At Dinova, we take highlighting women in the food industry very seriously. We want to celebrate the achievements, leadership, courage and strength of female entrepreneurs who have disrupted the restaurant industry with inspiring cuisine while paving the way for budding female entrepreneurs. We could look no further than the co-owners of Border Grill, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.
As chefs, cookbook authors, restaurateurs and philanthropists, Mary Sue and Susan have used their 45+ career in the restaurant industry to be among the first restaurateurs to bring authentic Mexican cuisine to the US, bring sustainability at the forefront of the consumer’s mind and be active in the Los Angeles community to help those in need. Recently we had the pleasure to sit down with Mary Sue and Susan to discuss their experience and advice for women in the restaurant industry.
You’ve cooked together here in the US and in France, what inspired you to open Border Grill, featuring the cuisine of Mexico?
SF: In the 70s all of our training took place in French kitchens, and at the time it was very uncommon for women to be chefs, so women were often pushed to the prep area. The cooks in the prep area happened to be Hispanic, so we learned how to make salsa as well as other Mexican dishes and were really drawn to the flavors and brightness of Mexican cuisine. We’re both from the Midwest and didn’t know a whole lot about Mexican cuisine, so we took a road trip through Mexico, cooked with people in their home kitchens and wrote a menu for our first restaurant within 10 days.
MM: We opened our first restaurant in , City Café, in LA – it was tiny with nine tables, six bar stools, a hot plate and two hibachis. We’ve been growing and growing ever since then and haven’t looked back!
Tell us a little bit about your passion for sustainability – why is this important to you and to Border Grill’s mission?
MM: From early on, growing up in the Midwest, our parents taught us not to waste anything. That becomes very important when you’re running a restaurant and seeing how the way you plate your food can have a massive impact on ocean life. Restaurants account for over 70% of seafood consumption, so I feel we have a strong obligation to uphold sustainability standards at Border Grill. From using “trashfish” (species that are sustainable but remain underutilized instead of salmon and tuna, to plant-based Impossible burgers, we’ve built our plates on a philosophy to improve the environment in every measure possible, and that story is something that resonates well with our consumer base.
What’s unique about your restaurant that you’d want someone visiting LA for business to know as they’re deciding where to dine?
SF: At Border Grill we’ve created an environment that’s friendly and comfortable so that when you’re with your clients you can feel like you’re at home. Many of the business diners we see love our shareable plates because it’s a way to build community and unwind. We also take the quality of our food seriously, so you can enjoy the cuisine from our authentic Mexican kitchen that features fresh beverages and organic agave. We also have a fabulous weekend brunch that features small, limitless plated items that showcase all different types of Mexican inspired dishes for the morning meal, so you can enjoy Border Grill for morning, afternoon and evening events.
What’s one piece of advice that you wish you had as you were growing your business?
MM: I wish someone told me not to take my failures so seriously. Everyone says that failure is the best thing for you, and that’s really true, but it’s hard to believe that in the moment. I wish I was more casual and accepting throughout the beginnings of my career, and I would definitely consider that a good piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs.
SF: I would say that as we were growing and building our business – for Border Grill and our personal brands – we accepted every opportunity at hand, and sometimes it felt like we were all over the place. In hindsight, had we brought on a partner to give us more focus, maybe we could have grown a little bigger without trying to do it all.
Your culinary journey has been recognized with a multitude of accolades, last year you received the Julia Child Foundation award. How does that one stand out among the others?
SF: We loved Julia Child and love the Foundation as it really embodies her spirit. The award was a real treat, and it was such a thrill to have dinner at the Smithsonian. We had so many friends and family attend with us, so it was a super exciting and special night. Neither of us had big weddings, so this felt a bit like we were getting married!
You’re very active in the Los Angeles community – tell us a bit about local charities you’re passionate about and how you involve Border Grill?
SF: Sometimes we joke about how we’re not really running a restaurant – we’re running a nonprofit! But in all seriousness, we have a “never say no” philosophy to giving back to the community. We’re board members of several different charities ranging from causes related to fighting hunger and finding cures for cancer, and our staff love to volunteer as well. One of the projects I’m really excited about involves the Los Angeles LGBT Center. They’re about to launch their newest center to house 135 homeless LGBTQ youth and 100 seniors, and we’re helping them build a community kitchen where we can train members of the center in a 12-week program to get them a job.
As active members of the community, we joined a handful of progressive colleagues to start Chefs Collaborative with a mission to inspire, educate, and celebrate chefs and food professionals building a better food system, and Mary Sue co-founded Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, an organization promoting women’s education and advancement in the restaurant industry. Mary Sue serves as a board member of both Share Our Strength and the James Beard Foundation. Susan serves on the board of the Scleroderma Research Foundation, L.A. LGBT Center, and L.A. Tourism & Convention Board.
What’s coming up next for you two and for Border Grill?
MM: For us, we are excited about some of our new restaurants that we’ll be opening, all tied around Mexican cuisine: Socalo, a new all-day Mexican eatery and gastropub opening this spring in Santa Monica and a second location of BBQ Mexicana, a quick service Mexican barbeque concept, opening in Las Vegas. We’re also working on getting to know colleagues on an international level, so we’re planning a meeting at the end of March called the California Chef Action Network with 50-100 of the most powerful chefs. We’ll be talking about ways in which we can amplify our voice and use our platform to initiate stronger change in the food system. Topics will range from food waste, hunger, diet, climate change and more. In the restaurateur community we don’t necessarily need another organization, but we do need a way to make our voices louder for the good of the community.
What advice do you have for aspiring female chefs who wish to achieve success like yours?
MM: For all women out there – in the restaurant industry or not – stop underestimating your power. It’s engraved in our psyches from birth that we are less than and we are less powerful, but we need to stop thinking like that and take our power back.
SF: Whether you’re a young woman or man in your career, focus on your passion, both financially and in life, and being passionate about what you do will bring you peace. As Mary Sue said, women often feel like they’re not as powerful as men; that mindset needs to change. We can see it in our recently elected House of Representatives that it’s starting to change, and we need to keep that momentum going.
Finally – just for fun – name a Border Grill menu item that you think describes each other the best!
MM: I would say that Susan would be a Dirty Martini! She’s straightforward, a bit unusual, clean, upfront and powerful.
SF: Mary Sue would be our best-selling Ceviche Duo. Everyone loves her and there are two sides to her personality, which makes her really strong in her skillset.