Susanna’s Perfect Storm

What made restaurant icon Susanna Foo get into a bizarre altercation with a meter maid last fall … and end up in jail? For the first time, Foo tells her side of the story.

It was a Friday night in September, and normally Susanna Foo would have been in the kitchen of her glossy, pale-hued Walnut Street restaurant, emerging from time to time to chat with customers — customers who were happy to pay up to $31 a plate for dishes like her famous Mongolian lamb or crispy whole black bass. Instead, the famous chef was alone, confused and frightened as she sat waiting in a barren cell at the Philadelphia Roundhouse. This was a place she could never have pictured herself — nothing in her childhood spent playing in the lotus fields of Taiwan or in her unusual trajectory to culinary superstardom could have prepared Foo for that night last fall. Foo, 63, was waiting to be arraigned after an altercation with a Philadelphia Parking Authority meter maid outside her restaurant. The meter maid told police that the restaurateur had struck her, and before Foo could really even comprehend what was happening, she had been handcuffed, fingerprinted, and placed in a cell with two other women, one of whom turned violent and hit her.

The woman was moved to a different cell in the Roundhouse while Foo was literally given bread and water to eat. “If you aren’t lucky, you could be buried there for a long time,” says Foo. “No one talks to you or tells you what’s going to happen.” When she asked to call her husband, she says, an officer told her to shut up. There she sat all night long, terrified and in shock, until about 9:30 the next morning, when she was let out on her own signature after a preliminary arraignment. But even as she was leaving, a police officer made it clear her ordeal wasn’t over.

“Hey, Susanna, we didn’t realize you were famous,” he said to her. “The newspapers are calling.” That day, Foo was on the cover of the Daily News.

It was the worst point of a stress-and-grief-filled year for the culinary icon, who is quiet and has a serious and kindly air. Last fall she had just lost both of her beloved parents and was preparing to close her Atlantic City restaurant while getting ready to launch another one on the Main Line. While she mourned her mother and father, she was working hours that would exhaust someone half her age, and had little time to rest or see family or friends.

Still, the Zsa Zsa Gabor-ish incident seemed unlikely and beyond bizarre for the reserved chef, who acknowledges that there was a verbal altercation, but says she did not strike the ticket-writer, Juanita Lewis. “I knew that it couldn’t be true,” says Jim Foo, Susanna’s son, who works for a hedge fund company. “She does lose her temper, but she would never hit anyone.” And clearly, the whole incident is the sort of thing that Foo couldn’t have imagined happening — when she describes it, it’s as if she’s talking about a very bad dream, something that someone else experienced on that strange Friday afternoon. “In your lifetime, you never know what is going to happen,” she says.

Much of what has happened to Susanna Foo in her lifetime has been overwhelmingly positive. Her influence on modern cooking is considered so important that critic John Mariani calls her the most high-profile and beloved Chinese chef in America. “She managed to transcend the entrenched clichés of Chinese food in this country, and went far beyond the trendiness of Szechuan-Hunan cooking of the 1970s,” Mariani says.

A renowned perfectionist, Foo runs her eponymous Center City restaurant with serene precision, as she does every aspect of her life. Now, though, in the wake of what she’s been through in the past year, Foo says she’s striving to achieve the one thing that always eluded her in a rise to the top of the culinary world: balance. Indeed, the chef says that her very bad day last fall has actually propelled her to a place in life where she’s going to try — in a perfectionist way — to, well, be less perfectionist. Like many of her generation who are watching their parents die and their adult children lead increasingly complicated lives, Foo is finally determined to slow down a little. “When I’m not working, I’m very happy,” she says, sounding surprised, as if she’s never quite realized this fact before. Suddenly, there is one of Foo’s unexpected, youthful-looking smiles. “I’m more relaxed. But I hate to see customers unhappy.”

“CALL ME SUSANNA, EVERYONE DOES,” Foo exhorts, watching the lunch scene unfold as sunlight filters through double-height sheer curtains at her Radnor location, the casually named but resplendent-looking Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen. The Buddakan-ish spot has earned mixed reviews, but if the place isn’t flawless, that might be okay, too, she says — for now. Foo is relaxed, but still monitoring her staff with an appraising eye that makes the dumpling-toting waiters move as quickly and soundlessly as Pocono deer on the first day of hunting season. It’s clear that she intends for even this informal spot to rise to the standards that landed her on the cover of Food & Wine and have consistently earned her downtown restaurant a four-bell rating from the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan.

That kind of success has put its own demands on Foo, though. While she doesn’t consider herself a celebrity chef, everyone else does, and it’s de rigueur today for that breed to open glittering casino outposts in Vegas or Atlantic City. Suilan, Foo’s Borgata effort, was praised by critics when it opened in 2003, but its subtlety and pale refinement were overpowered by the giant veal chops and sea-monster-size shrimp cocktails served a few slot machines away at the Old Homestead steakhouse. It seemed as if Suilan, which is Foo’s given name in Chinese, was doomed when Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck and Michael Mina all opened over-the-top spots in the casino, though Foo says she’d actually been trying to gracefully extricate herself from the Borgata for some months. “They’re very generous, in certain ways,” she says of the Borgata brass, who lavished $7 million on her space. “They never said it’s too expensive.”

When Borgata management told her in 2005 that they wanted to add a sushi bar and redesign the restaurant, Foo wasn’t sure she had the time to properly oversee the transformation. She asked the casino if she could leave Suilan in the summer of 2006, and by September, the Borgata agreed. “My parents just passed away,” she says. “I started to feel like life is so short.” She had made annual trips to visit them in Taiwan, and the grief is apparent in her face, which is more withdrawn and distant as she speaks about them.

The casino’s Noel Stevenson says the Borgata wholeheartedly supported Foo’s decision to close Suilan. Foo was relieved: She had logged countless miles on the A.C. Expressway for three years, and was so focused on having the food at Suilan equal that of Walnut Street that she wrangled her way through L&I to set up a separate dumpling kitchen on the third floor of her Philly restaurant, then trucked the resulting dim sum to A.C. daily, with her typical obsessive insistence on quality. On a happier note, she’s jettisoned the condo she’d bought in Brigantine during her Suilan tenure: “I made money on that,” she says, with another smile.

Foo published her second cookbook, Susanna Foo Fresh Inspiration, in the fall of 2005, around the time she began working on what was originally meant to be a casual suburban restaurant on the Main Line, but which ended up costing $3 million to fit out with its exuberantly modern red-silk-and-brass-gongs decor. It’s clear that the original vision was transformed by Foo’s ingrained perfectionism. “This was going to be a little dumpling shop,” says Foo’s best friend of nearly 30 years, Shirley Luber, who was one of her first customers in Philadelphia. “I think it ran away with itself with the grandeur.” Luber adds that Foo “worries to death” about her restaurants: “To have three restaurants going at once, for a person as intense as she is, it’s way too much.”

SO IN 2006, WITH SUILAN NOT YET SHUTTERED, construction on the Main Line in full swing, and Foo’s quiet grief over losing her parents, there were problems, stresses, including a cold war with the Philadelphia Parking Authority over delivery trucks pulling up outside Walnut Street. “There’s four or five [ticket-writers] around Sydenham Street,” Foo says of the little alley that intersects Walnut at her restaurant. “They’re standing by Brooks Brothers, and on this alley, and there’s Striped Bass, the Racquet Club, the pizza place, the Vesper Club, and also Georges Perrier. The parking people are waiting to give tickets.” Because of that, Foo says, two suppliers told her they didn’t want to deliver to her anymore, so she’d called the city commerce department to try to resolve the problem. She was told to get the badge number of the ticket person, and that she could then take up the problem with PPA supervisors.

Most people can relate to a degree of anger toward the Parking Authority. The A&E channel produced a curiously endearing show about the agency recently, following around some booting officials who turned out to be a likeable bunch, but for the most part our relationship is such that in 2000, a band called Twin Atlas issued an album titled The Philadelphia Parking Authority Must Die. “You’re always running the risk of getting a ticket. It’s just an ongoing thing,” says Patrick Feury, the chef and owner of Nectar restaurant, who worked with Foo on Walnut Street and at Suilan. “Unless you’re a hotel with a loading dock, it’s really difficult. When the trucks do come, you get everybody out there, and all the cooks grab things.” But on that September day, Foo was talking to a delivery person when he interrupted her: “He said, ‘Susanna, Susanna, I have to go. The ticket person is coming,’” Foo says.

Foo simply couldn’t handle one more annoyance.

“I went over and said, ‘You shouldn’t give a ticket,’ and she said, ‘I do what I want to do,’” Foo remembers of the incident with Lewis. She says she asked for Lewis’s badge number and that the two started arguing, until Foo’s chef de cuisine told Foo to go into the restaurant. Vince Fenerty, executive director of the Parking Authority, told the Inquirer that Lewis was injured, and that she hadn’t been discourteous, but was merely doing her job. The newspaper also reported that Lewis told police she was struck with an open hand by Foo. Foo went up to her office, was told that the police had arrived, and then waited until her lawyer, David Silverstein, got to the restaurant. When she came down, she says, the police told her, “We’re going to lock you up.”

She was charged with aggravated assault, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person. (The aggravated assault and reckless endangerment charges were dismissed in court in November, when Foo entered into a special probationary program for nonviolent offenders.)

“The lady was standing there smiling,” she says of Lewis. “I always remember her smiling.”

THAT NIGHT WAS LITERALLY WORLDS AWAY from Foo’s pastoral childhood in the countryside of south Taiwan, where her father was a lieutenant general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. For Susanna and her three brothers, it was a safe and happy time (though, naturally, growing up in a traditional Chinese household with a military general at its head could make anyone pretty goal-oriented). “My brother and I, we catch fish, we go to the little stream, we go to the farms,” remembers Foo. Later, when the family moved to a seaside naval base, the two would ride their bikes to the beach and to the lotus fields to pick flowers, and search out the hottest peppers for their grandmother. Foo says the family was poor, but much less so than its neighbors. “I remember my brother and I always wear shoes to school, and then we took them off because no one at school had shoes; my mother always checked our feet, and she got so angry that we didn’t wear the shoes.”

The same modesty is evident almost 60 years later: Foo says she doesn’t like to schmooze customers in the dining room, though she knows she has to. “I feel embarrassed — I just don’t like to expose myself too much,” she says. As Foo grew up, the family became more financially secure, and there was a sophistication to her later childhood. In her 1995 book Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine, she writes, “When my mother entertained friends, whether at an informal gathering or at a more formal occasion, she usually asked the cook to arrange a big, beautiful platter of four to six cold dishes to be served as a starter, much like an Italian antipasto.” She also describes Sunday afternoons hosted by her father at stylish dim sum palaces in Taipei. “She talks about her father a lot,” says Patrick Feury. “He was a very famous general in China; that’s where she got into fine dining — there were dignitaries from the United States and other places that they had to entertain.”

That was the future Foo envisioned when she began cooking seriously in the early 1970s; for a time, she took culinary classes in Taipei. “I wasn’t really an ambitious woman,” she says. “I was thinking at that time that I’m going to marry someone, I’m going to learn to cook very well and learn Japanese flower arranging so I can entertain and help him with his career.” But there was also a degree of independence about Foo: She decided to attend Taiwan University in Taipei, and it was there she met her future husband, E-Hsin Foo. When he got a scholarship in mechanical science at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Susanna followed, and the two were married at Heinz Chapel there. She studied library science at the University of Pittsburgh, and after the Foos’ two sons were born, Susanna was happy to move back to Taiwan: “I stayed home cooking and watching the children. In the meantime, I went to a couple other cooking schools, too.” E-Hsin’s work took the family back to America, to a town outside Chicago. Then, in 1979, the Foos got a fateful call from E-Hsin’s parents, who had moved to Philadelphia and opened a restaurant, Hunan, in Ardmore. They wondered if the couple could help them open a second location.

Susanna and E-Hsin launched a downtown branch on Chestnut Street, where it quickly became apparent that Susanna was an accomplished and inventive chef. “By the fifth year, Georges Perrier comes every Sunday, the DiLullos come, a lot of restaurant people come, and we had a lot of regulars,” she says. She and her husband would have their sons help out on weekends when they were teenagers, and they were usually in the restaurant even as little boys. “We had a station wagon, sometimes we have to take the boys with us,” she remembers. “We buy flowers, meat, everything. In the morning, I go to the fish market, they hate to sit in the car with me. They said it’s the ‘fish car,’ because it smells so bad,” she adds, laughing. “My son told me he would never work in the restaurant. He would never want to work that hard.” In 1987, when the family decided to sell the Hunan building, Georges Perrier told her there was a building across the street from him, and Susanna Foo opened its doors.

There, Foo became Philadelphia’s defining woman chef, “establishing glamour with Chinese food,” as her friend and onetime Striped Bass neighbor Neil Stein puts it. Her cooking was confident and nearly always flawless, and Susanna Foo was considered a peer of Le Bec and the Fountain. Foo twice won the James Beard Award, which is akin to a culinary Oscar or Pulitzer. Patrick Feury praises Foo’s kindness and willingness to teach him Asian methods. “She’s like a conductor of techniques and sauces. She’s very smart about knowing how to put together plates, and what people enjoy,” he adds.

The perfection, though, came at a high price — and not just for the expense-accounters and anniversary-celebrators who are frequent customers. Demanding hours kept Foo from spending the time she wanted with her children, her husband, her beloved old-Hollywood movies, and her garden at her Radnor home. And it didn’t seem to get easier. Anyone who has ever been a perfectionist, or has been raised by or married to one, knows how easy it becomes to hold onto that glittering, fleeting goal, how it becomes a prison of sorts. She loved the restaurants, but the balance wasn’t right. And out of that time of extremes came the ticket incident.

“She felt like she wasn’t being respected, and I would have felt the same way,” says Neil Stein of the imbroglio last fall. “I think it was a moment for Susanna, and she probably had every reason to do that.”

FOO’S FRIEND AND LAWYER SILVERSTEIN RETAINED the palpitation-inducing legal bugaboo Dick Sprague to defend her in the criminal case surrounding the incident with Lewis, whose boyfriend said she had a miscarriage after the incident. (The Inquirer reported that Lewis had a history of filing lawsuits, including one against SEPTA, a previous employer, for harassment and discrimination, which ended with a finding in SEPTA’s favor; the paper also reported that Lewis did not proceed with an earlier slip-and-fall case, and that arbitrators found against her in a case she filed after a car accident.) Lewis, who declined to speak to Philadelphia magazine via her attorney, was said to have considered a civil suit against Foo. The charge of simple assault was set to be expunged in May, thanks to Foo’s agreement to perform community service of the most apropos sort: teaching formerly homeless men and women to cook at Sister Mary Scullion’s Project H.O.M.E.

“I just want to forget,” says Foo. And nine months after that night, Foo is focusing on her baby granddaughter, Kathy. She’s cultivating her garden, and trying to spend only from 10 till 3 at the Gourmet Kitchen, then take a nap before she heads downtown, where her son Gabriel, ironically, is now working.

Friends are disbelieving of Lewis’s accusations, and supportive; Feury says that over the years, he never saw anything that would make him think Foo would physically lash out at anyone. “It was so out of character,” says Shirley Luber. “I can see her screaming at the woman, yes, because she wanted the vendors to get there, but touching her? Never, never, never. She wouldn’t possibly touch a strange woman.” Luber was surprised recently when Foo hugged her. “I hug her, but she doesn’t offer to hug me,” she says, adding that she feels Foo’s reserve prevents her from physical expressiveness, whether positive or negative.

As for the restaurants, Feury says, “You know she loves it, because she continues to do it.” And who knows? Foo may slow down even more this year. “Friends come to see me,” she says, “and say, ‘Susanna, you look so relaxed.’” She hopes to travel through Italy this fall, and visit Barcelona and the South of France. She wants to spend more time with her sons, and at Project H.O.M.E. And she seems lighter, happier, as if the sadness that Luber noticed in her over the past year is finally lifting.

“There is a Chinese saying … you lost one horse, you probably get a better horse,” says Foo. “You go through the mountain to get to the bright side.”

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