Jetsetting With Border Grill Co-Chef/Owner Mary Sue Milliken
A journey through Mexico nearly 30 years ago served as a worthwhile venture for Mary Sue Milliken. She returned to the United States with an arsenal of food inspiration and, together with business partner Susan Feniger, transformed it into the popular Border Grill. The empire has expanded, with Border Grill locations in Santa Monica, Downtown Los Angeles, and at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas; there’s also a Border Grill Truck and a new location at Los Angeles International Airport. Vibrant cuisine continues to inspire Mary Sue, whether she’s revamping a restaurant or planning her next getaway!
Q: What type of traveler are you? (i.e., adventurer, cultural explorer, free spirit, rejuvenator, spa aficionado, etc.)
A: I am a travel addict! I love adventure and learning about cultures and history and experiencing nature. Travel is spiritual for me, and I feel rejuvenated and full of hope after a good trip.
Q: What types of activities do you like to do on your travels? Do you look for a place where it’s quiet and you can relax or someplace that has great activities or nightlife?
A: Since I live in the city I love to go to rural areas and be in nature, but I always end up exploring foreign cities (such as Istanbul, Cairo, Tokyo, Seoul, and Santiago) on the way to and from remote places. I’m not fond of hotels, and I much prefer to rent houses and get involved in a community’s day-to-day life for a week or two.
Q: When thinking about where you will travel to next, what inspires you to make a decision? And what, if any, research do you do about that destination?
A: I love places without cell service, which are harder and harder to find. I like to try new places; if I have never been there before, it is fair game. I do a little bit of research, trying to get a feel for the place before I arrive, mostly focusing on the kinds of food I want to be sure to try while I’m there and where to find it.
Q: What is the most memorable trip you’ve taken and why?
A: A couple stand out. In 2001, I went with eight colleagues from Share Our Strength, a hunger fighting organization, to Ethiopia and Eritrea. We drove three Land Cruisers from the top to the bottom of the country, met and exchanged ideas with many non-profits whose work we have funded, and learned about successes and challenges. It was exceptional in terms of meeting local people and immersing myself into the culture. I’ll never forget Abera, one of our hosts, who invited me to his house to cook chicken with his wife.
In 2009, five other female chefs and I traveled to Mongolia to hike around in the woods, hunt wild boar and roe deer, fish, and gather wild flowers. We drove 11 hours north of Ulan Bator to camp in yurts, hike up and down the mountains, and cook our hearts out. I’ll never forget lugging our small, dead deer down the mountain in pouring rain with very rare wild flowers carefully tucked into my jacket pocket.
Q: What is the best food you’ve ever found on a trip?
A: In 1985, Susan Feniger and I drove our VW Bug around Mexico on a hunch we were going to find the most amazing dishes and then open our first Border Grill. We were totally blown away by the food and haven’t stopped loving Mexican food, from cochinita pibil and panuchos in Yucatan to Oaxacan mole. It was truly life changing. (We were so excited by the foods we tasted we drove right past Chichen Itza; I vowed I had to go there on my next trip to Yucatan.)
Q: What, if anything, do you always take with you when you travel?
A: I have a mini traveling pepper mill I keep in my purse in case of emergency, and I usually take a chef knife with me.
Q: What’s your best piece of travel advice?
A: Don’t over-pack; you don’t need everything. Anything you don’t bring you can buy. Never check your luggage, always carry on.
Q: Is there a destination to which you can’t imagine not returning?
Q: Where are your favorite weekend getaways?
Q: Where would you like to travel to next?
A: Sri Lanka has interested me ever since I read Michael Ondaatje’s memoir, “Running In The Family” back in the ’80s. And Chandigarh, India; my husband’s an architect, and we are enjoying pilgrimages to see Le Corbusier’s work. I’ve wanted to go to India forever so any excuse will do.
Q: Tell us about your upcoming project(s)?
A: We just opened Border Grill at LAX in the international terminal, and we’re having a blast creating portable dishes that satiate just before and during a long trip. We’re opening a Border Grill at Caesars Forum Shops this summer, and we’re traveling with our team to Mexico to update our menu and find new ingredients and renewed inspiration. The new location will have a cool raw bar so we’ll be focusing on ceviche, oysters, and shellfish, too!
I’m also working with the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, the James Beard Foundation, and Palisades Media on an exciting project called “America Cooks with Chefs: The 800 Calorie Challenge.” In this online video series and live cooking challenge, chefs will be paired with families that need help executing a healthier diet and developing lifelong cooking skills. I’m excited to share my expertise to help Americans learn the joys and rewards of healthy and delicious cooking.
Mary Sue Milliken’s Bio:
Mary Sue Milliken is co-chef/owner of the popular, critically acclaimed Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica, Downtown Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, which serves upscale, modern Mexican food in a hip, urban cantina setting. She is also co-chef/owner of the gourmet taco truck phenomenon, the Border Grill Truck. A pioneer of world cuisine since the creation of City Café and CITY Restaurant in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Mary Sue is a preeminent ambassador of authentic Mexican cuisine, setting the standard for gourmet Mexican fare for more than two decades.
Always a trailblazer, Milliken was the first female chef to work at Chicago’s prestigious Le Perroquet in the late 1970s, going on to train at a Michelin 2-star, female chef-owned restaurant in Paris and later joining a handful of progressive women chefs to found Women Chefs & Restaurateurs.
A business partner with chef Susan Feniger for more than 25 years, Mary Sue is co-author of five cookbooks, including “Cooking with Too Hot Tamales,” “Mesa Mexicana,” and “City Cuisine.” Mary Sue co-starred along with Susan in 400 episodes of Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales” and “Tamales World Tour” and has appeared as a guest on everything from “Iron Chef America” and “Oprah” to “Good Day LA” and “The Today Show.” She most recently competed on season three of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” raising $40,000 for Share Our Strength.