Mary Sue Milliken is a champion of women and started her career with many “firsts” as a female chef. Milliken was the first female chef at Chicago's Le Perroquet in 1978 and she refined her skills in Paris at Restaurant D’Olympe, a woman owned Michelin two-star restaurant. In 1993, she joined a handful of progressive colleagues to found Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, an organization promoting women’s education and advancement in the restaurant industry.
Mary Sue and her business partner Susan Feniger received the California Restaurant Association’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2013, just the third time this prestigious honor was presented to a woman, and they were welcomed into the 2014 Menu Masters Hall of Fame.
She participates, gives back and is generous with her time, money and energy. Mary Sue has served as a fundraiser, board member and advocate of Share Our Strength since 1987 and also serves on the Board of Trustees for the James Beard Foundation. Mary Sue participated in this year’s first-ever CHEFS CYCLE for No Kid Hungry (COOKGIRL was a sponsor of her ride). As she said on her fund-raising page: “When I learned Share Our Strength was doing a Chefs Cycle for No Kid Hungry ride- how could I resist – a sport I loved PLUS my favorite charity? I bought a bike on Craig’s List and started training – not to be trite but actually, you don’t forget - it’s like riding a bicycle! Well, I may have forgotten how sore your butt gets on that little seat….. or maybe it hurts a tiny bit more than 40 years ago? No matter – I’ll do anything for those hungry kids.”
Mary Sue is a leader and innovator and is passionately dedicated to changing food policy in America, working alongside the LA Food Policy Council, Pew Charitable Trusts, Oxfam, Monterey Bay Aquarium and others to help shape sustainable food systems. In addition, Milliken is passionate about the environment and leads the culinary industry with eco-friendly policies at her Border Grill restaurants and Truck.
In 1985, Mary Sue and Susan drove a VW bug to Mexico and learned recipes and techniques not from fine restaurants, but from the market vendors and home cooks. From street corners in downtown Mexico City to back road family BBQs and taco stands, they went for the authentic flavors of real Mexican cuisine. When they returned, they opened Border Grill and applied the skill and attention to detail of professional chefs to the recipes they learned in their travels. Border Grill has since expanded to restaurants in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino (1999) and The Forum Shops at Caesars (2014), Downtown LA (2010), two gourmet Border Grill food trucks (2009), and a location in the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (2013).
Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were risk-taking pioneers. They founded City Cafe, later renamed CITY (1981), Border Grill (1985), Cuidad (1998) and single-handedly changed the restaurant landscape in Los Angeles. Milliken, in collaboration with Susan Feniger and others, has published 5 cookbooks. Together they starred in almost 400 episodes of Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour on the Food Network in the 1990s. In 1993 they appeared with Julia Child in her PBS series Cooking with Master Chefs, which also resulted in being featured in the series cookbook.
In 2011, Milliken appeared on the 3rd season of Bravo’s TOP CHEF Masters. As the first runner-up she won $40,000 for her charity, Share Our Strength. At the end of the season, her message to viewers was inspirational: it’s important to always be “charting a course that you can really execute with confidence” and that competing on TOP CHEF Masters had “reinvigorated her creativity” and given her “another perspective on the importance of challenging yourself and pushing yourself. It’s always enriching, always scary and nerve-wracking. But in the end, you have something to look back on be so proud of.”