By JOHN BRINSLEY
Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have been in the restaurant business together in Los Angeles since 1981. Classically trained chefs, they met in 1978 at Le Perroquet in Chicago, the first two women in a previously all-male kitchen. They crossed paths again in France, where Feniger worked on the Riviera and Milliken in Paris.
They opened the Border Grill in 1985, featuring authentic Mexican food, and moved it to its current location in Santa Monica in 1990. Another restaurant, CITY, on La Brea, operated between 1985 and 1994. In November 1998, they opened Ciudad, which highlights Latin American cooking, in downtown L.A.
Co-authors of four books, with a fifth due out later this year, the partners are also hosts of two shows on the Food Network: “Too Hot Tamales” and “Tamales World Tour.” They spend two weeks in New York taping eight shows a day.
The two are founding members of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, which fosters the careers of women in restaurants. If there is any doubt to their growing fame, they have even been spoofed on “Saturday Night Live.” On June 18, the two chefs will open a second Border Grill, at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.
Question: Has the bias against women chefs running their own restaurants been eliminated?
Milliken: Eliminated is a strong word.
Feniger: It not nearly as bad as it once was. (But) our general manger at the new Border Grill is a woman, and she went to a meeting of all the restaurants in Mandalay Bay, and she was the only woman.
Milliken: There are more women (who are) chef-owners than who are executive chefs working for men.
Milliken: At some point, you make the decision to go your own way because you don’t want to be in a male-dominated environment. So that means starting your own restaurants. And it means starting small. Our first restaurant had, what, nine tables?
Feniger: Eleven tables.
Milliken: Where a male chef’s first place might have 40 tables. But things are changing, it’s better.
Q: What about in terms of respect by your peers?
Feniger: Now for us, we’re fairly well respected in our field. There may be some chefs, maybe in French kitchens, who aren’t (respectful). But in most cases we’re treated like equals. And we would never hesitate to think we’re on par, or even more successful, than some.
Milliken: We were always fairly well respected, but the show gave us an opportunity to teach, giving us the exposure that others might not have. And now we have chefs who seek me and Susan out, and they respect our opinions.
Q: What do you think the status of L.A. is as a restaurant city?
Milliken: I think there’s great food here. Probably the most famous restaurant in the country is here: Spago. And there is some of the best ethnic food here if you really seek it out. There’s some of the best Thai food here, better than in some Thai villages. And the best Japanese food in the country is here.
Feniger: I find the food world freer here than in San Francisco or New York.
Milliken: The whole West Coast is freer. The chefs here share more information…
Feniger: Than they would in New York.
Milliken: I think L.A. is right up there in the top five cities. Actually, I think it’s New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, maybe Boston.
Feniger: I think the well-known places in New York aren’t (serving) our kind of food. A lot of people who think of New York as a food town think of the higher-end kind of places, although I love the food in New York.
Q: How do you put the TV show together?
Milliken: We do testing of recipes here, see how they are. We send the recipes to the Food Network, and they do all the prep work. They have a great staff.
Q: How do you manage being in the spotlight and continuing to be serious chefs?
Milliken: You think they conflict? (laughs)
Feniger: Well, we do have to do this (interviewing), and it’s time-consuming.
Milliken: And when you are a chef, time is everything; the time spent on cooking is very important. So it means spending more time here, before going home at night. And in this business you can’t say no. And we love being famous. It’s energizing and it feeds us. It is an interesting aspect of our careers, and it means we can communicate with a lot more people.
Feniger: I love the opportunity. Being on television opens a lot of doors, and brings people to the restaurant who otherwise never would have heard of it. And it’s very rewarding. We have 6- to 10-year-old kids watching the show and it has an influence, maybe because they are watching it instead of something else, and maybe it will influence how they eat.
Q: Why did you decide to open your new restaurant in Las Vegas?
Milliken: It’s the fastest-growing city in the country. People come there to have fun.
Feniger: The mood when you get there is immediate. You can detect the party mentality. People come there from all over the country, all over the world. And we have a national following, because of the television show.
Milliken: We wanted to make sure we kept the environment of the Border Grill, but my God, how to do that was
Feniger: Daunting. There’s plenty of competition to worry about. And there is the danger of getting over-saturated. But we have this exposure because people want our food.
Q: Are you worried about spreading yourselves too thin?
Feniger: It feels OK. Actually, we were thinking of opening another place in between (Ciudad in November and the new Border Grill).
Milliken: That would have been suicide. But we’ve had the Border Grill here for eight years, and we’ve been in business together for 18 years, so our partnership is really strong. And we have real stars on our staff. It seemed the right time to expand because we have a staff that’s been with us for so long.
Q: Is there a worry, with all the projects you are involved in, that the quality of the food could diminish?
Milliken: We’re lucky because we have some role models in this (field), that we’ve seen do well, and there are role models as well that we don’t want to imitate because they’ve expanded too quickly, moved too fast and the quality has suffered.
Feniger: The challenge is to expand and stay proud of the food.
Milliken: If it ever got to that point (where the food suffered), we would have to go back to the food and fine tune. That’s what I do; all I do is eat. I go into the restaurant and taste and pick at everything and give pointers to the staff.
Feniger: I think our role has always been to be on top of quality control. And that’s a challenge when you have more restaurants, because you can’t be there every day.
Q: Is it a struggle to stay on top of all the demands?
Milliken: We say no to projects.
Feniger: I said no to something this morning.
Milliken: We have to ask: Is it smart for us? Because the people we have on staff are a big part of what we do, we’ve had to work to create a work environment so they never want to leave. And you want a situation where you are making enough profit so we can pay people what they deserve, or (laughing), what we can afford.
Q: What made you decide to open a restaurant downtown?
Feniger: Well, we looked at a lot of places. We looked in Hollywood, we looked in Burbank, we looked in Pasadena. But we decided that being in the urban environment, especially in the daytime, was really exciting. We want to see the city come back, and if we can be a part of that, that would be great. This part of the city is changing, like Melrose was changing when we opened there in 1981, or like La Brea was changing when we moved there, or even on Fourth Street (where the Border Grill is) to some extent. We were drawn to that.
Q: So how is business?
Milliken: Business is fantastic at both restaurants. The bottom line is really good.
Mary Sue Milliken & Susan Feniger
Titles: Co-Chefs/Owners of Border Grill and Ciudad
Education: Milliken Washburn Trade School of Chicago, 1978. Feniger Culinary Institute of America, 1975.
Hometowns: Milliken East Lansing, Mich. Feniger Toledo, Ohio.
Turning Point: Meeting each other at restaurant Le Perroquet in Chicago in 1978
Hobbies: Milliken Reading, travel. Feniger Reading, walking her dog.
Personal: Milliken Married, two sons. Feniger Single.