She’s progressive, experimental. She wants the restaurant to be sexy and hip.”

“I’ve made a lot of changes,” says Foo, of her latest project. “The food is better, and the service, too. The feeling is very calm and relaxed. It’s closer to what I want it to be. But I’m still learning every day.”

“Susanna went through a tough time,” adds Belinskiy. “There were a lot of things going on that were dark. She’s an icon in the culinary arts; she set herself up for high expectations. You need to have time to iron things out.”

In hindsight, Foo has her own advice: Make sure you have the talent and a sound concept; be prepared to work long hours; and find employees who are passionate, creative and eager to learn.

“And you have to give it some time,” adds Belinskiy. “Let it mature. It’s a destination, not a walk-by.”

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