Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have been at the forefront of the Los Angeles dining scene since the early-1980s. Between them, they own four restaurants, a food truck, a grab-and-go kiosk and a catering business.
The two have been featured on Food Network's Too Hot Tamales and Chef Hunter and Bravo's Top Chef Masters. Their influence is so strong that even I work at at one of their restaurants. Through this job, I came to know these two formidable women and hear about their fascinating and intertwining stories.
Feniger, a lesbian, was married for several years to a man: Josh Schweitzer, now Milliken's husband. Confused? So was I, until I sat down to listen to them share their sex and love lives with me at Border Grill Downtown L.A.
LA Weekly: Susan, is it weird that Mary Sue is now married to your ex-husband?
Susan Feniger: No, I was the one that pushed to introduce them. When Mary Sue and I first met, I kept saying to her, “You have to meet my ex-husband Josh. You're going to love him. I know you are going to fall in love with him.”
Mary Sue Milliken: What do you call that? Isn't there a Yiddish word for matchmaker?
Feniger: [Paused to think].
Milliken: Yentl? No, that's not it. Oh well, we are getting too old [laughs].
Feniger: I told Mary Sue, “You will like him, you should meet him. You should be with him.” Josh and I had split up, and I was with women at that point.
Mary Sue, has this part of your past affected your relationship with your husband?
Milliken: No, I don't think so. By the time I met him, they had already been split up for five years. We fell in love in a heartbeat. He moved in three weeks after I met him in 1984. It will be 28 years this April.
Feniger: I was in the delivery room for the birth of both of their kids, taking pictures.
Millken: Yeah, a few too many pictures. She captured pictures of things nobody ever wanted to know happened.
Susan, how long did your marriage last?
Feniger: Josh and I were high school sweethearts. We both went off to college separately, and then we got back together and ended up living together. We got married as a Father's Day present to my father by a Justice of the Peace. It lasted for about eight or nine years.
Why did you decide to split?
Feniger: I got intrigued by being with women. I wanted to explore that.
Milliken: It seemed like a better thing to do outside of the marriage. Although I think Josh would have been fine.
Feniger: As soon as I made that decision, we split up.
How did Josh take it?
Feniger: You know, we had a great friendship for many years. I've known him since fifth grade. No matter how friendly it can be, it was never an easy thing to take.
Mary Sue, what was it like meeting Josh for the first time?
Milliken: I had lots of boy trouble. Susan would always say, “God, you have to quit dating all these loser assholes.” It didn't seem like anything that could ever happen. Susan and I were going to open up a bigger restaurant CITY, after having City Café for four years. Susan lured Josh out to California to design it. But he didn't say, “Oh, I'm coming.”
Feniger: He just showed up.
Milliken: We were both at City Café, and the waiter came up to Susan and said, “There is a guy asking for you at the bar.” We both thought, “Who?” And then Susan said, “That's Josh!”
Has it ever been awkward with all three of you together?
Milliken: No. In fact, back in 1984, we closed the restaurant for Easter and all went to the desert. That was when a few sparks flew between Josh and me.
Feniger: Well yeah, there were four lesbians and then Mary Sue and Josh. So it was like well, you get to pick your choice.
Milliken: It was sort of clear we were attracted to each other. We didn't do anything about it that night, but he invited me to take a shower with him. I was like, “Huh? Do I smell bad?” He was like, “What is wrong with her?” And so, of course, we ended up married to each other.
Mary Sue, I heard you weren't a big fan of weddings. What was your wedding with Josh like?
Milliken: I hate weddings. I've been catering weddings all my life, and my first job was in a bakery. It's so much stress. People get wigged out and make such a big deal about it.
Feniger: They got married here two months after Cuidad opened. Our old accountant got his Internet license and married them at the hightop at the bar.
Milliken: I told the waiter to get Susan and bring her out because I wanted her to sign something. She came out from the kitchen and asked, “What is this?” And I said, “You are witnessing our marriage.” Then Josh and I walked over to MoMA and said our vows to each other next to a Richard Serra sculpture.
When did you realize you were gay, Susan?
Feniger: About 34 years ago. It was never something that crossed my mind. There was a woman at one of the restaurants I was working at I was interested in. Many of the male servers were gay, and we would all go out and party after work and I got curious and wanted to explore. But I've been with my partner Liz [Lachman] now for 17 years. She's gorgeous and smart.
Have you two ever slept with each other?
Feniger: No, although many have thought it.
Milliken: Some publication wrote “Mary Sue is pretending to have a husband” [laughs].
What is the sexiest food you've ever cooked?
Feniger: I never think of food as being sexy. It's the environment or atmosphere for me, the situation around the food. The music, the candles, the darkness create the sexual feeling.
Millken: I don't find eating that sexy. I would rather just split a dozen oysters and a bottle of champagne. That would be enough for dinner.
Feniger: I would rather be in a hot tub listening to music.
Milliken: Yeah, work up an appetite.
Do you think food should be a part of bedroom fun?
Feniger: Like putting whipped cream all over you? I don't get it. I smell like food all the time. But taking baths with cocktails is sensual and fun.
Milliken: Josh and I cook together a lot. Josh will suck something off my finger for an extra few seconds. It would be up his alley. But yes, we are constantly covered in food.
Feniger: If I come home smelling like garlic or onions, Liz will tell me to go take a shower!
Susan, has being gay ever affected the goals you have set for yourself in the restaurant business?
Feniger: There was a time in the beginning of my career, even though I was out with my staff or the public, where I wouldn't talk about it in a publication like the Times. It just wasn't cool to be completely out. There was a period when I was aware of it. Even now in some cities in America, other countries or small towns, I am more aware of it. Obviously, we still have issues all over the world. Now? I am open and out and proud. I make a strong statement about it. I am on the Board for the Gay and Lesbian Center. But there was a time I was less willing and felt it could have had a negative effect on our business.
Do you think L.A. is accepting of gay people?
Feniger: There is an acceptance level that's much greater than many parts of the country, for sure. Is L.A. accepting? Yes, to a great extent. There is a very powerful industry here that sort of runs this city in many ways. It's pretty open, but there are incidents that happen here in West Hollywood.
Are you excited by the prospect of gay marriage in California?
Feniger: I'm embarrassed that this state has not accepted gay marriage. We should be at the forefront for everything. The fact that we are not with gay marriage is just so incredible to me. I like tradition, but everyone should have the right to get married.
Is there a food that would be representative of your sexual style?
Milliken: First I would have to figure out what my sexual style is. And that's hard enough in itself, and then to pair that to food? [Laughs].
If you were to take someone out on a romantic date, to which L.A. restaurant would you take him/her (beside Border Grill or Street)?
Feniger: I'm not sure I would go to a restaurant.
Milliken: Probably a Japanese restaurant. We would go for a romantic evening for sushi or yakitori. Probably at K-ZO or Nanban-Kan.
Feniger: I like to go out and listen to jazz, have some drinks and walk to the beach with some cheese and crackers.
What is the worst sexual experience you ever had?
Millken: Worst? Oh, there is so many! I think my worst would be in France with this crazy guy.
Feniger: I think mine was in France, too.
Milliken: Oh, those French. I was visiting Susan when I was 20 years old in Marseilles, France, and this guy was driving me around going about 200 kilometers per hour or something. I think I tried to run away at the gas station. I don't remember all the details. And I am trying to remember what the sex was like. I do know I came home on a bus.
Would you rather go your entire life without being able to love, or without being able to cook?
Milliken: Without being able to cook. Are you kidding? I would rather starve. And I love food! I think that would be a pretty bad handicap not being able to love.
Feniger: If you couldn't love then how would you even love cooking? It would be such an incomplete life.
In your opinion, who is the sexiest chef in the world?
Milliken: I used to think Frédy Girardet was when I first met him. I ate at his restaurant in Switzerland when I was 20 years old. I remember thinking, “I will never be able to cook as good as him.” He sat down with me and drank a bottle of wine. He was funny, smart and so cute.
Feniger: Angelina Jolie. I think she cooks. I don't know about the sexiest chefs, but I also think Lady Gaga would be up there. I like her vibe and she's amazingly talented.