Mary Sue Milliken: A Multi-Faceted Fighter for Change
Maggie BordenMaggie Borden
October 05, 2015
It’s hard to imagine when JBF Award winner Mary Sue Milliken has time to sleep. When she’s not overseeing the kitchens of her highly successful Border Grill restaurants (co-owned with JBF Award winner Susan Feniger), Milliken devotes herself to a myriad of causes, from fighting hunger with Share Our Strength, to advocating for sustainable seafood with Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Milliken is also a founding member of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, a member of the State Department’s American Chef Corps, and serves on the board of the James Beard Foundation. On top of all that, she has now attended two of our JBF Chefs Boot Camps for Policy and Change. Before our most recent Boot Camp in Shelburne, Vermont, we chatted with Milliken about the highs and lows of the fight against childhood hunger, how the landscape of the restaurant industry has changed for female chefs, and what it was like to cook at the James Beard American Restaurant at Expo Milano.
JBF: You’ve worked with Share Our Strength for years, including winning them $40,000 while competing on Top Chef Masters. What do you see as the major steps forward in tackling childhood hunger, and where do you think we can still improve?
Mary Sue Milliken: We really started focusing on childhood hunger and launched the No Kid Hungry campaign several years ago. Some of the big successes we’ve had most recently are getting breakfast in the classroom after the bell. That means that kids who are at risk of coming to school hungry don’t have to have the stigma of coming earlier and being noticed as being poor and needing the meal. It also means the parents who may be struggling and working two jobs don’t have to get up extra early to get them there at a different time than the rest of the school population. Basically, the kids arrive and they have breakfast in the first 15 minutes of the day, all together. They also have a chance to sort of get ready for their day, and talk about some things that have to do with nutrition in certain classrooms. The kids take a lot of ownership—they serve it and clean it up themselves. We’ve found that, although at first it had some resistance from school administrators and teachers, breakfast in the classroom has really been a huge success from every angle—better attendance, less tardiness, and fewer students being ill. We’ve got it into the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has over 1,000 schools, and New York City is implementing it now, too. We’re also really concerned with creating summer programs. Kids who get free (or reduced) breakfast or lunch in school spend summertime really struggling without that help. There’s a fair amount of that that happens in rural America where it’s hard to set up summer feeding sites, and so we’ve taken that on as a goal for our No Kid Hungry campaign this year.
JBF: The New York Times recently reported that school lunches across the country have improved nutritionally since higher government standards went into effect in 2012. Do you think that there’s room to grow with that in terms of giving people access?
MSM: The important thing in my work, and in the food community in general, is to focus on education. I think the Food Network has been really great about just getting the general public excited about good, healthy food and get them thinking about food as fuel and as nutrition rather than just a throwaway part of their day. I think that’s part of why there’s been this food explosion in the last 25 years, and that’s part of why the federal nutrition guidelines for school lunches changed for the better. Is there room to grow? Yes! We have a ways to go, for sure. But there are some exciting programs on the horizon, such as farm-to-school programs where fresh fruits and vegetables will be connected with schools. It’s all an ongoing process, because some schools don’t even have kitchens, so they don’t have the ability to process the kind of food that is the really best for our kids. But that’s changing and getting more traction all the time. There are school gardens that are taking off around the country, in part because Alice Waters started such an exciting program in Berkeley. And now it’s happening in thousands upon thousands of communities, where schools are growing and teaching kids about the value of food and what they put in their bodies.
JBF: What can the average person do, either locally or nationally, to help reduce childhood hunger?
MSM: Awareness is a really key tool—just becoming aware that the child sitting next to your well-fed child in the classroom is maybe going to get sick more often, maybe going to act out and be bored or unable to focus because they haven’t had healthy food, and they’re going to disrupt the class—that makes a difference. 75 percent of teachers when surveyed tell us that they bring food to school that they pay for with their own personal money in order to give it to the kids that they know are going to have trouble focusing. Just knowing those kinds of facts can give people a little more motivation to get involved. Anyone can join us in the movement to end childhood hunger in America at NoKidHungry.org/pledge. There’s also volunteer work to be done in our Cooking Matters programs. Even in your own community, outside of Share Our Strength, just getting involved in your school and asking questions about their nutritional program, is helpful. Believe me, all schools are looking for parent volunteers to help in the lunchroom and the classroom.
JBF: You cooked dinner at the Beard House this past year in honor of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, where you were a founding member. What was it like to be a female chef when WCR was first formed? What are some of the ways that WCR has helped to change the landscape of the restaurant industry?
MSM: When I started there were no celebrity chefs. It wasn’t a sexy thing to do. It was basically like telling your parents you’re going to go be an auto mechanic—it was a real trade. I went to a trade school. And I was very fortunate to land on the West Coast and start a restaurant where diners were pretty accepting of a lot of different people. Even so, I think in those days in order to succeed in a man’s world what a lot of us did was just put on blinders and keep working as hard as we could. A lot of us opened our own restaurants so that we would be in charge of our own destiny rather than working under men. When Barbara Tropp asked me to help found the WCR it was really a no-brainer, because creating an environment where we could support other women coming up in the culinary world was something that I really wanted to be a part of. It was an exciting time—in fact, it’s still an exciting time for women in the culinary world. When I went to chef school in the 1970s, we had about three or four percent female enrollment in cooking programs. Today it’s over 50 percent. A lot of women don’t stay in the industry, which is something that organizations like WCR are really striving to change and to create the support that people need: leadership support, business support, those kind of things.
JBF: So you feel like retention is one of the major challenges right now? What do you think are still the challenges that are facing women who are entering the restaurant industry?
MSM: Well, I think it’s a hard business: long hours, heavy work. And it’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. I think that women are smart, and they might think after 10 or 15 years of slogging around smelling like garlic and onions—well, I feel like I could find something else I could do. But I don’t think retention is our biggest problem, because there are ways that women are still staying active and involved. I think the bigger issue is wage equality. I’d like to see more women rising to the top. There still are just not enough women at the very top echelon of our industry, and there’s no excuse for it. They should be there. They’re great. It’s just a matter of things changing less quickly than we’d like.
JBF: Mexican cuisine seems to be having a moment, at least in New York, where people are going crazy for Enrique Olvera. Border Grill was instrumental in opening American diners up to the diversity of regional Mexican cuisine. Do you see an influence of the cuisine outside of purely Mexican focused restaurants?
MSM: Mexican cuisine is definitely having a moment, and it’s not going to be a short one. I feel like so many cuisines that came to the United States, like Irish food, Italian food, and Chinese food got dumbed down at first, like red sauce and the five kinds of Chinese dishes that were available for my whole childhood. I think that happened to Mexican food, too. Mexican food is just as complex and exciting as Chinese or Italian or French, and it’s only begun to be really appreciated in this country. There are so many regions in Mexico, and the food is so incredible. Americans are finally casting away their old ideas of Mexican food being kind of gloppy, lots of yellow cheese, sour cream, refried beans, with everything sort of the same texture. Now that that’s falling away I think people are really realizing the amount of plant-based dishes in Mexico that are not only exciting and delicious, but also really healthy for you. It’s not all carnitas, even though great carnitas are kind of irresistible. On my first trip to Mexico in 1984, the thing that I was most astounded by was that every market was filled with more vegetables than I’d ever seen in any other country. Nobody says, “Oh, I’m going to eat healthy. I think I’ll eat Mexican.” But believe me, that’s something I think we should take another look at. And as for the cross-cultural influence of Mexican cuisine, look at someone like Roy Choi and his amazing success with Korean tacos. He grew up up in Los Angeles and hung out with a lot of Mexican friends, and loved his mom’s Korean food, and then put them together in a really creative wonderful way for his Kogi truck. I think tacos and the freshness and immediacy of how they’re made is something that a lot of restaurateurs on all levels are looking at.
JBF: Is there a particular Mexican dish or regional cuisine you wish was being highlighted in the US?
MSM: Oh, it changes all the time. In California we’re really lucky, because we are so close to Mexico and we have such a huge Mexican population. When Susan and I came back from that first trip to Mexico nobody knew what a chipotle chile was. We had to go drive to East LA, and even at the main produce market, we couldn’t find them. And look at it now. There are a few things we still can’t get, like true Oaxacan string cheese. It’s made with raw milk, and it’s really tangy and delicious, not like that stuff you can buy here that’s called Oaxacan string cheese that’s really just like mozzarella.
JBF: Border Grill is a member of the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch, and has a specific menu centered on sustainability. What made you decide to make that a priority for the restaurant?
MSM: I’d say the biggest part of a chef’s job is to source great ingredients. It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking Mexican or French or Italian, you have to start with really great building blocks. That’s always been on our radar, from the very beginning. Sustainability has been a really important thing to us at Border Grill, and it’s been a great way to connect with our customers. They love the fact that we’re very committed to things like exclusively using seafood that’s approved by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program. All of our proteins, including our meat and poultry, are grown without antibiotics in their feed. I think our staff works for us because they agree and like that, and I think the customers who are loyal to us like to know that that’s part of it. The thing is, everybody on the planet eats. So as a chef you have the ability to really talk to everybody about their food, and you have the ability to really make a difference in people’s lives and in how they’re enjoying it. For example, we’ll get local California albacore, so we’ll change our ceviche to using the local albacore as soon as it comes in. And then the servers can talk about the fact that it’s local and it’s sustainable, and we’re supporting the local fishermen that we actually ran into at the farmers’ market. So I guess, in that way, we’re just using Border Grill and our restaurant to connect with our community.
JBF: Would you say that focusing on your sourcing would be a good first step for a restaurant if they want to become a little bit more sustainability-minded?
MSM: Absolutely. I think for a long time we were very daunted. Susan and I had worked in some very high-end restaurants during all of our training, and we always felt strongly that we wanted to serve food that was affordable and accessible to as many people as possible. So we were daunted by the idea that we’d never be able to afford a 100-percent organic menu. We just always felt like we were stuck between raising our prices and buying the finest ingredients we could find. But what we found was, you just have to start with one thing at a time. We started with sustainable seafood, and then we changed our pork a year or two later, and then our chicken. We shifted our menu to be more sustainable over the course of 15 years. Each year we take on a new thing, as far as what we’re sourcing.
JBF: What was it like cooking at the USA Pavilion at Expo Milano? How did you approach the meal—were you focused on capturing a slice of America’s food system, or your own personal perspective?
MSM: It was lovely, because I went with Traci Des Jardins and Emily Luchetti. Our approach was really to be very seasonal, and to think about exactly what kind of food you want to eat in late May and early June. What do you think about when you’re eating in the Northern Hemisphere in May? Lamb, asparagus, peas, apricots, strawberries—and then bringing a California sensibility to the menu. It was a great, great experience. The USA Pavilion was really inspiring. The whole World’s Fair was just fantastic. I have to say it was a great experience to see, because it was all food-focused and centered around sustainability, and seeing what each country showcased was really exciting.
JBF: What's one surprising thing you learned or interesting takeaway from your JBF Chefs Boot Camp experience?
MSM: My biggest takeaway was just some new friendships. I met some really cool people, and I loved that. I think my favorite part of Boot Camp is forging some new bonds with chefs. Learning about the impressive things people in different parts of the country are doing already, and then sharing best practices and ideas about how we can really amplify our voices. For me, it reinforced a lot of what I’ve been feeling and thinking all these years, which is that I’ve been very lucky to have a successful career, but with that comes a huge responsibility to give back and to figure out a way to engage with your community. I find it really satisfying and rewarding in terms of the work that it brings to me, not only from things like feeding hungry children but from working on culinary diplomacy with the State Department, and with Oxfam on foreign food aid. So being at Boot Camp kind of reinforced all of what I’ve been doing for a long time and gave me a lot new ideas about how to share my voice in an even more productive way.
JBF: Are there any chefs or organizations working to improve the issues we discussed that you’d recommend people follow on social media?
MSM: Well, of course No Kid Hungry is a good one, to keep up on the successes and the next steps that are happening behind ending childhood hunger. I also follow Oxfam and Pew Charitable Trust. I love the work that Tom Colicchio’s Food Policy Action is doing right now and Chef Action Network is awesome, too.
For more inspiration, try your hand at Mary Sue Milliken’s recipe for Baja Ceviche Tostadas.
To learn more about our Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change program, click here.