Too Hot Tamales: Celebrity Chefs Who Give Back

Food Network junkies know them from their hit cooking show, “Too Hot Tamales� (1995-1999). But Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have known each other since 1978, and haven’t stopped working together since the opening of their first restaurant in 1981.
In 1988, they were the first women to receive the California Restaurant Writers’ “Chef of the Year� award. And in 1993, they were two of only 16 chefs worldwide invited to appear with Julia Child on PBS’s “Home Cooking with Master Chefs.�
Mary Sue and Susan took time out of their busy day to do a conference call with me. Mary Sue called in from Border Grill, their restaurant in Santa Monica, California; they also have a Border Grill in Las Vegas. And Susan called in from Ciudad, their restaurant in downtown Los Angeles
Here are Mary Sue and Susan…

Did you know right from the beginning that you two wanted to work together?
Mary Sue: Pretty much.
Susan: Yeah, we were working at this restaurant in Chicago and the chef there was really mean. He was tough, and I think he had it out for me. Years later we understood why. But we were the only two women in that kitchen, so we’d go out and have a beer afterwards and hang out and talk. Neither one of us was thinking about our own place at that point. It was pretty early on. But we were hanging out, and we both loved working with each other and our work ethics were really similar. I think we definitely had a connection. But we weren’t thinking about, “Oh, let’s open a restaurant.� It just seemed pretty early on in our careers.

How then did you two decide to open up your first restaurant together in 1981?

Susan: After Chicago, I ended up moving out to L.A. We stayed in touch. And then within a year and a half or so, I don’t know which one, but one of us called and said that she was off to Europe. It just so happened that we were both, in a week or two of each other, going to end up in France. Mary Sue was going to Paris, and I was going to the south of France to work. And so we ended up in France at the exact same time. And we both worked over there for about a year.
I think at one point, we just got closer to where we felt like we were ready to open up a place. Then one night, over a bottle of wine, or two, we decided, “Let’s open up a restaurant in the United States somewhere.� We had no idea where. We had no money. It was one of those drinking-creative decisions.
Mary Sue: Which we’ve had many of. [Laughs]

What was the hardest part about opening up the restaurant?

Mary Sue: Doing it. [Laughs]
Susan: Probably the actual physical part of getting through construction. It was the exciting part but it seems like that was the hardest part. We had tons of work.
Mary Sue: Sixteen to seventeen hours [of work] a day. And many, many months without a day off. We were pretty young and we were pretty inexperienced. We’d never opened a restaurant. We’d never gone to work for someone who was opening a restaurant. Everybody we had already worked for had already been in business for a fair amount of time. So, it was really a kind of brand new thing we went into happily, naively, blindly. [Laughs] But then we learned pretty fast. And it was very enjoyable. It was great, but it was a ton of work.

Did you ever think of quitting?

Susan: No. Not even for a minute. We weren’t aware of the challenges ahead then. We were just thinking about what food we were going to serve. And it wasn’t even that; we just put food on that we thought we liked. It wasn’t that laid out. So, that part of it felt really natural, I think. And at that point, none of it seemed that hard except that it was long hours.
By the time we got our health inspection, we had two days before we really needed to open. So, really the night we opened, no one really knew the menu except for Mary Sue and I.

Mary Sue:
[Laughs] You know we’d never do that now! We didn’t even know that what we were doing was unusual or illogical. [Laughs] We thought it made perfect sense…
Susan: Yeah, totally.
Mary Sue: Because we cooked all the food, what was going to be the problem? And then we kind of got hammered [Susan laughs] and we kind of realized that we have to teach some people how to cook this stuff. [Laughs] You learn! That’s how people learn. You don’t always know it all.

And then in 1993, and a couple of restaurants later, you were cooking with Julia Child. Was that the first time you two cooked on TV?

Mary Sue: We wrote our first cookbook in like ‘89 and we went on TV to promote the book. But then we weren’t really on TV until the “Great Chefs of the West� [a PBS series] in 1992 or so. I don’t know. I remember those haircuts though. [Laughs] Susan had a mohawk, I think.
Susan: [Laughs] We were going to New York and we were taking the red eye. And we were at my house and we realized that there was a skunk caught in one of the windows.
Mary Sue: A baby skunk.
Susan: A baby skunk caught in one of the window coves, and it was so beautiful. And we were both peaking over looking at it, and it shot us both in the face. Mary Sue got it right up the nose! And we both stunk. It was like 8 o’clock and we were on a 10:30/11 o’clock red eye. But I remember being so inspired by the look of it that I then had my hair done with stripes like the skunk. We were in a hair time at that point. [Laughs]
Mary Sue: [Laughs] We did the thing with Julia Child in ‘93. And basically then, with our second cookbook, we were touring around and we happened to go to this thing. We had never heard of it before. It was called the Food Network. [Laughs] They didn’t have it in L.A. And then they asked us to do a show.
I remember! I loved your “Too Hot Tamales� show! Why aren’t you two on the Network anymore?
Mary Sue & Susan: Well… [Laughs]
Susan: We did “Iron Chef America� with Bobby Flay. It was a special in the fall [2005]. But a lot of it is we were busy opening up Downtown, Ciudad, and Border Grill in Vegas. And at that point in the Food Network, you were traveling back and forth spending ten days in New York. It was just a lot. And Mary Sue had a baby at the time.
Mary Sue: Yeah, he was six months old when we quit.
Susan: So, it was just a lot to travel back and forth. Now they expanded and they’re filming outside of New York. But at that point, it was in New York, and so it was trying to run a business, have babies, open restaurants. It was pretty intense.
The dining room of Border Grill in Santa Monica.
I bet. How did you feel about being on TV? Were you nervous?
Susan: Not really. I don’t think we were. But I’ll tell you how nervous Mary Sue was about meeting Julia.
Mary Sue: [Laughs] The first time we met Julia was in 1983 or ’84.
Susan: Yeah, and we went up to…
Mary Sue: Monterey Bay [California].
Susan: Monterey Bay. And we were doing an event up there, and we were walking onto the stage. Julia was moderating, and we went on with like four or five other chefs. We were all mic’ed. And Mary Sue kept pulling her chef jacket away from her heart thinking that she was getting shocked by…
Mary Sue: By the AA batteries. [Laughs]
Susan: By the AA batteries in the mic! She kept saying, “I’m getting shocked.� She was having an anxiety attack!
Mary Sue: I had never had one before. And the anxiety attack won. [Laughs]
Susan: And when we got up on the stage, Julia went to each one of us and said, “Just say your name and what restaurant you’re from.� And when she got to Mary Sue, she couldn’t speak.

Mary Sue:
Julia said, “Oh, I’ll get back to you, honey.� [Laughs]
Susan: So, it was very exciting. But the first time we had ever heard Julia in person was when we were in our hotel room. Our window was open, and we heard her pounding on the roof of her car to tell her husband Paul to get out of the car because he was hard of hearing.
Mary Sue: Right by our bedroom! And we were like, “That’s her!� [Laughs] But anyway, we did become friends. And she was a huge support and a wonderful mentor, and somebody you could always talk to about a million things. So, before we did the show with her we had already met her several, several times. And had done projects with her. She was always just so great and helpful and supportive and really, really a real inspiration. She was amazing. I often looked at her in the way she conducted herself and how she was with people. It was amazing. It was incredible. She was a good person to have as a role model in this profession of all these hot-tempered men. [Laughs]
Why do you think there are so many male chefs? If women are expected to cook in their own kitchens, you’d think we’d have no problem cooking and getting paid for it.
Susan: There are a fair amount of women in the industry now. There’s an organization called Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR). And there are a fair amount of women who have their own businesses now in the industry. But maybe women got smarter and realized, “What am I doing? This is too hard!� [Laughs]
Mary Sue: It is interesting. I was one of the founders of the WCR, a trade organization to help women chefs in this industry. And you know, the West Coast has always been really ahead of the East Coast. All of the women chefs on the East Coast were complaining bitterly about the opportunities being less, the pay being less, and about the glass ceiling for women in our business. That’s why we founded the WCR originally, to support women in this industry.
It’s a great industry for anybody, men or women. It shouldn’t be predominantly men because it’s so great. If women are going to enter the workforce, they should be half of the workforce. But we were having a lot easier time with it on the West Coast. And a lot of the West Coast chefs 20 years ago were opening their own places like Susan and I did, to create their own destinies and not be controlled by men. But that was limiting, too, because we opened our own restaurants but then it wasn’t in the same growth path or open to the same opportunities necessarily. Now you can say that in retrospect. But you had your freedom to create what you wanted so that was worth it. Like women like [the late] Barbara Tropp, and Joyce Goldstein, and Alice Waters. They all opened up their own restaurants and they did it because that was the way they could satisfy their love of cooking and their desire to be a chef and not have to deal with men as their bosses.
We founded WCR 11 or 12 years ago. And I remember feeling, “My gosh, we have to do something.�
Although, chef schools are turning out 45 percent women. But like Susan said, they might not be getting as far into it as a career. They might be going, “Ah, this is too hard,� or “I think I can make more money and not be on my feet for 80 hours.� [Laughs]
Susan: Exactly.
Mary Sue: Because women are basically smarter. [Laughs]
Susan: Exactly. [Mary Sue laughs]
Ciudad Dining Room - JPEG.jpg
The dining room of Ciudad.
Can you talk about your involvement with the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (CCAP)?
Mary Sue: Yeah, it’s a fabulous program! It started in New York by a guy named Richard Grossman. And we have two graduates of the program. Right, Sus?
Susan: Yeah, one of our sous chefs down at Ciudad, he worked for us for a couple of years as a line cook. He’s a CCAP graduate and now he’s a sous chef. He’s fantastic.
Mary Sue: The program goes into high schools, especially into public high schools where kids might be at risk of either not finding a great profession or not going on to college. And it gets these culinary career opportunities presented to whole student bodies and then the ones that gravitate towards it go through the program and it turns out some really incredible people.
And the other person who works here, Sherri, she’s been with us how many years?
Susan: Probably like five years now.
Mary Sue: I know! And she’s fabulous. She loves cooking. It’s a great program.
Susan: Yeah, it’s very cool. And it’s a great program for kids who are trying to figure out, and don’t know, what they want to do. They’re not really looking to go on to college. But it’s an after-school program where they can start to learn a trade, and then if they’re good at it and passionate about it, they enter a competition. If they win, they then get different scholarships and different levels of scholarships. And it starts them on a whole career path for something they might have never had the opportunity to do. And even for the people who don’t win, these kids are now focused, and instead of just going out and getting a job at Blockbuster, they start on a path for a career when they get out of high school.
Mary Sue: I didn’t go to college. I went to chef school. I knew that I wanted to be a chef. I was really inspired by home ec classes. I probably took one of the last home ec classes that was even still around because they kind of phased it out. I was pretty excited about it, and I just knew that I didn’t want to go to college. So, for me, I felt that it was a great thing. And this is a great thing. College isn’t for everybody.
Susan, did you go to college? And if you did, what did you major in?
Susan: I did. I started in Vermont and then I dropped out. Then I started back in out here [California], and I studied economics and statistics. I did all my major requirements the first three years, so my last year of college I convinced my economics professor to let me do my last year at the Culinary in New York. That was pretty cool.
Your list of “Passions� on your website range from “Creating a Hunger-Free Generation� to explaining the significance of farmer’s markets and genetically modified foods. This information is not something you usually find on many chefs’ websites. Do you each see yourselves as having a personal philosophy as a chef?
Susan: Yeah. I think that as chefs, one of the things that we’re really passionate about is what people eat and how you can influence people to think more about what kinds of ingredients they’re buying. Even before we were talking about organic products, or before we were really looking at issues that were more health-related, we were always very interested in educating people about great ingredients from Thailand, from India, from Mexico. Twenty-five years ago, not many people knew what chipotle or ancho chiles or achiote was. They didn’t know different types of dal or tamerine. I spent time in India. Mary Sue spent time in Bangkok. So, it’s always been interesting to us to educate people, open people’s eyes to great products that they’re not comfortable with, that they’ve never seen, or don’t see around.
And now I think we look at trying to get people to become more aware about using local ingredients. To get thinking about if the dairy you’re buying has growth hormones in it. And trying to get people to understand why it’s important to support local farmers and buy local produce versus raspberries from New Zealand in the middle of winter. So, I think we do think it’s important to try to take a stance because it’s important for us.
We just changed [our menu] and it’s been challenging. All of our fish at Ciudad is sustainable. So, that means you’re serving things like anchovies and you can’t serve Chilean sea bass. You can’t serve tuna off the menu because it’s loaded with…
Mary Sue: We were concerned about the levels of mercury and because of the sustainability of tuna as a bigger fish in the ocean.
I think we feel a certain responsibility to our community because we’ve had a lot of luck. We’ve been very fortunate to find something that we’re both passionate about doing and that we both love doing, and that was really a success for us. And so we feel a responsibility to give back to the community, and to do that in every way we can. Whether it’s through education or helping people to find their way or path. Just whatever way we can.

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