Mary Sue Milliken

Border Grill
Aji amarillo fried chicken w/ heirloom bean salad

Up the 405 to 110 downtown, exit 6th/9th to 3rd, Flower, 5th. Finish with a left on Figueroa. We remembered the insurance, right!? They must have heard stories. Can’t wait to meet Mary Sue, I hear she’s a real hot tamale.

Through the hallways we go, stealth-like behind the scenes and finally into the kitchen and dining room. Heard it was a fun space and wow! Sure is. The Border Grill is vibrant, with all kinds of lines and shapes and colors, a real fiesta as they say. A green devil giving me a funny look, a brown blob sticking its tongue out, stick figures showing what a chip looks like (thanks). Crazy, but all cool.

Here comes Mary Sue with a smile on her face, the way I used to watch her and Susan on TV. Handshake and talk about the game plan. The pleasure is ours…

Describe yourself. What’s your philosophy about cooking? Well, I’m a cook who was trained in the ’70s in French kitchens and I lived and worked in France for a year and fell in love with rustic food from developing countries, from places that are far flung. I adore traveling. My philosophy about food is this: get the best ingredients you can, find and learn from grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles and people who are passionate about food anywhere in the world. If you put those two things together, good ingredients and great ideas that are tried and true and developed over centuries, you end up with dishes that are hard to beat. It’s hard to invent new ways to cook better than that.
What’s up with the VW Bug road trip to Mexico we’ve heard about? [Laughs] We had a restaurant for four years called City Café and it was wildly successful with a menu that was global from all over the world. When we got a bigger space for it we thought, ‘what should we do with this little tiny, 38 seat restaurant?’ Maybe a Japanese noodle shop or a taco stand or a hamburger joint, just something that we love. We landed on tacos and decided to research them in Mexico.
We spent three weeks and had very little money, so on a shoestring budget we rented a little VW Bug and drove from Puebla to Oaxaca to Merida and everywhere in between. We stopped and went to markets and stayed in these flea bag motels where we wouldn’t even want to take our clothes off to go to sleep at night; we’d just sleep on top of the covers. It was great. We would write the menu every day and got so inspired by the Mexican food, we just fell in love with that cuisine in those three weeks.
How did the Food Network change your life? When we started, Food Network was still a really small station. I think they had 8 million viewers, which is really peanuts for a network, and over the 4 or 5 years that our show was airing there it grew exponentially. I think the Food Network has changed my life not just because I was on it, but because my customers and my customers’ children became a lot more savvy about what they’re eating. It’s really changed the fabric of America’s culinary direction by making people aware of what they’re eating, making them more sophisticated diners, and much more interested and willing and excited about food.
When and how did food capture you? I think food really captured me when I was a very young girl. My mom was a great cook and I was probably 10 or 12 and my parents were going through a divorce and food was sort of what I gravitated towards, to cook for my mom or we cooked together. It was a rough time. Then I took a home ec class in seventh or eight grade—home economics, that is, I’m old enough where we still had it [laughs]—and they had shop too. My boyfriend in seventh grade made me a little ring in his shop class [laughs] and I’m sure I baked him pies.
Then I met a chef when I was 16 who just inspired me. He cooked like a Benihana chef, you know the knives flying everywhere and he was so fast and his food was so delicious I decided I want to be a chef. I graduated from high school in three years instead of four and went straight to chef school at 17.
What kind of music do you listen to when you cook? What would be Mary Sue’s soundtrack? This might surprise you but I don’t really listen to music. My soundtrack is silence. I have so much to think about and I feel distracted when music is playing. The only time I love to hear music is when my husband puts together a sort of soundtrack for an evening. We do a lot of entertaining at home, so he’ll start to play the music a half hour or 45 minutes before the guests arrive. We’ll cook together the whole afternoon in silence and then put the music on. That’s when I like music, when I’m with other people, entertaining, and that’s when I listen. Otherwise I really like—love—the sound of silence.
Which kitchen tool could you not live without? I would have to say that I can’t live without a pepper mill. I have a beautiful pepper mill in my kitchen. I recommend to cooks all the time that if you have salt and pepper shakers at home, go home and throw them away. Get a small bowl of salt—a coarse salt that you can feel with your fingers—and a really high quality pepper mill filled with black pepper corns. Not an assortment, not white, not pink, but black pepper corns and a pepper mill that you can adjust the grinds on so that it can be very fine and powdery or super coarse and cracked. I use that pepper mill in 90 percent of my dishes.
I’m obsessed with pepper. We have a coffee grinder in the kitchen, and each morning—it’s in the office actually because it gets broken in the kitchen—and they take a quart of black peppercorns and grind it. It’s a burr grinder so it’s the right size grind, some fine and some course, and we have fresh ground pepper for the day.
Who has influenced you the most, chef-wise? Mentor? I was influenced by so many different people along the way in my career. I think the best training I ever received was in a kitchen in Chicago called Le Perroquet. I was the first woman hired by an older Yugoslavian man, Jovan Trboyevich, who was very old European and he didn’t think women could cook or thought they would create havoc in the kitchen. He really took me under his wing and was an incredible mentor and set an example and taught me about restaurant work and about cooking and about ingredients. He was far ahead of his time, he had a very nouveau restaurant for the late 70’s, the best restaurant in Chicago.
I also worked with and knew Julia Child well and she was a great influence on my career—culinarily of course, because she was so detailed and passionate about food—but I think the most valuable thing I learned from Julia was how to be with people. She was just so generous of spirit. When we would go to a cooking school together and sign books she would take the time to ask each student a question, a personal question and sort of get to know them a little bit. I always feel like I want to emulate that and I want to grow up to be as generous as she was.
You’re a mom—it must be hard to balance everything. How do you do it? In my career I was so obsessed with food, I always joke that the first 10 years of my marriage were really like 2 years of someone else’s because I worked double shifts every day, we saw each other once a week. It’s easy to stay in love when you barely see each other, it’s like every time is fresh. Since then I’ve had a lot more time to spend with my husband, 28 years we’ve been together now.
But having children was a big turning point for me. It was the first time that something was more important than cooking. They take you out of yourself. They’re pretty much the best adventure of my life, my children. They help me balance things, they help me see what’s important.  I think they also helped me realize that life isn’t going to be perfect. I’m not going to get it all done. Every single dish I put out of the kitchen isn’t going to be exactly perfect and they help me figure out how to live with that.
How has your approach to cooking changed since you started? I think I still approach food in a really methodical way, you know, buying the greatest ingredients and then formulating an idea. I think the biggest change is that I’ve become even more focused on the ingredients than I was in the beginning. I think the whole culture has changed. People have become so much more excited about food and you can get different kinds and much more seasonal food than we could get 30 years ago. Thirty years ago you could get basil all year around but it was hothouse basil or tomatoes all year around but they were hydroponic. Thirty years ago you couldn’t find fasolia beans. As more ingredients have become available, my approach to cooking is much more based on those ingredients, seasonally, because they’re very exciting.
Thirty years ago I would read a recipe in a book and get inspired, or bring back a recipe from Mexico ready to make it. Now, I do a lot more browsing at the farmers market. Yesterday morning I was down at the wholesale fish market, International Marine, and I found sardines, which I adore, and I got 12 sardines for $4.50. We also got a bunch of beautiful squid which we put on the menu last night. Much more of what I do today is based on trying to keep learning.
What is your idea of the perfect vacation? Oh, I have very strong opinions about vacations. For me, the way a vacation works is we go and rent a house somewhere, or rent a boat, and it’s very far away. It’s in the most remote place you can imagine, hopefully it doesn’t have cell service, and has delicious food I can buy at the market every day so I can go and cook and have lots of friends and family around. I’ve done that in Mongolia. I’ve done it in Indonesia. I’ve done it all over Europe, many times in France, many times in England. I hate hotels, I hate to say it. They do serve a purpose but I have an allergy. I need to have food around me to be happy. I don’t like to call downstairs to order a cappuccino. I like to get up and do what I do. It’s a control issue [she laughs].
Do you think food trucks will be around in 20 years? Yeah. I think food trucks are here to stay without a doubt. They’ve been here since the car was invented I would imagine, like these loncheras, the taco trucks in Los Angeles. The more congested our metropolis cities become, the more people are stranded in places where they can’t get to great food. So to bring the food to them at music festivals or in a giant office complex out in the suburbs seems like a very good model. It’s getting people what they want wherever they happen to be.
You’ve been actively involved in Taste of the Nation L.A. and Share Our Strength for many years. Anything new happening? I’m a board member for Share Our Strength over ten years and I am very passionate about making sure that no kid goes hungry in this great nation of ours. It’s pretty criminal that there are so many children who do, but we’ve been making great strides, learning more about how to make sure that every child in the United States has enough nourishing food to eat so they can learn and grow and thrive.
Starting this year LAUSD, one of the biggest school districts in the country, is going to be serving breakfast in the classroom to a hundred percent of the children who attend. We’re rolling it out over 3 years, but it’s a big step forward. Eating breakfast in the classroom is a much better way for kids to get started, rather than making the poor children come in early to get their breakfast and deal with that stigma. We’re also going to take the ten minutes while they’re eating breakfast to give them some nutritional education and make it really fun. I’m very excited about the program, about getting kids more engaged in what they’re eating and how they start their day.
Any plans to bring back CITY (her first restaurant)? CITY was a great restaurant, it really put us on the map. It was our hearts and souls, Susan [Feniger] and I, and for 13 years we were CITY restaurant and Border Grill was sort of our little sidekick. When we opened CITY, it was the ’80s in Los Angeles and things were changing rapidly and the culinary scene was so exciting, but I wouldn’t really bring CITY back. Susan, my business partner, opened a restaurant called STREET, which is similar to CITY. It’s street food from around the world. It’s a different take on it but it’s a lovely, wonderful little place.
I don’t think I’m interested in recreating the past. I feel like that was that and it was great. I have other ideas for a restaurant I’d like to do, for later when I’m retired and don’t need to make money, when I can just cook whatever I want, ideally. I went to a great restaurant in Amsterdam that was only open four nights a week. It was a tiny little beautiful place and a woman cooked her heart out with people lined up to be there. That might work for me in my golden years.

the recipe:

Aji Amarillo Fried Chicken

Serves 4
  • 1/2 c. aji amarillo chile puree
  • 1/4 c. freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1/4 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 tbsp. peeled, grated, fresh ginger
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 1 tsp. salt, to taste
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. boneless, chicken thigh, cut into 1-in. by 3-in. strips
  • Vegetable oil or trans-fat free shortening, for frying
  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. Place chile puree, citrus juices, ginger, cilantro, salt, and pepper in a dish and whisk to combine. Immerse chicken strips in marinade and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
  2. When ready to cook the chicken, place the flour and cornstarch in a shallow baking dish and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  3. Heat 1/2- to 3/4-in. of vegetable oil or shortening in a medium sized, heavy bottomed pan over medium heat until hot, but not smoking.
  4. Remove the marinated chicken strips from the marinade, one at a time, and dredge them in the flour mixture then place them in the hot oil. Continue until the pan is full and fry 3 to 4 minutes per side, until golden brown and cooked through.
  5. Remove chicken from oil and place on a rack over a platter lined with paper towels to drain.
  6. Repeat as necessary.

Heirloom Bean and Bacon Tostada

We love to highlight vegetables and use proteins as a compliment for a satisfying and healthful combo. At Border Grill, we call it “Good for the Planet, Good for You” and follow an 80/20 rule—at least 80% plant based ingredients—building many dishes around vegetables, grains, beans, and fruit and using meat for flavor and garnish. It’s the way of the future. For this tostada, look for interesting dried heirloom beans like Christmas lima, scarlet runner, Peruvian yellow, or black calypso.
Serves 6
  • 1 1/2 c. dried heirloom beans, a couple different varieties
  • 3 to 4 bay leaves
  • 1 small onion, cut into thick slices
  • 2 c. trimmed green beans and yellow wax beans, cut into 1/2-in. pieces
  • 4 oz. slab bacon or 4 thick slices bacon, cut into 1/16-in. batonettes
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. sherry vinegar
  • 1/2 tbsp. honey
  • 1/2 tbsp. dijon mustard
  • 1 to 2 canned chipotle chiles, stemmed, seeded, and minced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 3 to 4 jalapeño chiles (red and green), stemmed, seeded, and finely diced
  • 3 green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 6 6-in. corn tortillas, fried until crispy
  • 1 1/2 c. frisee lettuce, torn into pieces, for serving
  • 1 ripe California avocado, halved, seeded, peeled, and sliced, for serving
  • 6 pieces crispy Serrano ham* (optional), for serving
  • Cilantro aioli (see below)
  1. Cooking each variety in a different pot, cover beans with water. Add bay leaves and onion slices, diving evenly between pots. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat, simmering gently, covered, for 45 to 75 minutes or until beans are cooked through and creamy inside. Remove from heat, cool to room temperature, remove bay leaves and onion, and drain thoroughly.
  2. Meanwhile, fill a saucepan with water and bring to a boil with a very large pinch of salt. Cook green and yellow beans until just tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and scatter on a platter lined with paper towels. Set aside to chill in the refrigerator.
  3. When all beans are ready, fry bacon in a skillet until crisp then drain on paper towels. Transfer a spoonful of bacon fat to a large mixing bowl and add olive oil, vinegar, honey, mustard, chipotle chiles, salt, and pepper. Whisk to form a vinaigrette. Add all cooked beans, jalapeño chiles, green onions, and crispy bacon and gently toss to evenly coat. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt, pepper, and vinegar as needed.
  4. To serve: Squirt or spread a little cilantro aioli on each crispy tostada and top with frisee lettuce. Mound bean salad mixture on top and garnish with avocado slices and a crispy Serrano ham slice if desired. Serve immediately.

Cilantro Aioli

  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 c. mayonnaise
  • To a food processor, add cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper.
  • Pulse until cilantro is very finely chopped and a paste begins to form.
  • Add mayonnaise and combine thoroughly.

All recipes on this page © 2012 Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger | www.bordergrill.com

wine pairing

w/ Organic Wine Exchange + guest wine expert

Alice Feiring says: Philippe Bornard ‘Tant Mieux’ Sparkling Ploussard is a good fit for the Aji Amarillo Fried Chicken.  This was pretty challenging and with all of that citrus, a red wine would be difficult, but this spunky sparkler from a red grape has plenty of spice and a touch of sweetness, plus the needed acidity to handle it all.

Philippe Bornard ‘Tant Mieux’ Sparkling Ploussard @ OWE

Alice has been published in most of the glossies in this country as well as the New York Times. She is the author of two books: The Battle for Wine and Love (Harcourt) and Naked Wine (Perseus Books). When not on the road learning about wine, Alice is working on her personal writing, rereading Letting Go or Hudson River Bracketed, and dreaming about a cellar full of Domaine Romanée Conti. You can find Alice on Twitter at @alicefeiring, or her blog The Feiring Line.

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