Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger– “Too Hot Tamales”
By Drea Knufken for dineLA.com
Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken were trailblazers from the start. In 1978, they were the first women to be hired as chefs in the traditionally all-male kitchen of Le Perroquet, one of Chicago’s best French restaurants. This fateful meeting led them to study culinary arts in separate places in France before meeting again in 1981 to open City Cafe on Melrose Avenue. Their next establishment, CITY Restaurant (1985–1994), introduced LA to eclectic dishes from Thailand, India and Mexico, as well as France, Italy, and their mothers’ own recipe boxes. In 1985, Mary Sue and Susan transformed the City Cafe site into Border Grill, a “taco stand” serving authentic home cooking and street foods of Mexico.
The restaurant has since moved to its current home on 4th Street in Santa Monica, where it serves upscale, modern Mexican food in an urban cantina setting. The partners opened Ciudad in Downtown Los Angeles in 1998, presenting the bold and seductive flavors of the Latin world.
On top of their role as eminent restaurateurs, Mary Sue and Susan share their passion for food through many media outlets. Their television careers began in 1993 as two of sixteen chefs invited to cook with Julia Child on her PBS series “Cooking with Master Chefs.” Veterans of 396 episodes of their popular “Too Hot Tamales” and “Tamales World Tour” series with Food Network (1995-1999), the duo often appear as guests on TV shows around the country.
Prolific writers, they have authored five cookbooks: City Cuisine, Mesa Mexicana, Cantina, Cooking with Too Hot Tamales, and Mexican Cooking for Dummies.
What’s your most popular dish at Border Grill? Ciudad?
Susan: At Border Grill, we serve a skirt steak that’s just incredible, and we haven’t been able to take it off the menu — ever. People love the Peruvian ceviche that we serve at Ciudad. It’s made with ahi amarillo, a wonderful South American chili that’s sweet and spicy. We complement it with ginger, limes, cilantro and olive oil.
How did two Midwestern girls with classic training become so interested in south-of-the-border cuisine?
Mary Sue: We were both working in French restaurants when we met in Chicago. Later, we visited France almost at the same time, and then we came back and opened City Café, and that’s how it started. After that, we didn’t know whether we were going to open a noodle stand or a taco stand. Susan: We were always drawn to ethnic cuisine. When we were sick of our own cooking, which didn’t happen often (laughs), we’d go out and eat tacos. We wanted sit-down ethnic food, and it didn’t seem like that was happening in an accessible way. So we came up with the idea to bring great Mexican food into an environment where someone could just be in their neighborhood and have a drink, and that was the inspiration for it, and we love that food. It seems like there was a movement happening and we contributed to it. CITY Restaurant was kind of ahead of its time. People would say they didn’t know how to categorize our food. But LA’s such a great town to cook in, and LA customers are really receptive.
If you could travel the world and pick up ingredients for the perfect meal, where would you go and what would your ingredients be?
Susan: Boy, that’s hard to say what the perfect meal would be—there are so many perfect meals. We actually live in a pretty great place for diversity and have the best produce on the planet. A couple years ago I was in France and I couldn’t believe how the California produce was actually better than the stuff I could get in France. It wasn’t that way when I lived in France way back when. A lot of the perfect meal depends on where I am—if I was in India, I’d pick the ingredients to make that perfect Indian meal, or I might just go to the farmer’s market here and get great avocado, artichokes, tomatoes, corn on the cob and steak. There are some things you can’t get here, like Florentine steaks in Italy, but for the most part, I get pretty excited about the ingredients here.
It’s impressive to see two friends who’ve made it so far in your careers together. How do you guys synchronize?
Susan: I just whip her.
Mary Sue: I just don’t listen to anything she says. (laughter)
Mary Sue: We’re very different, but I think each of our strengths complement each other. We’re willing to let change happen. Twenty-five years is a long time to be partners. We’ve lasted longer than most marriages.
What’s hot in the dining world in LA now?
Susan: I was looking for a place to go for drinks Downtown after the roller derby — there’s a big comeback of the roller derby. I was shocked how many new restaurants and bars and nightlife scenes there were in Downtown. Even being down in it, it was exciting to see the kinds of restaurants that are opening. I think that’s encouraging, particularly for the Downtown area.
Did any restaurants in particular catch your eye?
Susan: I was more interested in the bars at the moment (laughs). I found one at Central Market. It was interesting to see how many people were hanging out in Downtown LA on a Tuesday night. Now you can see more restaurants popping up, and there are a lot of young, up-and-coming chefs that are opening places or being head chef at new places.
Mary Sue: Things are improving all the time. There’re great restaurants opening. It seems like they’re more and more popular and busy, with better quality and better ingredients and fresher and fresher food.
So chefs are using more sustainable, local produce?
Mary Sue: Chefs are way more aware than they were 10 years ago about products and quality and the importance of spreading that message to the consumer. I think chefs are in a great position to make strong statements about products and educating the customer. For example, we took tuna off our menu and boycott Canadian seafood and serve only sustainable fish. You can affect a lot of people that way and get the message out there. More and more chefs are doing that.
Do you have any helpful advice for chefs new to the LA scene?
Susan: Chefs in general are very open and willing to help each other in Los Angeles. Most chefs would be open about their purveyors and will tell you where local farmers markets are. People are very generous with information. If you’re coming cold into the city, it’s a great thing to tap into that resource.
Mary Sue: One early lesson we learned is not to be afraid to ask for help. The best thing is to ask questions, be part of the community and don’t isolate yourself. When you’re young and passionate and nervous, you tend to want to do things on your own. But it’s best to reach out to every sector of customers, staff and colleagues, and be part of the community if you want to be successful. There are lots of great talented people who don’t make it and lots of other people who do. Some places, that’s not true, but if you really stay connected to your customers, colleagues and staff, you have insight — it really works in our profession. Susan: It’s not quite the same in some other local professions. Chefs are a very generous, spirited group in general.