Interview: chef Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill)

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Photo courtesy of Bon Appetit and Vegas Uncork'd

Mary Sue Milliken is a native Michigander who attended Chicago’s Washburne Culinary Institute, trained in France, and moved west, where she teamed with Susan Feniger, first on CITY, and later on Border Grill and the now-bygone Ciudad. The duo now operates Border Grill locations in Santa Monica, Downtown, and Las Vegas, along with a thriving food truck and catering business. They’ve also co-authored several cookbooks and co-hosted a television show called “Too Hot Tamales.” Milliken also made the finals on “Top Chef Masters.” On February 6, she was in San Francisco to promote Vegas Uncork’d, a 28-event, multiple venue “celebration of wine, food, and spirits” that’s taking place from May 9-12, 2013. She took a break from the party at Hakkasan to share several culinary insights.

What are the most important factors when you’re considering whether or not to participate in a culinary event?

I’m kind of one of those can-never-say-no girls, which is bad. I like to do events. I really love the community and the feeling of community when we all get together in Vegas and do Uncork’d every year… It’s always a blast. There are certain people who throw these events who do a great job. So I kind of say yes to everything the first time around, and if they ask again and I didn’t have a great time, I don’t go. If I feel like it was a real sense of community, pulling all the chefs together, and doing something for the public that is really different and exciting. At Uncork’d we do all these little, smaller events with just 100 people. At Border Grill we’ve done a Mother’s Day brunch and we’ve done cooking classes. So you can sign up for all these different things, where you’re really one-on-one or face-to-face with the chef. Combined with these gigantic tasting events. Tasting events are great, but you can’t go to 50 a year. You’ve got to take your pick.

Fatigue sets in.

For me, I like to come up with a new dish every season that I’m going to do at all my events. I know you’ve seen my heirloom bean one.

What’s your favorite culinary event in America, other than Uncork’d?

Such a hard question. There are so many in America that are so great. I can’t say a favorite, but I will say this: in New York, recently, I did an event with Jonathan Waxman where each chef cooked for 12 people, a whole dinner, appetizers, everything. It was really, really sweet. It benefited Alex’s Lemonade Stand, but the way it was laid out was so fun. That’s how I love to cook anyway…I love to throw dinners, so for me, it was really a way to have a blast. 25 chefs, each one cooking for 12 people in one room. We had a hot plate, a little porter burner, portable oven, but also, it was very well put together, so we were able to share a lot of stories with each other. They treat us so well. When we raise money for these things, the community really rises to the occasion. They have a pre-party and an after-party, the night before party, and the night after party. And then you get a chance to hang out with all your colleagues and learn what’s going on in their lives. It’s always nice.

Let’s consider for a second the idea that Rice-A-Roni is not in fact the San Francisco treat. What is it instead?

[Mary Sue Milliken laughs]

Well, when I’m here, I love to walk, because I can’t walk in L.A. So I go on these huge, long walks. I just had surgery on my knee a week ago yesterday, so today I walked three or four miles. I went into the Mission and walked up and down. There are so many little coffee shops. I went to the Dandelion Chocolate shop. I had a cacao smoothie. They take the fruit of the cacao pod and make it into a smoothie. It almost tastes like lychee, really delicious. And I love their chocolate. I had lunch at Namu, which was a really sweet, lovely concept, great, great food. Korean inspired and real modern, straightforward, well cooked, well conceived. All the little taco joints in the Mission that I love. I just took a huge long walk all day.

Sounds like we had parallel days. I was doing the same thing in the Mission.

Were you?


Tacolicious and all those little bakeries. It’s amazing.

Tartine. Craftsman and Wolves… I was trying to get to La Cocina, which a little incubator for minority women – I don’t know if you have to be minority, but a lot of minority women take advantage. You can go in, it has a big kitchen, and you can make your empanadas or make your mom’s flan. You’re going to try and figure out a business plan to start to create your culinary product. They provide all this support for single moms who are struggling. It’s entrepreneurial and really cool. My friend Traci [des Jardins] is involved and on the board and the guy who runs it, Caleb [Zigas], is wonderful. I wanted to check it out.

You were saying that you like to create a dish each season. What’s your most recent dish?

I’ve been working on these little corn cakes, like arepas, but I try to make them super delicious, and if they have cheese in them, I have one kind of topping, and I like them without cheese and crab salsa on top. That’s what I’m going to be serving at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I’m doing a big event in May with Alaskan King crab. It’s Dungeness crab season right now, so I’m playing around a lot with my little corn cakes.

What inspired you to do the corn cakes?

I had to do figure out what to do with crab. I thought crab and corn. The arepas have such a white corn taste. It’s different from the yellow corn, which is sweeter and more corny. I was trying to figure out how to make it more corny, like if you have a really delicious chilled corn soup with crab, for me, that’s perfect. Or with caviar. I was just trying to play around and to understand corn better. The arepa flours are pre-cooked. To make it with yellow corn, you have to use cornmeal, which is not pre-cooked, so you have to cook it. Also, I put a lot of crème fraiche in the batter. So I’m just playing around with flavors I like. I have a Mexican restaurant, so I’ve got to do Mexican stuff, or south of the border.

What was the last meal that you made at home?

I cook all the time at home. I made a vegetarian meal. We try to eat 80/20, so he grows a ton of vegetables. I harvested a bunch of beets and beet greens, so I cooked beet legs – those long stems, which I call legs – and fried them up with garlic, and at the last second, I put onions in. In a separate pan, I’d roasted the beets. I cooked some red onion, and I put the beets in and glazed them with balsamic vinegar and agave syrup. I put the legs and beets on top and I put fresh-grated horseradish and goat cheese. My husband had that. Kieran, my 14-year-old, ate that also. I also made some seared cauliflower from the garden. We have this running joke, where he won’t eat the cauliflower if we grew it. It’s his favorite vegetable, cauliflower, but he says, “I’m not going to eat it if it came out of our yard,” because one time a long time ago, he found one worm.

He was traumatized?

He was traumatized. I said, “Well, we didn’t grow it.” He said, “Then who grew it?” It turned out my neighbor grew it. He said, “I know there are worms in here.” I said, “No, there aren’t.” He opens it up and sure enough he finds a tiny little worm. He’ll never eat cauliflower again. I feel terrible. It’s his favorite vegetable. Now I have to go to the grocery store.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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