Restaurant News & Reviews

Q&A with Border Grill chef Mary Sue Milliken ahead of Sunset Savor the Central Coast appearance

Mary Sue Milliken will be serving Baja ceviche tostadas at Strings at Sunset for the Sunset Savor the Central Coast Opening Night Event on Thursday at Vina Robles Amphitheatre. She noted that one of the things she’d like to impart to Savor guests 'is how healthy authentic Mexican food actually is.'
Mary Sue Milliken will be serving Baja ceviche tostadas at Strings at Sunset for the Sunset Savor the Central Coast Opening Night Event on Thursday at Vina Robles Amphitheatre. She noted that one of the things she’d like to impart to Savor guests 'is how healthy authentic Mexican food actually is.'

Several talented celebrity chefs will be sharing their knowledge and skills with attendees of Sunset Savor the Central Coast this Thursday through Sunday.

One of them is Mary Sue Milliken, who began her culinary career at a young age. Among her many career milestones was becoming the first female chef at Chicago’s Le Perroquet in 1978. She went on to hone her skills in Paris at Restaurant D’Olympe, a woman-owned Michelin two-star restaurant.

Familiar to television watchers since 1995 for their Food Network show “Too Hot Tamales,” Milliken and longtime business partner Susan Feniger established City Café and CITY Restaurant in Los Angeles in 1981.

In 1985, they opened their popular Border Grill, which now boasts outposts in several locations (Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles, Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, and two in Las Vegas) as well as a Border Grill food truck.

In 1993, Milliken was among the founders of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, an organization promoting women’s education and advancement in the restaurant industry. She has also been very involved in such organizations as Share Our Strength, the James Beard Foundation and several groups working to shape sustainable food systems and policies.

Milliken’s cuisine from the Border Grill Truck will be featured on Thursday at Savor’s kickoff event at Vina Robles Amphitheatre and on Saturday from 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. at The Main Event at Santa Margarita Ranch. There, in Chef Central, she’ll be sharing some Border Grill restaurant recipes.

The Tribune recently had an opportunity to interview Milliken. Here’s an excerpt:

Q. What originally inspired you to become a chef?

A. I’ve always loved working with my hands, so a desk job doesn’t really do it for me. I was lucky to find someone who was a mentor and really helped me pursue chef school. I went to a trade school in Chicago at 17, and in those days, it wasn’t very cool to be a chef. I’m lucky that I chose a profession that became cool!

Q. You started working in kitchens when it was still a very male-dominated field and went on to help found Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (which promotes women’s education and advancement in the restaurant industry). Has it gotten any easier over the years for women to break into those ranks?

A. It’s definitely easier, but there’s still a lot of inequality. When I was in chef school, about 2 percent of the class were women. Now it’s probably about 50 percent, and I see women going into food careers that aren’t necessarily in the kitchen.

One place I’m surprised there’s still a lot of inequality is in corporate chef positions. I know of only one — at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

For a lot of us women chefs back then — myself, Susan (Feniger, Milliken’s longtime business partner in their Border Grill restaurants, Los Angeles and Las Vegas), (the late) Barbara Tropp (China Moon, San Francisco), Alice Waters (Chez Panisse, Berkeley) — I think we owned our own restaurants so we could call our own shots. It’s all changing, of course, but not as fast as I’d like.

Q. The life of a chef is extremely busy, especially for someone like you with so many other projects. Why you do make such an effort to be involved with such organizations as No Kid Hungry (Share Our Strength’s campaign to end childhood hunger) and Alex’s Lemonade Stand (a foundation fighting childhood cancer)?

A. I never expected to be so fortunate in my career, to end up in the middle of a gourmet food explosion. It made me pause and step back. I realized I wanted to reciprocate, to use my status to give back. About 30 percent of my week is spent on nonprofit/advocacy work and it’s more rewarding than anything I’ve ever done — I’d like it to be more around 50 percent.

Q. In looking at the future of our food system/industry/etc., what gives you the most inspiration to keep doing what you’re doing?

A. When I think about food, when I think about the whole planet. There are going to be 9 billion people here when my kids are in their 30s. How are we going to feed all those people? I constantly think about the global food system. Food connects us all — it’s very powerful and it accounts for one-third of all the commerce on the planet. The way we handle all that in the next 10, 15, 20, 30 years is really going to make a huge difference in our future.


Makes: 4 servings
  • 1 pound skinless, boneless Pacific halibut*, finely diced
  • 1 pound domestic, wild-caught jumbo shrimp*, cleaned and finely diced
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1/2 red onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 to 1 jalapeño, stem and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, finely diced
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced
  • Salt, to taste
  • Vegetable or canola oil, for frying
  • 4 corn tortillas, 6 inches wide
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • Sliced California avocado, for garnish
  1. In a large bowl, combine halibut and shrimp and enough lime juice to cover. Allow to marinate for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of lime juice.
  2. Combine seafood with remaining ingredients and reserved lime juice, to taste, and stir gently to combine. Chill thoroughly.
  3. Meanwhile, pour oil to a depth of 1/2 inch in a small pan for frying. Fry the tortillas on both sides until crisp and drain on paper towels.
  4. In a food processor, combine cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Pulse until cilantro is very finely chopped and a paste begins to form. Add mayonnaise and combine thoroughly.
  5. To serve, spread a thin layer of cilantro mayonnaise on each crispy corn tortilla. Top with seafood ceviche mixture and garnish with avocado.
Copyright © 2015, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger,

* According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, when it comes to sustainable seafood, Pacific halibut is a “Best” choice and domestic, wild-caught shrimp is a “Best” or “Good” choice. For more info about sustainable seafood and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, go to  


The four-day culinary event, designed to celebrate local and celebrity chefs, wineries and eco-tourism, will be held Thursday through Sunday throughout San Luis Obispo County. Among the highlights: adventure tours, small winemaker dinners — and lots of food and wine tastings. The Main Event, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Santa Margarita Ranch, will feature more than 200 wines, 42 food tastings, beer and music gardens as well as a variety of demonstrations from celebrity chefs and Sunset editors. Organizers are hoping to attract 8,000 to 10,000 guests over the four days, on par with previous years. For more information on events and tickets, go to