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Chef Mary Sue Milliken shares Lansing memories and advocates for young women entering culinary arts

LANSING, Ill. (March 9, 2024) – Last month a CBS Saturday Morning television segment called “The Dish” interviewed two longtime business partners and award-winning chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger about their successful restaurants, including Border Grill in Las Vegas.

Lansing residents Keith and Pat Kremer, watching from their Schultz Park home, took note of the interview, recognizing Mary Sue Milliken who was once a childhood neighbor of Keith’s on Henry Street in Lansing. With other neighborhood kids, Mary Sue would play football with Keith and his brothers on the large front lawn of the Kremer house. In fact, Kendall, one of Keith’s younger brothers, later grew up to play nose tackle for The Kansas City Chiefs. Keith remembered that Mary Sue was a great football player. She was the only girl on the team and she loved to tackle.

Entering the men-only world of culinary arts

As it turned out, football wouldn’t be the only “men only” field that Mary Sue would tackle. In the 1970s, she finished the culinary arts program offered at Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute in Chicago, notably as one of only two women in a class of 100.

As she explains in her November 2017 TED talk “Cooking Relationships,” after culinary school, she applied for a kitchen job at Jovan Trboyevic’s French restaurant Le Perroquet in Chicago. The owner initially told her she couldn’t possibly work in the kitchen with the boys, but she could have a coat-check job instead. Incensed, Mary Sue began a month-long aggressive letter-writing and phone call campaign until Jovan agreed to give her a job in the kitchen — on the condition she did not sue him for gender discrimination.

It was at Le Perroquet where six months later Mary Sue Milliken met her longtime friend and business partner Susan Feniger, who applied for a kitchen job and was hired on the spot. In her TED talk, Mary Sue says she likes to think that it was her work ethic in the kitchen that paved the way for her friend Feniger to be hired immediately.

culinary arts
Mary Sue Milliken. (Photo from Milliken’s Facebook page)

After Le Perroquet, Milliken and Feniger had apprenticeships in Paris. In 1981, they began their first establishment in Los Angeles — City Café — the popularity of which paved the road for future culinary successes including CITY Restaurant in L.A. (1985); Border Grill in Santa Monica (1990); Ciudad in L.A. (1998); a KCRW radio talk show called Good Food (parodied in an SNL skit —“NPR’s Delicious Dish: Schweddy Balls”); two Food Network television shows Cooking with Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour in the 1990’s; five cookbooks; and a product line with Whole Foods Market. They continue to open restaurants in locations such as Palm Springs and Las Vegas, have both won the esteemed Julia Child Award, and both serve on boards for various non-profits and culinary arts programs.

Mary Sue Milliken in her own words

In a recent phone interview with The Lansing Journal, Mary Sue Milliken shared memories of Lansing and of the Chicagoland area, as well as advice for young women thinking about pursuing a culinary arts career. Her comments are quoted below, with some edits made for length.

Lansing memories

“When my Dad was hired at Thornton Fractional School District as Superintendent, we moved from St. Claire, Michigan. He couldn’t find a house in Lansing in the beginning, so we rented in Hammond, and I went into the second half of second grade in Hammond, IN; but then in the summer we found our house on Henry Street and moved there, where I went to Calvin Coolidge for third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. … I went to Memorial in seventh grade. In the beginning of eighth grade is when I moved back to Michigan after the school year had started.

“I had a great childhood in Lansing. It was so much fun — the neighbors — the Hildebrandts, the Kremers, the Voses next door, my best friend LuAnn Rivera — a Puerto Rican family. Brenda Wallen was a good friend of mine. … Tell the Kremer family that I send my love. I think so fondly of them.

“We used to play football in the Kremer’s front yard. … In Memorial and at Calvin Coolidge, I don’t think I did any kind of sports at all — zero — but Title 9 hadn’t passed, so girls … went to Home Ec. or something, and boys did all the sports stuff.”

The move back to Chicago and onward to Los Angeles

“What’s really funny is that I started cooking during high school. I got inspired from a Home Ec. class, and I got so excited. I graduated high school a year early and moved back down to Chicago to work in a bakery and go to a Chef School on the South side of Chicago.

“… I went to chef’s school, and then I moved to France and did an internship in Paris at two Michelin star restaurants. And then I came back to Chicago and I actually worked on the north side of town for the fourth wealthiest man in the United States — W. Clement Stone. I was his personal chef for a short stint to get on my feet. … Then I got a call from Susan — my now business partner — who had found a little cafe that needed help. She said please come out and help me turn this place around. That we did, and we were very much able to make it our own, and become partners, and then about three years into that we were able to raise about $660,000 to move to a larger [restaurant].

“So we started very small, and I think that also reflects the fact that we were women, but we wanted to be our own bosses. We were tired of the patriarchy and working under men. We were really busy at City Cafe. We turned it from just a coffee shop that really didn’t have much food. We turned it from that into a very well-regarded restaurant. Julia Child came and ate there and all kinds of people commented on the interesting food.”

Food memories

“I was obsessed with 31 Flavors — Baskin Robbins — and my Mom was an extremely good cook. … We mostly cooked at home, and we cooked really great food at home. That’s partially why I think I am so in love with cooking.

“And then for a treat, we would get ice cream and I always got the raspberry sorbet. I know one year for Christmas, my parents were struggling financially, and I got a three gallon container of raspberry sorbet from Baskin Robbins. That was my only gift, and I was pretty happy with that.”

In her 2017 Ted Talk “Cooking Relationships,” Milliken shared a memory of how she passed the sixth grade at Coolidge Elementary with food:

“I’m the youngest of three girls, and when I was in sixth grade, food was what saved me. It became my outlet, my medium. My family was falling apart and I turned to food, and that’s what got me through. Actually, I think that’s why I passed the sixth grade. You see, I had started out on the honor roll, and then throughout the year, while things were tough at home, I just stopped working and doing my school work. … And to make it worse, on the last day when I was supposed to hand in my report the next day, I stayed up all night and baked a chocolate cake to take to class. Now, my teacher, thankfully, I think knew what I was going through and she let that cake stand in for my final project and I did pass and I got to go to middle school.”

“Regarding Her” – a non-profit for women entrepreneurs and leaders in culinary arts

“I also have a non-profit that’s dedicated to accelerating the careers of women and women entrepreneurs in food and beverage,” Milliken told The Lansing Journal. “I thought ok, this is difficult because I am one of the only women, but at the same time I planned to change the industry; but fifty years later, I haven’t had enough of an impact, in my opinion. But I am definitely interested in leaving the industry better for women than I found it. I still have things to do.

“We’re about three years old,” Milliken said of Regarding Her. “We have almost 800 members in Los Angeles and North Orange County, and we also have extended to Washington, D.C., where we have 250 members, and we are looking to come to Chicago and the surrounding Cook County neighbors. I would love to work toward a hospitality industry that has gender parity.

“The industry is very demanding and it’s not very welcoming to parenting or parents. You work nights, you work weekends, you can’t find child care. There’s not a lot of support for moms or for dads for that matter. So it definitely is something I’m working hard to address.”

Advice for young women pursuing culinary arts today

“The best place to begin is in a restaurant, like I did. Like, get a job in a pizza shop and see if you really like it. And then find people to work for who are very hands-on in the kitchen, who will teach you everything they know — and be a sponge.

“I went to chef’s school when I was very young, and I think that was really helpful for me because I had some growing up to do. And I never went to college — I just went straight to this trade school.

“… School is good for certain personalities. If you want to really turbo-charge your learning, then going to school is good. If you want to just soak everything up you can from one chef and then another chef and then another chef, don’t ever stay in a kitchen less than a year and don’t ever choose a kitchen that doesn’t have a lot to teach you.

“A lot of the best things I ever learned, I learned on the job. You really need to dedicate yourself in the kitchen. The thing I love about cooking is that you get to cook the same thing every day until you’ve perfected it. You look at it, you notice it, you taste it, you smell it, you feel it — the texture, and then every day you tweak it a tiny bit until you make it exactly the way that it is the very best. You can’t do that at home because your family is like, I can’t eat that dish one more time!”

Perfectionism — and magic — in the kitchen

“Many [chefs] are [perfectionists] — and control freaks — those are both traits that help you become a great chef and totally hinder you when you work with people. You have to learn that that only serves you to a certain extent, and then you have to be able to teach, to inspire your team. It’s a career for people who like to lead a team. Every day is like you’re producing a play. You’re getting everything ready, everything gets put in place, and then the curtains open, and the band starts playing, and you’re on stage. You have to remember your lines, everything has its own flow and pace, and then it’s over! And if the elements don’t come together, sometimes there’s magic that happens in the failure or in the mistake. So if you are too much of a perfectionist or too much of a control freak, you circumvent the magic.”

Jennifer Yos
Jennifer Yos
Jennifer Yos grew up on Walter Street in Lansing with nine siblings. She attended St. Ann’s School and T.F. South, and she earned a BA in the Teaching of English from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a MS in Education: Curriculum and Instruction from the University of St. Francis, Joliet. For 34 years she taught English, as well as Creative Writing and Drama, at Lincoln-Way High School. She dabbled in freelance journalism for the Joliet Herald News Living section. Now retired, Jennifer appreciates the opportunity to write for The Lansing Journal and is uplifted by the variety of positive people she has already met who are making a difference in Lansing.

1 COMMENT

  1. Wow! Great and informative article. Always nice to read uplifting articles about Lansing people.

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