Mary Sue Milliken

The Border Grill owner talks about Top Chef Masters, the male-dominated industry and the joys of Mexican food

Thirty years into her restaurant career, Los Angeles-based chef Mary Sue Milliken says she’s still learning from her experiences. The most recent would be her stint on the third season of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. Milliken lost to Floyd Cardoz in the celebrity chef competition but still earned $40,000 for her charity Share Our Strength, dedicated to ending childhood hunger in America. The Mexican food extraordinaire is writing a cookbook with recipes and tips for cooking at home, and continuing to expand her restaurant empire that includes three Border Grill outposts (one in Mandalay Bay) and two L.A. taco trucks.

What was your first thought when they announced that you didn’t win?

I think I just was happy for Floyd. It was a great final because I adore both Traci [Des Jardins, the third contestant] and Floyd. I would have loved to win, but it didn’t feel like a loss at all not to win. It was a toss-up, too. All of us did great, so it must have been so difficult for the judges. I couldn’t imagine how they could pick a winner. I wasn’t really surprised. I wasn’t really too disappointed. I mean there’s always a little bit of disappointment … but I felt fine. I was relieved that it was over.

You, of course, knew what the results were after the taping but couldn’t tell anybody until the show aired. That’s a huge secret to have to keep.

It’s funny because I am a terrible liar. From the time I was a little girl I learned early on if I lied, my face turns red. It’s written all over my face that I’m not telling the truth, so I tried to avoid the question as much as I could. When people asked I would say, “You’re going to love the outcome,” but it was tough. Toward the end people were like, “We know it’s you; you won.” I wanted to say, “No I didn’t.” It got easier as it got closer to the end.

Did you learn anything about yourself?

I completely focused only on the competition 24/7, and I haven’t really done that for so long. I’m over 50, and I’ve got kids, a husband, three restaurants, two taco trucks and a kiosk, and I do a ton of charity work. So I’m pretty distracted and pulled in several directions every day. I found it to be such a luxury and so fun to allow myself to only focus on one thing. What I learned was that I need to carve out some time like that in my daily life so that I can focus more intensely on the things that are really important to me, and I think I’ll find some satisfaction there that I’ve been missing.

Your restaurant business partner Susan [Feniger] was on the season before. Was there any competition?

Not really. Susan was a good cheerleader and helped me get over my initial reluctance to do it. She said you’re going to do great, you just have to relax, be yourself, cook from your heart and cook the food that you’re really confident in and love. She did really well in Season 2, and I’m sure somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking I at least want to do as well as she did. It was impossible to compare because the seasons were so different with the way people were eliminated.

There aren’t that many celebrity women chefs. Why do you think it’s still so male-dominated?

It’s a pretty hard profession. It’s very rigorous and demanding physically as well as mentally and emotionally. You have to give up a lot to be at the top of your game. Women are great at it and bring a lot to the profession, and there are so many really talented women who are phenomenal cooks. There are certain professions that are more suited to men, perhaps. I’m one of the founders of the Women’s Chefs & Restaurateurs trade organization to support women in the culinary industry. I’ve fought my entire career for equal pay and equal treatment for women who choose to be in this wonderful arena. It’s a great profession for so many reasons. The attitudes have changed a lot, but we still have a little ways to go probably.

Your specialty is Mexican food. What drew you and Susan to it?

We both had been trained in classical French food. Our first restaurant, CITY, wasn’t Mexican, and it really explored food from all over the globe. We were very interested in rustic, ethnic foods from India, Thailand, Japan and Greece. Then when we moved City Café to CITY Restaurant, we had the café we helped lease. So we decided let’s focus on one thing. Let’s focus on a fabulous taco joint. All the Mexican guys we had been working with for so many years would always, for [the] staff meal, make salsas and special things. It was just the food we loved, and we didn’t feel like people were eating really delicious and healthy Mexican food that was a good representation of the finest food in Mexico. The Mexican-American food we grew up on in Michigan and Ohio was pretty much those crispy-shelled tacos smothered in yellow cheese and sour cream, so we wanted to introduce what we thought was another take on Mexican food. That just took off like crazy. We have been trying to keep up ever since. We’re very passionate about Mexican food. We’ve been down to Mexico about 20 times, and we’re always looking for new ideas.

What’s your favorite recipe to cook at home?

My sons will tell you that the thing they crave when they come home is egg lemon soup (see recipe at I had a Greek aunt, and she taught me how to make a lemon soup. They both just love it.

Egg Lemon Soup

Serves 4 to 6

  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • ¾ cup orzo
  • 3 large eggs
  • Juice of 2 lemons (about ⅓ to ½ cup)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 bunch mint, leaves only, roughly chopped (optional)

Bring chicken stock to a boil. Add orzo. Cover and simmer 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until pasta is just cooked.

Meanwhile, break eggs into a medium-size mixing bowl and beat with lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Add simmering stock to egg mixture, one ladleful at a time, whisking constantly to incorporate. When about half the stock has been added, pour the egg/stock mixture back into the pot, stirring to incorporate thoroughly. When soup thickens just enough to coat the back of a spoon, it is done. If it still appears thin, cook it over very low heat stirring constantly just until it thickens slightly.

Serve immediately in warm bowls with a sprinkle of chopped mint on top.

Copyright © 2011, Mary Sue Milliken,

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