Mary Sue Milliken & Susan Feniger
"We’re thrilled to have found Aspen Ridge, and most importantly our customers are happy."
Mary Sue Milliken
& Susan Feniger
Border Grill Restaurants
1. How did you meet and start in business together?
MS: Susan and I were the first two women to work in the kitchen of Le Perroquet restaurant. It was one of the most cutting edge restaurants in the late 70’s in Chicago.
S: It was this fantastic French kitchen and probably the best kitchen either one of us ever worked in. In many ways, it set the path for how we thought about food.
MS: We both learned an enormous amount working there. We met each other, were fast friends and enjoyed working together. We both went on to work separately in other restaurants and eventually we moved to France.
S: We had been in France for almost a year. One night, after a couple bottles of wine, we decided we should open up a restaurant together. Six months later, we opened City Café. No stove. One hot plate and two hibachis in the parking lot in the back. We did the menu every day, and we worked like that for maybe a year. Then we opened CITY Restaurant. We put a tandoori oven in the restaurant.Read more
MS: That was the oven we cooked our skirt steak in. We loved skirt steak because it was only $1.87 a pound, nobody knew what it was and it was so delicious.
S: Literally, nobody was selling skirt steak. Mary Sue and I were the queens of finding products nobody used.
2. So did these unique cuts come out of economic value or to be unique?
S: It was a combination. We were drawn to unusual things because they were new, different, interesting…and CHEAP!
3. What’s an Aspen Ridge cut that intrigues you?
S: We haven’t really used hanger steak at all in our restaurant. In tasting the hanger, I thought the flavor was fantastic. It was tender. It was marbled enough, so it had that great richness we love about skirt steak. We’ve been using skirt steak for a long time. So, to find something else we might be able to use that’s as interesting and the flavor is as great: that was pretty exciting.
4. How is Animal Welfare taken into account in your business?
MS: We’re adamant about sourcing ingredients we are proud of – rice, beans, vegetables and also meat and dairy from animals raised with care and respect. We are careful to exclusively buy meats raised without antibiotics and growth hormones. Turns out they taste better too!
S: If animals aren’t stressed out, worried and nervous, the end product will be way less tense [more tender] and the flavor more delicious.
5. Why is offering Natural Beef on your menu important to you?
S: It’s pretty important to our customers. We try to do as much as we can to educate our staff and our customers about what is going on in the food system. They want to know we’re serving meat from animals raised without antibiotics. It’s emotionally important to us, but it’s also a strong marketing tool we use.
6. How does Aspen Ridge compare to other premium beef programs?
S: We picked Aspen Ridge because the flavor profile was what we were looking for, but the whole package of what you present is also what’s really appealing.
MS: Having meat that’s raised with sustainable values, taking care of the environment and doing what’s good for the animal are all important.
7. What are some tips or suggestions you’d give novice cooks or cooks at home?
• Whether a sauté pan or the grill, make sure it’s good and hot so it caramelizes and sears the meat quickly.
• Be careful not to overload the pan because overfilling will cause the pan to cool down.
• Cut across the grain, not with the grain.
• You can cut your own steaks out of the whole ribeye or whole strip loin.
• Let your steaks rest. The bigger they are, the longer they need to rest. All those juices settle into the meat rather than running out onto the cutting board if you rush the slicing.
8. What influences/inspires you and your cooking style?
S: My father had a friend in Chicago he used to buy steaks from. My mom would always, and I still do, marinate a ribeye with tons of mustard, paprika and Worcheshire sauce and then grill it. We used to get boxes of these frozen steaks for Christmas, for my birthday. So I have a strong connection to my parents with steaks. It’s an emotional connection.
MS: I think travel. I get excited about experiencing other cultures through travel. It’s my religion. It’s my church. It makes me feel like I belong. And I’ve traveled a lot. I just got back from Pakistan. I’ve been to Mongolia, Ethiopia, Japan, China…all over. I love traveling, and that inspires a lot of my cooking.
9. What’s your favorite ingredient?
S: Salt. Avocados and artichokes.
MS: Salt. It’s true. None of us could live without salt.
10. What would you choose as your last meal?
S: I would have a ribeye and probably artichokes and avocado. And cheese! Maybe start with Campari, then vodka and lime, and then a great glass of cabernet.
MS: I love to eat Japanese food. I would probably have a nice dry Sake, cold and, if it’s going to be my last meal, I’d have like a 35 course Japanese meal. I mean if I’m going to die, I want to make it a long meal.
11. What do you enjoy most about cooking and being a chef?
MS: I love that you get to make things many times and the repetition of it. In a restaurant, you get to make it and taste it every day and change it. Getting really intimately connected to that product. It gives you the ability to perfect things. And you can’t really do that at home because you’d get so tired of eating the same thing every day.
S: I love the atmosphere, the teaching and relationships with employees, what you learn from them and the interaction you have with customers. Often times, my partner will come in late at night, meet friends and have dinner at the restaurant. And honestly, when everybody is gone and the music is on is one of my favorite times. I also love that you can have this amazing snack at any point in the day. The list could go on and on, which is why for 30 plus years, we’re still doing it and love what we do.
12. With your success, you’ve developed a unique position to have exposure and influence people. What’s the benefit of the credibility you’ve established?
S: I think one of the incredible things is this ability to raise awareness and raise money for causes that are important to each of us. It’s an incredible freedom and honor you have because of that visibility.
MS: And responsibility. We have to be a little more accountable than someone who doesn’t have that kind of spotlight.
S: I love that we’re able to open the eyes of some of the younger people who work for us to the importance of giving back. And showing what that’s about without necessarily just writing a check but that you can give your time.
MS: I love working with nonprofit organizations like Share Our Strength, which is dedicated to ending childhood hunger. We all have food in common. No matter race or economic situation, food is the unifying force. It’s been great to step back, look at the bigger picture and think how I can make a difference.
Co-Chef/Owner, Border Grill Restaurants & Truck
A pioneer of world cuisine since the creation of City Café and CITY Restaurant in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Mary Sue is most notably recognized as a preeminent ambassador of modern Mexican cuisine with her Border Grill Restaurants (Santa Monica, Downtown Los Angeles, Las Vegas) and Truck. In 2013, she and longtime business partner, Susan Feniger, opened a new location in the Los Angeles Airport’s Tom Bradley International Terminal and in October 2014 welcomed a second Las Vegas outpost at The Forum Shops.
After becoming the first female chef at Chicago's Le Perroquet in 1978, Mary Sue went on to refine her skills in Paris at Restaurant D’Olympe, a woman owned Michelin two-star restaurant. In 1993, she joined a handful of progressive colleagues to found Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, an organization promoting women’s education and advancement in the restaurant industry. Mary Sue and Susan received the California Restaurant Association’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2013, just the third time this prestigious honor was presented to a woman, and most recently were welcomed into the 2014 Menu Masters Hall of Fame.
Mary Sue has co-authored five cookbooks, co-stared in nearly 400 episodes of the Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales,” and co-hosted a food centered radio show for over a decade in Los Angeles. She competed on season three of Bravo's “Top Chef Masters," making it to the finale and winning $40,000 for her charity, Share Our Strength, and its mission to end childhood hunger in America.
Mary Sue has served as a fundraiser, board member and advocate of Share Our Strength since 1987 and also serves on the Board of Trustees for the James Beard Foundation. She is passionate about food policy, working alongside the LA Food Policy Council, Pew Charitable Trusts, Oxfam, Monterey Bay Aquarium and others to help shape sustainable food systems. Mary Sue is proud to have been selected to serve the U. S. State Department as a member of the American Chef Corps, furthering the industry’s role in diplomatic affairs.
Mary Sue spends the majority of her time thinking about food and cooks 7 days a week, whether at one of her Border Grill restaurants, Border Grill Truck or at home with her two sons and husband, architect Josh Schweitzer.
Co-Chef/Owner, Border Grill Restaurants & Truck and Mud Hen Tavern
Susan Feniger is a celebrated chef, author, and entrepreneur. Her professional collaboration with Mary Sue Milliken (CITY, Ciudad, Too Hot Tamales) has led to the groundbreaking Border Grill empire, with locations in Santa Monica, Downtown LA, LAX Airport’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay, and a second outpost in Las Vegas at The Forum Shops opened in October 2014. In 2013, Susan welcomed her new solo venture, the beloved Mud Hen Tavern in Hollywood.
A classically trained graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she was a trailblazer from the start, landing a job at Chicago’s famed Le Perroquet as one of the first women in the all-male kitchen. Following that, Feniger worked at Wolfgang Puck’s infamous Ma Maison in Los Angeles, and then further honed her culinary skills on the French Riviera. She opened City Café in 1981, which forever changed the culinary landscape of L.A. by offering eclectic dishes from around the world. This led to a much larger CITY restaurant in 1985, a pivotal year in which the tiny space was transformed into the first Border Grill, a “taco stand” serving authentic home cooking and street foods of Mexico. The strength of the brand also led to a line of prepared foods under the “Border Girls” name at Whole Food Markets, and the transformation of Ciudad (1998-2010) in downtown Los Angeles to encompass another Border Grill restaurant. In June 2013, Susan and Mary Sue were awarded the California Restaurant Association’s Elizabeth Burns Lifetime Achievement Award, joining the ranks of just a handful of other women who have made history in the restaurant industry. Most recently Susan and Mary Sue were inducted into the 2014 Menu Masters Hall of Fame.
A natural teacher, Susan has co-authored six cookbooks, including her latest, Susan Feniger’s Street Food. Susan is a veteran of 396 episodes of The Food Network’s popular “Too Hot Tamales” and “Tamales World Tour” series and competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” in 2010.
Susan shines a light on a number of worthwhile organizations and has been on the board of the Scleroderma Research Foundation for 18 years, the board of the L.A. LGBT Center for 4 years, and involved with Share our Strength and the Human Rights Campaign. She’s an active member of the culinary community, providing a leadership role in many organizations such as founding the Chefs Collaborative, sitting on the advisory board of the LA Sports & Entertainment Commission and serving as an active member of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.
At the core, Susan’s love of food shines through and is intermingled with her love of interaction with customers and staff. She still takes time to teach cooking classes and work the Border Grill booth at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market as time and travel allows. Her days are spent in the kitchen, writing and testing recipes, creating menus, managing busy businesses, researching shows, and creating new products. Most nights, you can still find her visiting with guests and working with staff at Mud Hen Tavern and Border Grill.