Mary Sue Milliken, as always, is in the midst of a zillion things. The food activist, TV personality and chef-owner with Susan Feniger of Border Grill has been a vocal advocate of passing Proposition 37, the ballot initiative that would make the labeling of GMO products law in California.
Milliken has a brand new chef at the Border Grill's downtown location. The WCR (Women Chefs and Restaurateurs), the professional organization she helped found, is coming up on its 20th anniversary. And recently, she's become part of the American Chef Corps, part of the State Department's new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. We sat down last week and talked to Milliken about how she expects to serve in the Chef Corps, and having new blood in the kitchen at Border Grill.
Squid Ink: Let's start by talking about the State Department's Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. How did you get asked to be part of the American Chef Corps?
Mary Sue Milliken: I got an invitation from Susan Ungaro [The James Beard Foundation President], and I'm not sure how I got onto her radar. I got so excited because I'd been really, more active. I'm a huge traveler, I love to go to really remote places. I've been to Ethiopia and Eritrea and Mongolia and Southeast Asia. Whenever I get a chance I travel. So when I read this thing I called Susan up immediately and I said “This is so great, this is exactly what I've already been practicing in some ways.” I went on a trade mission with Schwarzenegger to Japan when he was Governor, promoting California produce. I cooked at the American Embassy in Tokyo.
And then I went to China with the WCR about 12 years ago on a mission of cultural exchange for women chefs. Just this past summer I was in Istanbul in July, just for fun. I was staying with a friend who had to go to the American Embassy there on the Fourth of July. So we all went together and I was really shocked, because the only kind of food we were served in Turkey at our embassy was fast food. So I felt like the Turks were going to feel like, “Really, that's all you guys eat?” Had I already been aware of this culinary corps I would have called them up and said “I'm going to be in Istanbul, and maybe I could cook at the 4th of July party.”
I think it's really important to just be mindful of how people think of Americans and how we are out there in the world. I love all the ideas about cooking for all the heads of state when they come, and cooking food that's more conducive to being at the table and sharing ideas and negotiating even. I think that's fantastic and a great thing for us to do. But my personal passion is more about exchanging ideas about our food systems and about women and work.
SI: What were you told would that entail?
MSM: Like I said, I think a lot of this was happening informally already, so it's a way to make it more formal. It's just in its early inception. I think Hillary Clinton has a lot to do with the idea for it. She really cares about food. But everybody I talked to that night [at the launch reception], all the chefs, were really engaged. I've emailed with a lot of them already. I think it's up to a lot of us individually as chefs to throw out ideas and make ourselves available. I really want to make clear to the public that none of this was paid for by our tax money. I paid for my own flights to D.C., I paid for the food that I brought with me, I paid for my own hotel.
We have been asked to let [the State Department] know when we're traveling and what kind of work we're doing. And just based on conversations I was having with two people at the State Department, one of them I talked to about women's issues and how it would be great to do more cultural exchanges for women in developing countries and get them into the food business. And then also the issue of global hunger and sharing ideas about how to attack that.
SI: Do you think if the administration changes in the upcoming election that this program will change?
MSM: (Laughs) Um … I don't know politics that well. I don't know the way things happen that well I guess. I would be afraid of that, yeah. It has crossed my mind. Even if there's a turnover I think that it's something that can't be ignored. The food systems and the way we treat food and the artificially low prices of food — all that is going to have to change. There's no way it can stay the same. Even a Republican administration … I don't know. I'd have to be hopeful.
SI: You've been a big proponent of Prop 37, right?
MSM: Yes. I have. But I'm worried we're not going to get it passed. It's not very well written, but I also think it's so hard to say no to information. And if we can get this thing passed, then shouldn't we be able to just strengthen it? It's going to be a very exciting election.
SI: Tell me about the new executive chef at Border Grill downtown, Scott Linquist. Can customers expect any changes now that he's on board?
MSM: I am really thrilled to have Scott back in Border Grill's kitchen again. Scott truly loves Mexican cuisine and has spent the last two decades immersed in its flavors. He's helping us update old favorites and bringing some interesting new dishes to the Border Grill menu. And I secretly love his edgy, NYC vibe. He's only been here three weeks and I can't wait to see what impact he's had in three months.
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