Q & A With Mary Sue Milliken: Adventures In the Alaskan Surfing Capital, Chasing Boar in Mongolia + Her Hitchcock Squab Experiment
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?