Addicted Inspirations: Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, Chef Owners of Border Grill in Downtown Los Angeles

This week we find ourselves inspired by not one, but two amazing individuals.  Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken are chefs, business partners, restaurant owners, philanthropists, activists….the list truly goes on and on.  But most of all, Mary Sue and Susan are pioneers, power women in the very male-dominated culinary industry, and using their iconic status to change that industry for the better.

Mary Sue Milliken has been active as a chef for nearly 40 years, discovering her passion for cooking in her youth by helping her single mother in the kitchen.  She fastracked her highschool graduation so she could move to Chicago for culinary school, where she attended the Washburne Culinary Institute.  By her second year, Mary Sue was studying and working in Paris.  She returned to Chicago to work in their top French restaurants, and by 1978 she had become the first woman in the kitchen at Le Perroquet.  It was there that she and Susan met, and a lifelong dream team was born.

Susan Feniger also realized her love of cooking in her youth, by her mother’s side in the kitchen.  At her father’s flower shop, Susan learned the in’s and out’s of hospitality and customer service.  From then on, the food industry became her destiny, starting with her first job at her highschool cafeteria.  She negotiated with her college to allow her to finish her final year at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where she also worked at the fish market and in various French restaurants.  Susan spent the next few years working her way up the food chains in male-dominated kitchens, before landing in Chicago to work at Le Perroquet, where she, of course, met Mary Sue.

And the rest is history.  Being the only women in the kitchen at Le Perroquet, the pair bonded, and by 1981 they had opened their first joint venture, City Café in Los Angeles.  Featuring eclectic dishes from around the world, Susan and Mary Sue shook the foundations of the L.A. culinary scene, and they’ve been making waves ever since.  Mary Sue and Susan have been business partners for 35 years, and run their operations with a community-centric approach, a dedication to sustainability and healthy, unaltered food from diverse cultures.  Currently, the pair are partners in the Border Grill group of restaurants, the first incarnation opening in 1985 as a low key spot for authentic Mexican home cooking and street food, inspired by Mary Sue and Susan’s travels through Mexico.  Now Border Grill has locations at LAX, the Huntington Library and the downtown Los Angeles.

I had the chance to sample the succulent cuisine the DTLA outpost on my last trip to Los Angeles, and I was blown away by the incredible food, popping with rich, fresh flavors and creative spins on authentic Mexican cuisine.  From the cocktails to the main dishes, everything I tasted at Border Grill was divine, and I felt good knowing every ingredient was sourced as sustainably and locally as possible, because of the strong values of the women at the helm.

Beyond Border Grill, Mary Sue and Susan brought their innovative approaches to The Food Network as the first lineup of celebrity chefs with nearly 400 episodes of the “Too Hot Tamales” and “Tamales World Tour” series. They also were the original co-hosts of the popular foodcentric radio show, KCRW’s “Good Food,” in L.A. for over 10 years.  They’ve both written multiple books and have been recognized by multiple awards, including the fourth annual Julia Child Award from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts (they were also the first women to be honored). They are both active in multiple charities, including the the Scleroderma Research Foundation and L.A. LGBT Center (Susan) and Share Our Strength and the James Beard Foundation (Mary Sue).

I got the chance to ask these inspiring women to share their insight and wisdom gained from their exceptional entrepreneur status, read all about it below.

 

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Susan Feniger:  When I was really young, I thought I wanted to be a professional tennis player…I was such a jock. I for sure wasn’t good enough but I loved it and played a lot! Then as I grew older and was reading Ayn Rand, I wanted to be an economist, then a therapist, and by the time I was in college the restaurant biz was my passion!

Mary Sue Milliken: Astronaut or surgeon (I love science!)

 

How did you get involved with the work you currently do?

SF: In high school I worked at Smith’s Cafeteria…I loved it…by college, the army cook who ran the kitchen inspired me to continue on, drop economics and become a chef! I did just that.

MSM:  I love to work with my hands and started cooking as a very young girl.  At 16, after meeting an inspirational, professional chef, I set my sights on cooking professionally and never looked back.  Over these 40+ years my job has changed millions of times:  Chef/Owner, writing cookbooks, hosting weekly radio shows, 400 cooking shows for Food Network, guiding the businesses and their finances as well as head dishwasher, cheerleader and whip cracker.

 

What is your WHY? (The reason why you do the work you do)

SF: I love food, love the creative part, the connections with people and teaching, and learning with our team. I love the interaction with guests. I love how our profession and food is always changing so there is a constant ability to learn more and more. I love wearing a uniform every day. I love the speed, energy, passion in a kitchen. I love having this amazing voice to give back to the community to support causes dear to my heart.

MSM:  I love food and am endlessly curious about how it affects our lives and the lives of everyone on the planet.  The history, the science, the many impacts food has, it’s all fascinating.

 

What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face?

SF:  I’ve had to face the fact that sometimes things don’t work out. You work really hard, feel like you do a great job, that the food is fantastic, environment is great, but for some reason it just doesn’t work. It’s hard to face that, let go and move on, but you do it!

MSM:  Having to close a restaurant after giving it every drop of blood, sweat and tears is always the most difficult and we probably wait far too long, but sometimes it has to be done.

 

What are some of the successes (big or small) you’ve had?

SF:  I think the biggest success is seeing young kids grow up and move on to do something cool and interesting while taking away life lessons that maybe we’ve had a bit of influence on. To see people respecting each other, creating a team/family, to see someone grow from being not focused to being very focused and amazing…

MSM:  Being the first women to earn the Julia Child Award for making a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats and drinks this year was a huge career highlight.  It really made me feel that a lot of the non-profit advocacy and activism work I do is important.

 

What piece of advice would you give to someone trying to do what you do, or trying to follow their own dreams?

SF:  If you love it, day in and day out, no matter how long the hours are, how hard the work is, but you find yourself having a great time, feeling good about what you are doing, whether it’s washing pots and pans, working the line, learning pastries, or going to the produce market you are working towards the dream. If you wonder why you are doing something, or that it doesn’t pay enough or you are not having fun…then it might not be the right job for you. Life is short, make sure you enjoy each day…

 

How do you do manage to do it all?

SF:  I love to get up early, go to bed late and fit as much as I can in each day…I don’t get stressed out, I get energy from my work, my dogs, the people around me, nature, so for some very lucky reason, I can do a lot in a day. I truly feel so lucky.

 

If you had one wish to help make the world a better place, what would it be? 

SF:  Sorry to say this right now, but it’s how I feel…Get rid of Trump. It’s not about Democrat or Republican it’s that I feel he’s not a good person. To have a world where there is discrimination, so much hate, not respecting the environment, healthcare, tweeting about things like our country is being run by a 13-year-old… and on and on. If this all would change I feel like our world would be a better place. It was at one point, not that long ago.

MSM:  I would love to see humanity agree that good, healthful, pure food is a birthright.  Then we can set about to make sure there is justice in the global food system.  The United Nations global goals are achievable and so important – especially goal #2:  zero hunger by 2030.  I think about this every day and try to be a part of the solution.

 

Who (person or organization) inspires you?

SF:  President Obama, {Nelson] Mandela

MSM:  Michelle Obama – she’s an amazing role model for women, a brilliant, self-assured, strong leader.

 

If you could pick one charitable organization to ask our readers to donate to or volunteer with, which would it be?

SF:  The Los Angeles LGBT Center

MSM:  Share Our Strength – I am on the board of directors for many years and we are positively impacting the lives of children at risk of suffering from hunger and never being able to realize their full potential.  I’m proud of the progress we are making in connecting kids with healthy food every day.  No child should grow up hungry!

http://www.bordergrill.com/

Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Addicted Magazine. Her myriad of addictions include music, fashion, travel, technology, boxing and trying to make the world a better place. Nadia is also a feminist, an animal lover, and a neverending dreamer. Keep up with her on social media through @thenadiae.
Nadia Elkharadly