Two of Southern California's best known restaurateurs are no strangers to organic food. In fact, Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill and Susan Feniger of Ciudad helped pave the way for the expansion of Los Angeles' organic food marketplace. Both the Border Grill and Ciudad restaurants feature Latin-inspired foods with every organic ingredient true to the original recipes. The scrumptious results of extensive travel and painstaking study of foods and cultures native to Central and Latin America are evident in each restaurant's authentic cuisines. However, these two restaurants are only the most recent additions to a long-time LA-based partnership built on a mutual love of ethnic cuisine, culture and organic food.
Two decades ago, Feniger and Milliken opened the City Cafe on Melrose Avenue. It soon outgrew its location, evolved into the CITY Restaurant and changed the culinary landscape of Los Angeles. CITY boasted eclectic, ethnic foods that Angelinos had little access to from Thailand, India, France, Italy and Mexico. Dishes like Thai melon salad and grilled skirt steak filled the menu. "We developed a fabulous, adventurous clientele that were willing to try things," Feniger said.
Their critically acclaimed cuisine soon established Feniger and Milliken among the country's foremost authorities on authentic Latin cuisine. Beginning in 1993, Feniger and Milliken were two of just 16 chefs invited to cook with Julia Child in her PBS series, "Cooking with Master Chefs." Feniger went on to host 396 series episodes of the Food Network's "Too Hot Tamales" and "Tamales World Tour." Feniger currently co-hosts a Sunday morning radio talk show in Los Angeles on KFI 640AM. Feniger and Milliken co-authored five cookbooks: City Cuisine, Mesa Mexicana, Cantina, Cooking with Too Hot Tamales, and Mexican Cooking for Dummies. In 2001, Samuel Goldwyn's feature film, "Tortilla Soup" "starred" the dishes of Border Grill and Ciudad. Their line of prepared foods aptly called "Border Girls" is available at Whole Foods Markets along with a line of signature pepper mills.
Following their CITY success, Feniger and Milliken opened Border Grill in 1985 in the former City Café spot. Border Grill was imagined as a "taco stand" serving authentic Mexican home cooking and street food. It also outgrew the location and moved to Santa Monica. The Cantina setting casual yet chic Mexican fare became so popular that the partners opened another Border Grill in Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. Ciudad opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1998, offering patrons the bold and spicy flavors of Latin and South American foods. Both restaurants are consistently listed among the most highly rated eating spots in Los Angeles.
These renowned chefs are the first to be featured in an Organic Authority series of profiles on organic chefs of Los Angeles. Feniger and Milliken spoke with Vicki Godal for Organic Authority about how their organic philosophy shapes their lives and their restaurants.
Vicki Godal (VG): Considering the quantities of food you purchase for your restaurants, why use organic foods as opposed to non-organic foods in your restaurants?
Mary Sue Milliken (MSM): It's definitely a health issue. I remember distinctly making the decision to go organic. There's so much you can't control that's out there. Plus all the research points to its (non-organic foods) dangers verses the benefits of organic food.
Susan Feniger (SF): My whole philosophy is how I want to take care of my body. For 25 years, I've felt that the way we take care is preventative. For me, the thinking is what you eat and how you exercise. The idea of putting poison in my system is crazy. And when you say why spend more on organic food, most chefs or even average people in other countries don't even blink twice when they spend more for organic food. It's a lifestyle choice for them and us.
(VG): Precisely. Now it's a given that the pesticides that farmers use on produce are designed to kill another species. It seems like common sense that it could affect us negatively if we ingest it as well.
SF: Exactly. There's a book I read called, "Fast Food Nation" by, Eric Schlosser that everyone should read. It's all about the harmful effects of the American diet. Especially regarding refined sugar, the average American consumes huge amounts of it. The numbers in the book about an individual American's sugar consumption are staggering.
MSM: Our children don't realize they're being sold a bill of goods about sugar. The human body isn't meant to process refined sugar. It's poison to our systems.
VG: So how does your organic philosophy translate into your cooking?
MSM: We have a real love of all ethnic foods and almost all ethnic diets are more vegetable based than the protein heavy diets of the western world especially in the United States.
SF: And to us, its not sustainable economics. Statistically, the planets resource allocation is totally lopsided in order to provide for the western world's protein needs. The amount of land used to feed one person in the US is much more than for any other population.
VG: Was that produce verses protein difference obvious when you traveled to other countries to learn about their foods and cultures?
MSM: We spent a lot of time in Mexico and South America learning about the food and culture. Susan took three to four trips to India and worked there for fantastic Indian chefs. Everywhere, vegetables dominated the meal.
SF: I worked for a long time in the kitchen of an Ashram which is a spiritual retreat in India and it was all vegetarian. When I came back, we began to use a lot more vegetables. We served the vegetables family style, all on one plate, in our restaurants. We figured people that might never eat shredded brussel sprouts or parsnip chips, might try them this way and we were right.
MSM: We really made our mark with CITY (restaurant). Its menu was designed to reflect the diversity one finds in a city. We had Greek, Thai, Indian and Mexican on the same menu which featured many vegetable based dishes. While trying to make our ethnic food as authentic as possible, vegetable based dishes became the majority.
VG: Was it hard to get organic produce then?
MSM: When we went shopping for organic produce in the 80s', there was one organic farmers' market in Los Angeles. We ended up doing a lot of driving to get the finest organic produce. I think partly because of us, organic farmers became more willing to bring their produce to Los Angeles because there was beginning to be a market for it.
SF: Plus they (organic farmers) knew we weren't using anything that wasn't organic in our restaurants and we weren't going to, so the word kind of spread. Now on any weekend, you can find several organic farmers markets around the city. We even have our own Border Grill booth at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
MSM: When we have time!
With their emphasis on vegetable based entrees, Chefs Feniger and Milliken make a case not only for organic foods, but for ethnic foods of all flavors. Lucky for us foodies, great world cuisine now comes in a tasty organic package. Seek out the Border Grill or Ciudad when looking for something quite different and quite delicious.
For more information on Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken go to www.marysueandsusan.com. For information or reservations on the Border Grill or Ciudad, go to www.bordergrill.com or www.ciudad-la.com.
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