Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have been culinary fixtures in this town for decades, from their first restaurant, City Cafe, which opened in 1981, to their downtown flagship Ciudad, to the Westside's Border Grill to, inevitably, a food truck of the same name. Oh, and let's not forget the five cookbooks and the few hundred episodes of the Food Network's Too Hot Tamales. Recently the chefs, who have been business and kitchen partners for 29 years (“more than half my life,” says Milliken), decided to close Ciudad and transform it into another Border Grill. That restaurant relaunched this past weekend, with Milliken and Feniger and executive chef Jaime Covarrubias running the show.
Of the two women, Milliken has kept a quieter profile, with Feniger opening Street and peering at us through her trademark glasses from the television screen on Top Chef Masters. So we thought we'd sit down with Milliken at Ciudad recently, shortly before she lifted the tablecloths permanently, and chat about this and that. Turn the page for the first part of our interview with the chef, who started cooking as a teenager in her native Michigan, deciding to become a chef at the relatively ancient age of 16. And be sure to check back later for not one but two recipes: Milliken has, it seems, been going through her catalog of past and present recipes during the conversion. Lucky us.
Squid Ink: So you recently got back from Alaska?
Mary Sue Milliken: Yes, I'd never been to Alaska. I've had a whole year of amazing travels. I just had trip after trip just pop up and I couldn't resist. This one in Alaska [was from] the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. First of all, I love wild Alaskan fish because it's so delicious, and it's sustainable, which is really important to me. They asked us if we'd be up for doing this sustainable fish seafood taco contest.
SI: Where was it?
MSM: Well, we went to a tiny town of 600 people called Yakutat, which is the surfing capital of Alaska. Literally the surfers surf with big chunks of ice.
SI: There's a surfing capital of Alaska?
MSM: Yeah. It was really fun. I think chefs can really make a difference by only offering seafood that's sustainable. Anyway so when I went up there I was able to add a bunch of little side trips on so I could visit places and learn how the fisheries are run.
SI: So you were saying earlier that 70% of the seafood caught in this country is served in restaurants? That's a huge percentage.
MSM: Yes. People are also shy about cooking it at home. They have all these notions that it will make their kitchen stink, all these weird old-fashioned things. Like my mom only served me fish sticks so I hate fish, or whatever. So I think we have the opportunity to help people make good choices about what kind of seafood to eat. I had a lovely time up there; I'm lucky to be able to go on a lot of food-related trips. Last year I went to Chile with the Chilean government — we were all there learning about Chilean food. Then I was in Mongolia last year on a hunting trip. I've been very interested in getting closer to my food sources and learning as much as I can.
SI: And you went to visit Diana Kennedy in Mexico recently too?
MSM: That was in the end of July, beginning of August. One of my friends is Traci Des Jardins, and we just decided on a whim to go down there. Because she's 87 and we didn't want to miss her. She's vibrant and exciting and fun to be around and so smart and passionate about Mexican food. And we cooked with her for like three days straight, and just had a blast. We went to markets with her, we made tortillas… The thing that I got inspired, well, re-inspired about — I've been to Mexico so many times — was some of the things we used to try to put on the menu, like nopales and lengua, stuff that I love and haven't made for awhile because often we'd make it, and keep reintroducing it to the menu, and we'd be the only ones who ate it. But I think the world has changed, and it's definitely time to revisit more adventurous Mexican food.
SI: Well, how much has the world changed, like in this town?
MSM: A lot. I would say in the last five years, with [Anthony Bourdain's] No Reservations and the daredevil-y eating TV and books like [Fergus Henderson's] Nose to Tail Eating, people are just so excited about eating and cooking more interesting things. So part of my quest to get closer to my food sources led me on this hunting trip to Mongolia, where we killed a lamb at our campground together. The Mongolian way, which was really, really interesting, very gentle. Well, we knew we wouldn't have any food for the first couple of days, because we were just setting up a camp way out near the Siberian border; there weren't any other people anywhere.
So we picked up a lamb and we got there late at night, so the next morning well, the Mongolians have this thing where they don't drop a single drop of blood on the earth. So they just make a little slit, like a 3-inch slit, and then they stick their hand inside the cavity and the sheep just sort of expires in a very peaceful way. And then you wait a little while, like five minutes, and then you can open up the stomach and get all the blood out. We made blood sausage. We salvaged and made a soup from the bones; we ate the heart, we ate the kidneys, we ate the lungs, we hung the loins and the legs up. And it was summertime, so it wasn't that cool, but it didn't rot at all. We had that lamb for probably the whole 6 or 8 days we were there.
We didn't actually shoot a wild boar; they outwitted us at every turn. We got a lot of exercise though, running up and down mountains, quietly. But the night before we came home we did shoot a roebuck.
SI: A roebuck?
MSM: A small deer, and that was pretty exciting. We pulled him down the mountain, we gutted him, and skinned him and cooked him. An absolutely delicious, amazing meal. Then I've also been raising squab. I have chickens in my backyard, and so I decided to get a couple of live squab when I was buying squab for dinner in Chinatown. I happened to look up at the sign: they had live squab. So anyway, two turned into eighteen in a matter of a year, and so I had to harvest, because it was becoming like an Alfred Hitchcock movie every morning.
So we've had our second harvest so far, and they're very delicious. But this is all the long way of saying that it's so interesting when you do that: you kill an animal, you pluck it, you gut it. It takes a really long time. I know how precious delicious meat is anyway, but when you have to do that, it becomes a whole lot more precious. And you have to really think, how am I going to make this really worthwhile. If everybody had to kill one chicken and eat it, I think the whole idea of, you know, taking meat away from the center of the plate and eating 80% plant-based and 20 protein-based [food] would become a lot more logical. If everyone just had to kill one chicken.
SI: And also the whole idea of the super-sized meal.
MSM: It's so much work! Because I'm sure that 5, 10, 15 years from now, that'll be a big deal. People have been talking about it for a long time, you know taking meat out of the center of the plate, but they're not eating that way yet, I don't find.
So I'm really interested in being creative about how do we satisfy all of our cravings and still be able to stay really smart. I just had to do this interview with the Milken Institute about what I think is going to fix California…
SI: God, what is going to fix California?
MSM: Well, I was talking about food systems and an 80/20 diet, and you know, the amount of water it takes to take care of livestock compared to vegetables, and fresh fruit and vegetables being available in low income neighborhoods, just all that kind of stuff. Getting every kid fed nutritious food and not just, well, food.
Check back tomorrow for the second part of this interview, and a few recipes as well.