HAVING WORDS WITH Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger OWNERS, BORDER GRILL AND CIUDAD

HAVING WORDS WITH Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger OWNERS, BORDER GRILL AND CIUDAD

Mary Sue Milliken, right, and Susan Feniger are looking forward to livening up lunchtime for office workers in California. They recently inked a deal with Gaithersburg, Md.-based contract caterer Sodexho Inc. [3] to provide menu items and chef training at select Sodexho corporate accounts in Southern California. Milliken and Feniger, who starred on the Food Network [4] show “Too Hot Tamales” in the late 1990s, are known for their Mexican and Latin American cuisine at the acclaimed restaurants Border Grill [5] and Ciudad [6]. Sodexho [7] will offer some of their signature grab-and-go items, like burritos and salsa, and eventually made-to-order entrées. Working with Sodexho, Milliken and Feniger hope not only to replace boring ham sandwiches with poblano quesadillas, but also to introduce a larger audience of diners to organic vegetables and sustainable seafood.

What attracted you to corporate dining?

Milliken: When Sodexho approached us, we were excited about people stuck in their offices working hard and not having selection, quality and delicious flavors.

Feniger: There are thousands of people who work [at their accounts], and for people to be able to experience our food who don’t normally come to the restaurants is a great opportunity to introduce who we are.

How do you select the dishes and how do you ensure consistent quality in the on-site sector?

FAST FACTS

JOBS: chef-owners of Border Grill, in Santa Monica, Calif., and Las Vegas, and Ciudad in Los Angeles

EXPERIENCE: stars of “Too Hot Tamales” on the Food Network from 1995 to 1999; authors of five cookbooks; developers of the “Border Girls” line of prepared foods at Whole Foods Markets

EDUCATION: Milliken, Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago; Feniger, The Culinary Institute of America [8] in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Milliken: We go through everything we offer and pick the things that are going to be the least likely to be screwed up and spend time creating formulas that are foolproof. We then spend a ton of time with the chefs who are actually making the food.

Feniger: It’s not that different than how we do quality control at our restaurants. It takes that constant tasting and checking, even when you have people who have worked for you for 10 years.

How is the Sodexho deal mutually beneficial?

Milliken: There is a fair amount of learning on both sides. We wouldn’t do any food that had to do with seafood that wasn’t sustainable, and that opens a whole level of education for their staff and how they can avoid it. I think it’s a great exchange of ideas with another sector. We would love [eventually] to make burritos that are all organic. Even if we were to offer all-organic rice and beans and to get [diners] a couple pieces of organic fruit, I think that would be really great.

Feniger: [Sodexho’s] chefs are producing a lot of food for all kinds of people. They’re really focused on quality, and that’s exciting. The fact that they have chefs who are excited about organic products, that can have a big effect on the industry. If we can influence them to think about sustainability and hormone-free, if we can help them effect change in their company, that will have a big effect on the whole food industry.

What have you learned so far?

Milliken: All of the grab-and-go products will have the nutrition information on them. That’s a luxury in the restaurant industry—we don’t have the budget to do it [at our restaurants]. This is a great opportunity for us to evaluate [our dishes]. I believe that what we’re putting on the plates in our restaurants we have to be responsible for. When the nutrition information comes back on our burritos, for instance, we may change the way they’re made.

Do you see your relationship with Sodexho expanding?

Milliken: I think that both Sodexho and we hope that we can see that happen. I think we’re trying to create the template that we feel good about, that could reach a broad audience. There’s a certain area of foodservice that we may not be suited for, like hospitals. But certainly, there is a huge opportunity.