Recently chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger earned the distinguished 2018 Julia Child award from the Julia Child Foundation. Not only are they the first women to win this prestigious award, but also the first team. Throughout their 35-year partnership, Milliken and Feniger have been restaurant industry leaders and innovators, as well as television personalities, celebrity chefs and cookbook authors. Together their restaurants include Border Grill in downtown Los Angeles, LAX, The Huntington Library and Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Recently they opened a new grab-and-go fast-casual restaurant at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. They also have gourmet food trucks and a catering division.
This is the fourth year that the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts has acknowledged chefs who have made a difference in American cuisine. Previous award winners include Rick Bayless, Danny Meyer and Jacques Pepin.
The purpose of the Julia Child Award is to publicly recognize chefs that follow Julia’s footsteps. The award shines a spotlight on chefs who display an impact for food-related non-profit causes that make a difference in the world.
Sitting down with chef Mary Sue Milliken at her Los Angeles Border Grill restaurant, I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions, while enjoying her three-course, prix-fixe Julia Child inspired with a Latin twist lunch. This special lunch and dinner menu is available until Nov. 1, 2018. Guests who order the Bicicleta Cocktail made with crisp white wine, Campari, and Jamaica help Mary Sue’s Chefs Cycle for No Kid Hungry charity.
While enjoying a delicious Salade Niçoise made with seared tuna, green beans, Peruvian purple potatoes, olives, tomato, egg and anchovies, I asked Mary Sue a few questions. Here’s what I learned:
JW: Did you know as a young girl that you would become a chef?
MSM: Yes. My mother was a great cook. When I was in high school I would get up early and ride my bike to a local donut shop. I would fill and frost donuts before school started. Afterward, I would leave school and then ride my bike to a pizza place and work there. When I was 16, I decided I wanted to be a chef. I met a professional chef who was a friend of my older sister. He inspired me to move to Chicago and attend Washburne Culinary School. Soon after, I met Susan and we have been together since.
JW: Congratulations on your Julia Child award. What do you attribute to your long-standing partnership with Susan Feniger?
MSM: We are both born collaborators, which breeds a good work environment. We get a lot of pleasure working with our team. When we opened our first restaurant City Cafe in the early 80s, Julia Child came into our restaurant. We were applying French techniques to dishes from around the world.
JW: How often did you see Julia Child?
MSM: Numerous times. One of my fondest memories is when Julia came to my house in the 1990s for a three-day filming. She was an extremely hard worker. Every detail was perfect, yet she made sure she took care of herself too. She would go outside during filming breaks and throw a ball for my dog to retrieve. She was very humble and down to earth.
JW: Any other qualities that you admired about Julia?
MSM: Even though I was a classically trained chef, no one at the time was preparing French food better than Julia Child. She made French cuisine friendly. Julia was curious about everything and everyone around her. When Susan and I would do a book signing that Julia was attending to sign her own cookbooks, I noticed that Julia would be kind to each fan and ask them a question about themselves. She cared about each person she met. I try to apply that same principle when I meet a person.
JW: What is your favorite Julia Child recipe?
MSM: To this day, I always make Julia’s biscuit recipe for my husband’s birthday strawberry shortcake.
JW: How have things changed in the restaurant industry over the years?
MSM: I’m a firm believer in picking up a phone or talking face to face with a person, instead of email. When we have our daily staff “family” meals, it’s changed. Years ago we would all sit around and break bread, chatting with each other. Now I walk into a staff meal and half of our staff are on their phones reading emails and texting.
After our chat, Mary Sue needed to go back into the kitchen. My two other dishes arrived, a duck duo that included a duck leg confit sope and a seared duck breast with summer succotash along with flaming crepes Julia, which is similar to crepes Suzette with buttered citrus dulce de leche and whipped vanilla crema.
The 4th annual Food History Gala will be at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on Thursday, November 1, 2018. It kicks off Food History Weekend with Chef Bobby Flay as the MC. Chefs Kajsa Alger and Traci Des Jardins will be there, as well as Barbara Fairchild, food and travel writer and former editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit magazine to honor Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.