A recipe for puff pastry in a women’s magazine hooked Mary Sue Milliken when she was a sixth grader. A cook at the college cafeteria inspired Susan Feniger.
The 2014 MenuMasters Hall of Fame inductees tell similar stories about how they fell in love with cooking early on, worked long hours because of this love and developed an appreciation for world cuisines while living abroad. Now, they make it a priority to give back — to customers, colleagues, communities and the food-loving public.
Feniger and Milliken have been in business together for more than 25 years. Owners of the critically acclaimed Border Grill restaurants and Border Grill Truck, the two are cookbook authors and TV personalities, having appeared in nearly 400 episodes of their Food Network show, “Too Hot Tamales,” and appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.”
“It’s been a great ride,” Milliken said. “I feel lucky to have found something when I was a teenager that I loved to do. With the radio shows and television and teaching, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with more people and see them get excited about cooking.”
Milliken met Feniger while working at Le Perroquet in Chicago in the late 1970s. They were the first two women in the kitchen at the famed French restaurant run by the late Jovan Trboyevic. Milliken left to work at a Michelin two-star, female-owned restaurant in Paris, and Feniger went to California, where she worked with renowned chef Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison. In 1981 Milliken joined Feniger in Los Angeles, and they opened their first restaurant, City Café.
Although Feniger also worked in France, it was a trip to India after the opening of City Café that changed her approach to cooking. She discovered new flavors and ingredients such as curry leaves, black mustard seed, cumin seed and a variety of chiles. Her host would return from the market on a bicycle, carrying buffalo milk.
“In all my years in French kitchens, I had never seen all these different sorts of beans and spices,” Feniger said. “All of a sudden, this whole new cuisine showed me how powerful strong flavors and simplicity could be. It shifted how I started to think about food.”
When Feniger returned to California, they incorporated new flavors into the City Café menu, adding curry eggplant or spinach curry, or other India-inspired dishes.
Another game-changer for Milliken and Feniger was the surrounding neighborhood Mexican restaurants. The two Midwesterners discovered soft tacos and flavorful Mexican foods and ingredients. No hard-shell tacos with orange cheese and ground beef here. Instead they ate soft tortillas filled with gently simmered carnitas and pickled onions.
When they opened their second City Café in Santa Monica, Calif., they converted the existing cafe into the first Border Grill. By the time they opened their third Border Grill in Las Vegas in 1999, the two chefs had set a standard for authentic, gourmet Mexican cuisine. A fourth Border Grill is slated to open this summer, also in Las Vegas. They also have authored five cookbooks, including “Cooking with Too Hot Tamales,” “Mesa Mexicana” and “City Cuisine.”
With fame has come responsibility. Milliken and Feniger have supported such charities as Share Our Strength and the Scleroderma Research Foundation. Milliken helped found Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and Feniger sits on the board of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.