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How the ‘accidental chef’ Susanna Foo became the cooking star

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Susanna Foo begins to strain the flavor from the mushrooms to create a Porcini Mushroom and Truffle Sauce.
Susanna Foo begins to strain the flavor from the mushrooms to create a Porcini Mushroom and Truffle Sauce. (Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS) (Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer) Photo Gallery

PHILADELPHIA — Three years into retirement now, Susanna Foo settled back in a chair in her kitchen to reminisce. She’s lived a lot at age 79, from her upbringing in Inner Mongolia to Taiwan to the United States. She spent 22 years at the landmark restaurant bearing her name on what was Philadelphia’s once-mighty Walnut Street restaurant row, and is widely credited with popularizing French-Asian fusion cuisine in the 1980s.

But this was not the plan, at least until she was 36.

“I’ve been lucky,” Foo said. “I even wrote a book about my life. I would say I’m an accidental chef. I never thought I could be a chef. When I was in college, all I dreamed was to find a wonderful man and marry him, help him (build) a career, have children.”

She enjoys telling the story of how she might have been a librarian if not for four brutally cold winters in Valparaiso, Ind.

Susanna and E-Shin Foo met at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and married in 1967. They were a couple on the move. E-Shin, a Chinese-born engineer, professor, and an expert in metallurgy, went to work for 3M Corp. in northern Indiana in 1974, after a year in Tallahassee, Fla. Before that, he had moved his wife and sons, Gabriel and James, from Taiwan. Susanna, also a Chinese émigré and with a master’s degree in library science, was at home with the boys.

E-Shin’s parents had settled in Ardmore, opening a sandwich shop that failed but was followed by the popular Hu-Nan Restaurant, serving dishes from their native province. In 1978, they asked E-Shin and Susanna to move to Philadelphia to open a new Hu-Nan in Center City. Even though it meant a change into an unfamiliar profession and a move to another new city, the Foos opted for Philadelphia’s more temperate climate. “Those winters were brutal — some of the coldest on record,” Susanna Foo said.

In 1979, the Foo family opened Hu-Nan, at 1715 Chestnut St., with E-Shin tending bar and Susanna working the dining room. The place was gorgeous, expectations were high.

“I think the third week, (Inquirer critic) Elaine Tait wrote an article, saying it was really bad, the worst,” Foo said, paraphrasing her review. “ ‘The most beautiful Chinese restaurant couldn’t make a crispy duck’ or something.”

“The next lunch, we did 12 or 13 people,” she said. “For dinner, 12 or 13 people. The whole family got nervous, and we had borrowed money. My father-in-law decided to put us in charge.” Susanna, who had taken a few cooking classes in Taiwan, limited frying, backed off on heavy sauces, and swapped soybean oil for lard, fresh mushrooms for canned.

It was a start.

Susanna realized that she could run a restaurant kitchen. “My father was a lieutenant general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. I was taught to be efficient. He always said, ‘You have to think before you do anything.’ So every night, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do. And the next day, I’ll try (it) and then if it’s good, I’ll put it on the menu. I have very good taste buds. I remember everything I eat.”

Shortly after her takeover of Hu-Nan, a man stopped and handed Susanna his business card. “I looked and said, ‘Wow, all these credentials.’ ” The man was Jacob “Jack” Rosenthal, retired president of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and notoriously picky about dining. “He starts coming in, like, once or two times a week, and I think after a month, he came in, very serious,” she said. “He said, ‘Susanna, I know you don’t have any money. I’d like to (work) free as a consultant to help you to build a restaurant.’ ”

Rosenthal, who died in 1981, took the Foos to New York restaurants, taught them about wine, and set up Susanna with a membership to the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the international society of gastronomes. In early 1981, he insisted that Susanna enroll at the CIA for a two-month course. Every Monday, they’d drive to Hyde Park. She would attend classes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and return Friday evening, missing E-Shin and the boys all week.

The CIA was “all French cooking — a fancy wonderland, all the technical knowledge,” she said. “Those eight weeks really changed my whole concept of cooking.” At Hu-Nan, she started using French techniques, striving for consistency.

Hu-Nan’s fortunes improved. By 1986, so did Center City’s prospects. One Liberty Place, the skyscraper, was nearing completion. Developers were circling. The Foo family decided to sell Hu-Nan’s building.

Russel Baum, a founder of the local Chaîne chapter, and chef Georges Perrier, who had moved his Le Bec-Fin from Spruce Street to Walnut Street three years earlier, told the Foos about a corner property that was for sale: Arthur’s Steak House, which had recently been rebranded into an Italian restaurant called Arturo’s in a last-ditch effort to reverse its fading fortunes.

The Foos bought the circa-1927 Italianate brownstone at Walnut and Sydenham streets in 1987. But they had no money left — “just enough for three woks,” she said.

They improvised. Faux bamboo armchairs found stacked in a storage room became the dining room seating. “On the mantel, it said, ‘Arthur’s Steak House.’ We just covered it with Chinese red from New Year’s,” she said.

“The first month, we didn’t have any customers. I got so nervous,” Susanna Foo said. During the second month, Tait came in, and wrote that she was impressed by such dishes as “an almost nouvelle-French salad of Belgian endive petals filled with fragrant Chinese roast duck and spiked with the same hot mustard that many Americans associate with egg rolls” and “a stir fry of wonderfully tender beef slices (with) interesting specks of trendy sun-dried tomato in the sauce.”

Crowds and awards followed: In 1989, she got a best new chef nod from Food & Wine. She won her first James Beard Award in 1996 for her cookbook, “Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine: The Fabulous Flavors & Innovative Recipes of North America’s Finest Chinese Cook.” She was nominated for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region in 1996, and won the award the next year. She joined the celebrity chef circuit. Amy Tan wrote the foreword to her second cookbook.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Susanna Foo was at the center of the 1500 block of Walnut, then Philadelphia’s hottest block for dining. Besides Le Bec-Fin (now an eyeglass store), Circa (now offices), Il Portico (men’s clothing), there was Striped Bass (now Butcher & Singer).

The first of Susanna Foo’s redesigns began in 1996. Marguerite Rodgers, who had designed Striped Bass two years before, stripped out the temporary measures. You’d walk in the door, Foo recalled, and “you’d say ‘Wow.’ ” Light fixtures looked like lanterns. Flowers and plants were everywhere. Gold-rimmed mirrors “made it look more like a home than a restaurant,” she said.

The restaurant was successful. “But you know, I always felt sorry for Gabriel and Jimmy because I was never home,” she said. They were living in the Academy House, “and were wildly running around. One time a customer came to me. She said, ‘Susanna, I’m going to tell you something. You are not very good to your children. Your children never have a chance to play basketball, football, riding bicycles, and you lock them into this condo.’ That’s why we moved to the suburbs.”

Gabe went off to medical school at the University of Pittsburgh and Jim, an academic and track star at the Haverford School, got his bachelor’s in economics from Stanford and his M.B.A. from New York University, and embarked in a career in finance.

Operators of the billion-dollar Borgata casino, under construction in Atlantic City, reached out with a restaurant offer. Suilan — Susanna’s birth name — offered two menus: one with Susanna Foo-like dishes, the other aimed at Asian high-rollers with Chinese specialties like shark fin. It was open from the casino’s 2003 debut to 2006.

E-Shin, who had run the operations side of the business, had not been feeling well in 2006. Tests confirmed that he had progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain illness that affects talking, balance, and eye movements.

Susanna Foo let go of Atlantic City that year; Suilan is now Izakaya, operated by chef Michael Schulson, who was her chef for a while on Walnut Street. By then, son Gabe decided that he had had enough of medicine and wanted to work for his parents on Walnut Street.

With E-Shin facing an uncertain prognosis in late 2006, Susanna and Gabe opened Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor, a few minutes from the couple’s home in Villanova.

In 2009, a year before E-Shin’s death, Susanna agreed to sell the Walnut Street building but got a case of seller’s remorse and tried backing out of the deal. After the last day, an auction company came in and sold off the furnishings. “People came in like crazy, took everything, wiped out the whole restaurant,” she said. “That’s the saddest thing,” she said.

It’s now a Chipotle.

By 2015, Susanna wanted to restart her life. She bought a condo on Rittenhouse Square and closed the Radnor restaurant. She wanted to rejoin the Center City restaurant scene, and in early 2016, she and Gabe opened SuGa, a portmanteau of “Susanna” and “Gabriel,” at 1720 Sansom St. — about three blocks from the Walnut Street restaurant.

But then came more sadness. Jim, who was married with three children, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2015. “For four years, I was watching him. He went from a very healthy man to deteriorate to nothing,” she said.

In 2019, the day she announced that SuGa was closed and on the market, Jim lost consciousness. “He was in the hospital for three months,” Susanna said. “Finally, we decided to just let him go.”

She returned to the Main Line. “During COVID, you really couldn’t do anything in the city,” she said “Out here, every morning I get up at 6, I go to Home Depot and Lowe’s, I buy five or six plants , and then I go back again.” She also started a YouTube channel for her cooking videos and does fundraising events.

“Now I’m OK,” she said. “Now I am retired.”

She paused and added: “I imagine.”

Wild Mushroom Dumpling With Mushroom Truffle Sauce

4 large portobello mushrooms, stemmed

8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 large shallots, finely chopped

1 1.5- to 1.7-ounce packages thin cellophane noodles or ½ cup fresh bread crumbs

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon or cilantro

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon truffle oil (optional)

¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Cornstarch, for dusting

20 dumpling skins (or gyoza wrappers)

ν For the mushroom sauce:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 scallion, trimmed and chopped

8 ounces chanterelle or shiitake mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon soy sauce

¼ cup mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon truffle oil (optional)

1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar (optional)

Using a teaspoon, gently scoop out the brownish-black gills from the portobello mushrooms and discard. Using damp paper towels, wipe both kinds of the mushrooms clean.

Dice the shiitakes and portobellos into 1-inch pieces. In several batches, coarsely chop in a food processor, filling the processor only one-third full; be careful not to overprocess. Transfer to a large bowl.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until softened. Add the chopped mushrooms, stir, and reduce the heat to low. Cook until all the liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated and they are dry, about 30 minutes, stirring often to prevent them from sticking. Remove from the heat and cool.

Meanwhile, if using cellophane noodles,soak them in a bowl of water for 10 minutes. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drain the soaked noodles in a sieve, then pour them, stirring, into the boiling water. Cook until the noodles turn transparent, about 2 minutes. Immediately drain and plunge into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking; drain well. Finely chop enough of the noodles to measure ½ cup. (Reserve any remaining noodles for another use, if desired.)

Add the tarragon or cilantro, sesame oil and truffle oil (if using) to the cooked mushrooms and mix well. Add the chopped noodles or bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper to taste. Stir and combine well. (If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate; the filling can be made 1 day ahead.)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and dust with cornstarch. Place 1 tablespoon of the stuffing in the center of each dumpling skin. Moisten the edges with cold water, then fold over to form a half-moon shape. Pinch the edges together with your fingers, forcing out the air and sealing well. Then moisten the two ends with water and bring them together, curling them around your finger and pressing them together to form a ring. Transfer the dumplings to the baking sheet.

To make the sauce, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add the shallot and scallion and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until soft. Turn the heat to high and add the mushrooms. Stir until they are just coated with oil. Add the soy sauce and stock, and cook until the mushrooms soften, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover to keep warm.

To cook the dumplings, line a baking sheet with paper towels. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the dumplings. When the water returns to a boil, add ½ cup cold water. Return to the boil and cook until the dumplings float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon, draining well, and place on the baking sheet. The dumplings can be cooked up to 2 hours in advance.

To serve, plate the dumplings and spoon the sauce on top or beside the dumplings. Sprinkle with truffle oil and balsamic vinegar, if desired.

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