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Profile of Success: Susanna Foo

Pavlina Cerna April 15, 2019

Susanna Foo moves around the kitchen of SUGA restaurant with lightness, as if cooking is a well-rehearsed ballet. Dressed in her black chef’s uniform embroidered with both her name and that of her restaurant in bright red letters, she tosses ingredients into a pan without measuring, but with the confidence of over 50 years of experience.

“Good cooks should use the best ingredients, but keep it very simple, not too complicated. When your cooking is too complicated, you get tired.”

Her eyes sparkle with excitement when she talks about the cucumbers she bought in the market and is now chopping. When adding noodles and a rich portion of butter to the mix, she smiles.

“My grandma always made homemade pasta and never prepared more than she needed for one meal. So fresh.”

Foo is certainly more than the chef in the restaurant on 1720 Sansom St. She is one of Philadelphia’s legend. The two-time recipient of the prestigious James Beard Award (and countless other awards for that matter) and the author of two successful cookbooks, she is the pioneer of Asian Fusion cuisine in the U.S. and built her restaurant legacy on the simplicity of traditional Chinese cooking, influenced by French techniques.

Foo, who was born in Mongolia and raised in Taiwan, was never really into cooking before moving to the U.S.

“My grandma was a good cook, but my mother hated cooking. We had servants at home so she didn’t have to cook in Taiwan.”

She met her husband while attending Taiwan University, where she studied history.

“I had good grades, but I wasn’t really interested in the studies. I just wanted to be a good wife.”

When her husband moved to the U.S., he took Foo with him. She applied to the University Pittsburgh to study Library Science. After a few years of working in the field, her in-laws asked her and her husband to help them run their small restaurant in Philadelphia. She learned a lot about cooking from her mother-in-law.

“I used to joke to my husband and tell him, ‘The reason I married you is because I love your mother.’”

When Foo first came to the U.S., she didn’t speak English very well, but she knew what quality food was. Everything in Taiwan is cooked from fresh food. She had never seen canned food, canned vegetables, or canned sauces before coming to the U.S. Despite this, she still has a soft spot for American food.

“When I first had a hamburger, I thought it was the best thing. I was thinking – a hamburger to an American is a comfort food, like a dumpling to Chinese.”

Foo adds that she has always had “very good taste buds” and remembers all the meals she has eaten – including the ones from her childhood back home. Her taste buds would be her main guide when she began to cook at the family restaurant called Hu-Nan in Philadelphia.

“The first year wasn’t going well, but then my luck changed. Jacob Rosenthal from The Culinary Institute of America loved Chinese food and used to come to eat at our restaurant.”

Inspired by her cooking, Rosenthal arranged for Foo to attend classes at the Institute and dine in the best Chinese restaurants in New York to learn as much about dining as she could.

“When I studied at CIA, I felt like Alice in Wonderland – the food was so good. Everything was so tasty. The equipment – I have never seen like that. Even in the library I have never seen so many cookbooks.”

Foo admits that the beginning was difficult for her. “I was crying in the kitchen. It was a lot of work. You wear chef clothes, you get so dirty, your hair gets dirty.”

Even still, she pushed through and found a renewed motivation during a trip to France.

“The French are so driven, so intense, so passionate about what they do so I said – okay, I am gonna be a chef! I am not gonna regret it.”

The trip and her training at the Culinary Institute became her foundation. Foo now cooks Chinese food using French techniques, the best ingredients and homemade sauces. She goes to market every week twice to buy the best vegetable.

Multiple restaurants, cookbooks, and awards later, Foo is cooking better than ever. The name of her current restaurant – SUGA – comes from the combination of names Susanna and Gabriel, her son. Foo came out of retirement at the age of 72 in 2016 to open the restaurant in Center City with her son, who runs the front while she manages the kitchen.

“I love Philadelphia because I love flowers. Right now, in the spring, it’s just blooming nonstop, one after another. It’s a small town, but you have everything there. You can walk from here – the 22nd Street all the way to the Front Street and it is an easy walk. It’s a beautiful city. That’s why I’ll stay here forever.”