An empire built on creativity, a little science…and lots of room for innovation
Probably the most important takeaway from an interview with celebrity chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken is that they embrace change. And, even in a risky restaurant climate, this change has allowed them to become, during the past thirty years, an aggregate of food cultures and initiatives just as strong and long lasting as concrete. They are solid: as co-chefs/owners of the wildly popular Border Grill restaurants, as individual women and, most importantly, as friends.
“Susan is a great friend,” says Mary Sue. “We both know that to be a successful business partner, you have to allow one another space and also realize that things are going to change. But with affection and respect, that can be really strengthening.”
The two met in the early ‘80s and, sharing a passion for food and cooking, quickly became best friends as they trained as chefs. Later they opened their first tiny restaurant which quickly expanded and they soon had Border Grills in Downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Las Vegas, serving modern Mexican food in a hip, urban cantina setting. They also offer their food on several gourmet taco trucks which serve the L.A. area.
These busy women put everything on pause for just a few minutes to talk to us at Lesbian News.
NB: Your business has really expanded, reaching halfway across the country. You now have three restaurants together, plus the Border Grill truck, and Susan you have Susan Feniger’s Street, as well. Do you ever feel torn, trying to be in so many places at once?
MSM: Luckily for us, it’s what we love to do…cook. And work with people, especially our staff. But I think it’s really hard to make a decision about priorities and where you need to be; the most important place for you to spend your time and energy. You get better at it as you go along and I think there’s been times when I felt horribly torn between, well, being a good enough mom for my kids and a good enough wife for my husband and a good enough boss at work. They all take a good amount of time but I think, eventually, you have to be able to walk away when there’s still stuff to be done, saying now I’ve got to do this other thing. And hope for the best.
SF: Certainly we’re not spread as much as some people are, that’s for sure, but I think that the restaurant business is lots of long hours. For me, it’s that I’m doing something I’m passionate about. So I’m still putting in really long days, no question about that, but I’m putting myself where I am most needed. Today we were doing all this stuff downtown, fire drills every twenty minutes on every floor with 1500 employees in the building. I left the general manager there but I was there from 8:30 and the first few hours so she could see how I might address it. Then I had to come over to Street where I did menu tasting with all of the team. That’s where I was all day. Then I had an interview for hiring a new manager. Now tonight my schedule is freer. I could stay at Street or go to Border Grill Santa Monica. You just figure out where you are most needed. Places that are running the most smooth, I leave alone and places that are rougher, I show up there.
NB: How large a staff do you have, to cover all the locations?
MSM: We have about 350, I think. We get super busy in Vegas during the season so it depends. And we always have more people coming on during the wintertime, though every year it seems to change. The most important thing is that we are constantly realizing our staff is our biggest asset. It is the one thing that makes or breaks our business. Every interaction I have with someone who works for us is important. I want to make them feel great about where they work
NB: Did you ever dream the ventures would be this successful? What kind of doubts did you have in the beginning?
SF: You know, I still feel like we’re working our butts off trying to make it. The restaurant business is very much high times and low times. You’ve got your ups and downs.
MSM: I’ve been totally surprised and shocked that being a chef would lead to this. When I went to chef school on the south side of Chicago, there was only one other woman in the entire program and it was basically a trade-technical school for the kids who couldn’t get into college. It wasn’t sexy or cool, no Bobby Flays, nothing like that. I loved school but I loved cooking so much more and I had met a chef who inspired me. But no, I never dreamed we’d be this successful. It’s been a roller coaster; there’s been ups and downs. Having a partnership of 32 years with Susan, the best part of it is having someone to enjoy the success with and to experience the failures with, too. In the beginning I don’t think I had any doubts ever. I was so young. I was 23 when we started our first restaurant together in ’81 and I think I had the advantage of being naive. Now that I’m 54, this is when the doubts start coming in. As crazy as that sounds. You know so much more and aren’t as quick to take risks, I guess.
NB: Why do you think you are so successful?
MSM: I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. Being persistent, continually pushing ourselves to do the next thing, to be current, to keep changing. You know change is not an automatic human response to life. Every time I tried to change things, I’d get a lot of resistance. But I’m the type of person who really pushes for the future, pushes to change our organization, update the menus, come up with new ways of cooking things, constantly look at new sources for products that we will be serving. So we have all of our meat and poultry antibiotic free and all our fish is sustainable. Those kinds of things weren’t really on the radar when we opened. We keep things changing and constantly adapt to a changing world out there. I think that resilience has helped us to be successful.
SF: We have such great teams. That’s how we do it. And if we didn’t have an incredible friendship we wouldn’t survive it. We give each other space to grow.
NB: How did you two get started in the restaurant biz?
MSM: I met Susan after chef school. She had been to chef school too and we were working in a kitchen together in Chicago. After that we kind of lost touch with one another for about a year. Then ended up in France at the same time so we kind of reconnected and became each other’s ally while we were slogging through the French kitchen system. So Susan was in the South of France and I was in Paris and we were both working in restaurants but we kept in touch, were each other’s cheerleaders. That’s when we decided we would open a restaurant together someday. We were well into our second bottle of wine…we were broke and had no idea where we were gonna go, how we were gonna do it, but we were gonna open a restaurant together. We even wrote sample menus and came up with names of the restaurant—dreaming. Then we got back to the states and I went to work in Chicago, she went to work in L.A. But about three or four months later she called and said she’d been hanging out at this little café and they really needed help. That she was going to quit her job and start working there. She wanted me to move there and we’d do it together. So I came out to check it out and there wasn’t even a kitchen, I mean, there was a kitchen but there wasn’t even a stove. There were hot plates and it took about two hours for the water to come to a boil so we could make pasta. I thought wow, did I really go through two years of chef school and hard labor in France and all that abuse just to cook on a hot plate?
At the same time, it sounded pretty good and we were gonna put in a hood and exhaust and four burner stove and oven. Because that was in the plan, I said okay, I can move out here and try it a few months and see how it goes, I never expected to stay. I didn’t think L.A. would be the kind of place for me to live. It never even occurred to me that this would be what launched our careers. Then four years after I moved here and took my first breather, it was just the greatest, most fun, the coolest teeniest little restaurant, only 900 square feet called City Café. We made all of our own pastries, we wrote our own menu every day on the blackboard. We worked from Tuesday through Sunday, from seven in the morning to midnight.
On Mondays we would lay on the beach in Venice and drink coffee and sleep. It was our dream. Within the first year we got write ups and then Julia Child came in and ate in the restaurant and was a huge cheerleader and supporter. A big thrill for us. We didn’t turn that restaurant into a Mexican restaurant until four years later when we opened our bigger City Restaurant in 1985.
SF: I was working at Ma Maison under Wolfgang Puck, he was the chef there, and then I left and went to the South of France for a year. Mary Sue was in Paris. Before I left, the people there at l.a. Eyeworks had this tiny little space next door and wanted me to consider working with them. When I came back, they had started this espresso bar with sandwiches bought outside. So when I came back, I was working at Ma Maison and helping at this little espresso bar offering a soup of the day. They had a hot plate and we would run one special. I called Mary Sue and told her she should come out to visit and help this little café get going. I convinced her to come out and I convinced her to stay. We were doing all the food and our partners were the women who owned l.a. Eyeworks. We started doing a special off of two hibachis in the parking lot in the back and a hot plate in the kitchen. After the stove was in, we started doing pastries and we built up a full menu doing more and more.
NB: Why primarily Mexican food?
SF: Our first restaurant was City Café and our roots were in the country French kitchen but after a trip to India we came back and started one Indian dish on the menu. Then we went to Thailand and offered a Thai dish on the menu. Basically, it ended up being what we called city cuisine with flavors from all around the world. We moved City to a larger restaurant and it became City Restaurant. Then we took the café space and that became the first Border Grill. Then we opened Santa Monica in 1990 and then opened downtown and Vegas and four years ago, I opened Street. Border Grill is regional Mexican cuisine. Susan Feniger’s Street is all street inspired food from all over the world. Food that you might get on a street corner in India or Vietnam. Globally inspired food from all around the world. Like a crispy potato samosa or a traditional Singapore kayatos. Or it might be a Ukranian spinach dumpling.
MSM: We really focused on City Restaurant for the first 13 years of our partnership. It was City Restaurant that put us on the map. It was food from all over the world and we were very far ahead of our time. Then we wrote our first cookbook, City Cuisine, in 1986. The City Restaurant and City Café certainly got us a lot of attention. Border Grill was really an afterthought. We had this lease on this little 900 square foot place that we had outgrown. We didn’t want to just give it up so thought about a Japanese noodle shop. Or maybe a burger place or maybe a taco joint because we loved eating soft tacos with carnitas. We would drive all the way east to some dumpy little tacoria and then just figured we could make them ourselves instead of driving all the way over there. We decided we would open a Mexican place and we called it Border Grill. It was originally just going to be tacos but while it was under construction, we flew to Mexico City and rented a little VW bug and drove all over. We went into marketplaces and stayed at the house of one of our employees in Mexico City and just started learning everything we could about Mexican food, just soaking up everything we could learn. We really didn’t know much about it at all but in that three-week trip, we wrote the menu and came up with all these recipes and came back and opened Border Grill.
NB: Tell us about the Truck.
MSM: We have two of them, actually. We started out renting one because we always thought it would be fun to have a taco truck that rolls around and serves our brand of Mexican food, which is very modern. In any busy metropolitan area, trucks that can bring the food to people are pretty exciting and cool. With the advent of social media, you could kind of communicate with your fans in a great way. It really changed the way we did business, About three years ago we rented a truck for a few months, loved it, bought it, then we bought our second truck about two years ago. So we have these two trucks that go around to music festivals or art festivals and just places where there are heavy concentrations of people without a lot of food options. It changes all the time but we get to share our brand of food, which is organic rice and beans, antibiotic and hormone free meats and sustainable seafood. Also organically grown vegetables taken to people who might not have that kind of an option. It creates community with people talking and eating together. It’s exciting.
NB: You also cater for various functions?
MSM: We cater all kinds of things. Super high-end galas; the Emmys or the Grammys. We might bring our taco truck to your house and cater your kid’s sixteenth birthday party. We love to help people celebrate and enjoy with food. We just did a catering in Sedona. Susan and I flew there, cooked for a big cowboy event—a tiny party of super billionaires. Just 12 people but we came and did their event for them.
NB: Do you plan to take your restaurants to the East Coast?
MSM: Absolutely. We’ve looked at some locations back East. I think Border Grill would be very popular there. We’ve gotten to a point where there are so many good people on our staff who want to move and grow the skills they’ve developed. It would be great.
SF: We’re always looking for interesting locations, for sure. I don’t think the East is the first place we’re looking, but if we saw a good place we would go for it.
NB: You are known as great humanitarians and support numerous political and social causes. Can you tell me a little about them?
MSM: Share Our Strength fights hunger in children. I just love the way the organization is run. I’ve been on the board 12, 14 years. I had no money but could cook for other people who could come and pay. No kid should grow up hungry. That’s criminal. It’s a no-brainer kids should have the nutrition they need to learn. All the charity work we do and donate to, I always get more back from it than I could ever give. It’s that way with Share our Strength. I’ve been able to go to board meetings and hang out with CEOs of big corporations. And when I come back from a board meeting, I always have great ideas to incorporate into the business, and ideas of how to get the staff to be more involved and more inspired.
SF: I’m on the board of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. An incredible board. One of the events I co-chair is called Simply Divine which is a wine and food event we do every summer. We do tons of other great work.
MSM: As restaurateurs and chefs, we look ahead, and sustainable seafood is part of that. I am blessed to have all this success. How can I give back? The world has gotten so much more complicated and three meals a day is a huge economic force. Making sure that I’m setting an example and helping educate my staff and my customers and friends about what I understand about good food choices. There are 61 countries on the planet and most of them know where their food comes from. We should too.
SF: I have been on the board of The Scleroderma Research Foundation for about 25 years now, and we do a fundraising event called Cool Comedy Hot Cuisine. We do the food and it’s comedy and food. Many, most of, the big name comedians have done it. Robin Williams has done it many times, Dana Carvey, Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel…it just goes on and on. We typically net about a million a year for research. We partner with John Hopkins in that research.
NB: Writing books is another avenue you’ve strolled into. Any plans for future books?
SF: Mary Sue and I wrote five and the Street cookbook has just come out in July. It’s the first photography book, loaded with food photographs. There are great travel stories and it looks fantastic. I think we probably will do another book just not right yet.
MSM: I’m working on a book but I don’t have a contract. Working at my own pace so it’s pretty slow. It’s about how I cook at home. I love writing recipes and experimenting with new ideas. I just wrote an article for Saveur Magazine and it’s about sardines. My favorite dish. I don’t understand why people aren’t in love with sardines like me. People haven’t had them handled the right way so I developed six great recipes for sardines. I do love writing but it’s hard to find time and I have to be disciplined about carving out that time.
NB: Where do you see your business in ten years’ time?
MSM: I think we’re at a point that we’re going to have a big push for growth and we’re going to see several Border Grills in urban settings—in big cities all over. We’re opening a new restaurant at LAX in May, and we’re working hard on coming up with some easy things that you might want to take on the plane, healthy but still satisfying. It’s gonna be in the brand new the Tom Bradley terminal so we’re working on food that is really delicious but can be cooked in an airport.
SF: I’d like to see us having really grown the Border Grill concept. Probably where we did a restaurant, we would have a truck. Also expanding the Street brand.
NB: On a personal note, what is your usual day like, from rising until bedtime?
MSM: I usually get up make tea and coffee, hang out for about half hour with my husband (Josh Schweitzer) then wake up my 14 year old and spend a lot of time waking him, again and again. Then I make his breakfast and lunch. Then I take him to school. I go to the gym or play soccer. I love to play soccer. I’m a soccer fanatic. I only started playing when I was 42 but I’ve been playing for 12 years and it is the best thing that I ever did. After having my children. It’s really fun. I get to work by 10:30 or 11. I like to work lunch at one of the restaurants, then we have meetings. I work a couple nights a week depending on the event. I don’t usually hang around the restaurant unless I have something going, but I’ve tasted everything on the line and talked to the chef about what’s going on and planned events and menus. We spend a lot of time developing recipes. I try to be home by about six, seven o’clock. My husband and I like to cook dinner together every night and have a glass of wine. Then we sit at the table with our son and eat and try to extract a few details from him about his day.
SF: I get up about seven or so. Try to either walk with the dogs or play out front with a ball with the dogs. My partner and I will visit, have a cup of coffee or tea in the hot tub. Then I go to restaurants for meetings, photo shoots, interviews. Then I work night service and get home probably around ten.
NB: What is your favorite thing to do when you eke out some down time, with no responsibilities?
MSM: I love travel. If somebody said you can’t work for the next month I’d be on a plane to somewhere. I’ve been to Mongolia, Ethiopia, Egypt, all in the last four years. I love to travel to very remote places and I love to have something to do when I get there. I was in Istanbul in June cooking for a friend’s fiftieth birthday party. I was just in Seoul, Korea, fantastic place. I love to read books too.
NB: Who are you in a relationship with?
MSM: Josh Schweitzer. We’ve been together since ‘84. Susan introduced us. She was my husband Josh’s first romance in high school. And they got married. They split in ‘79 or ‘80 and she moved to Chicago and was working in the restaurant I was working in. I was the first woman and she was the second ever hired in this sort of stiff French restaurant and she had just left her husband so she kept telling me about this guy, Josh, who was so great and that she hated leaving him. After we got to be closer friends she began to say oh, he’d be perfect for you, I wish you could meet him. That went on for about four years. We went to France, we lost touch, we got back in touch, then we were in California. She kept saying why are you dating that awful gas station attendant, he’s horrible. I wish you could meet Josh, he’d be perfect for you. Then she called him out to design our big City Restaurant in 1985 and when we were changing the café into Border Grill. She convinced him, even though he’d been hurt and everything. I think Susan is this kind of irresistible person—and she never gives up. So he came out to design our restaurant and after he was here about three or four weeks, he moved in with me.
SF: Liz Lachman. She’s a talented writer and director. We’ve been together 18 years.
NB: What is your partner’s most unique trait or habit?
MSM: Josh is a pretty famous architect, had his own studio for many years and we were a sort of power couple but seven or eight years ago he took a year off, a sabbatical, then because of demands of the teenagers, he never went back and now he’s Mr Dad. He’s great with the kids, which is funny because he didn’t really want to have kids—I had to sort of talk him into them. Not having two full throttle careers has been great for our relationship and also for the kids. Josh is a painter too and has had a couple gallery showings, We have an amazing garden, thanks to him, and we do a lot of cooking together.
SF: Liz is incredibly smart, creative and she makes me laugh all the time.
NB: Do you have any children?
MSM: Two sons, 22 and 14
SF: We have pets.
NB: You both have pets?
MSM: We love dogs. And we now have a little teeny tiny Chihuahua dog named Pepe that my son chose. I’ve never had a little dog in my life but this dog is just fantastic, adorable, easy and fun. Everything you could want from a dog without any of the hassle—he’s tiny, his poop is tiny, no long hair. It’s amazing.
SF: We have two dogs, goldendoodles, ten years old and nine years old …and two rescue cats.
NB: Where are you from originally, where did you grow up?
MSM: Michigan, I went to high school in East Lansing. My mom was born in Detroit. I was born in St Claire, outside of Detroit. We moved around a lot but all in Michigan and Illinois. I graduated high school in three years, I was just ready. I’ve been very mature my whole life and I moved to Chicago at 17 to go to chef school.
SF: Toledo, Ohio. I was working in a restaurant, working for different people and went to culinary school in New York. Then I went to Kansas City, then Chicago, then LA. It was all about what restaurant I had to work at.
NB: Where do you live now?
MSM: I live right in L.A. about halfway between Border Grill Santa Monica and Border Grill Downtown and very close to the airport so I can get to Border Grill in Vegas pretty quickly too
SF: We live in Kenter Canyon.
NB: Tell me a little bit about your parents.
MSM: My parents’ divorced when I was 12 so there was a little bit of a rocky time. I’m still close to my mom, she’s 87 and I’m just getting ready to try to get her to move to L.A. She’s a great cook, and we bonded over cooking in a lot of ways. And my Dad we lost when he was 72. We could never be really close because he had a very close relationship with vodka. He was a good guy though and did the best he could.
SF: I was very close to my parents. They’re both gone. My mom was a fantastic cook and my dad was a great businessman who really liked to eat. You know, Jewish Midwest family. Mom was always cooking and we always had people stopping by.
NB: Any brothers and sisters?
MSM: I have two sisters older than me. One five years older and one seven. And we are all three very close. I really treasure them.
SF: One brother, one sister.
NB: Who were you close to, growing up?
MSM: Super close to my mom.
SF: My brother was six years older but the family was pretty close. I was the youngest; a tomboy who played a lot of sports. Maybe my sister because she was only three years older than me.
NB: Do you have any secret passions or habits you’d be willing to share with our readers?
MSM: I’m not a very secretive person. Soccer and travel would be the really big ones. Oddly enough I still like to cook wherever I go. I do have one thing. I’m allergic to hotels—I hate them. I have to stay in a place with a kitchen so I can make myself a cup of tea in the morning.
SF: I love to read. I love music, theater. I love to go to countries where I’ve never been and explore the culture through their food. And I try to play tennis at least once a week.
NB: What would you be doing if you weren’t running a restaurant empire?
MSM: Well, I would be a scientist. I love science. The science section in the newspaper is my favorite. Cooking has a lot to do with that. When you are boning out a leg of lamb, you have to know the muscle groups. I could be a surgeon. I also love baking and worked in a pastry shop in Chicago. That’s all chemistry…like if something’s not tender enough, you cut back on the eggs and add more sugar. In the past five years though, I’ve become very interested in social change and activism. If I wasn’t a chef I would probably combine some kind of science with something that has a lasting effect. Like to do with the health of the ocean, an oceanographer maybe, helping to figure out how we can preserve a healthy ocean. I was in Washington three times this year lobbying for different things. I’m part of the Diplomatic Culinary Corps in the State Department who use cooking as a way of exchanging info with other countries. I was one of the founding members of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and we’re having our twenty-year anniversary. Doing cultural exchanges with women who cook in China or Burma or Mozambique, that’s something that is on my radar to do.
SF: When I was in college I was studying economics. I always thought I’d be a busy person. For a while there I thought I’d be a professional tennis player. But I worked in restaurants all through college and my third year in, I thought, this is what I love, what I’m passionate about. I couldn’t see myself behind a desk, in a bank. For me, the restaurant business is what I love. When I first started culinary school, I knew this was my passion. I never looked back, never questioned it. Maybe I would be a therapist. I’ve been in therapy. I think it’s very interesting how we end up who we are. I love understanding that.
NB: What would you most like to change about yourself or your life?
MSM: I guess my physical limitations. Is that too greedy? I have a torn meniscus right now and I haven’t been able to play soccer for a couple months. I want this body to last a really long time so I guess I’d want to be bionic.
SF: If there was anything we could change, I’d like a partner investor to help Border Grill and Street grow. I think we have two great concepts and if we had a partner we could take it to the next level.
The next level? Yep, I have no doubt we’ll see that soon.