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A Chat With 'Top Chef Masters' Finalist Mary Sue Milliken of L.A.'s Border Grill

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Mary Sue Milliken at a 2010 event (Lindsay William-Ross/LAist)
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By Eli Sussman/Special to LAist

Chef Mary Sue Milliken is an institution in the Los Angeles culinary world. As a partner with Chef Susan Feniger for over 25 years, she has opened two Border Grill restaurants in LA (and one in Las Vegas) in addition to owning the wildly successful Border Grill food truck. As a chef, cookbook author and TV personality on Too Hot Tamales, she has introduced thousands of people to high-end modern Mexican and Latin American food.

Milliken spoke with LAist about appearing on this season of Top Chef Masters and making it to the finale with her close friend Chef Traci Des Jardins, her passion for ending childhood hunger in America and how she is NOT a fan of Quickfires.

LAist: What was the experience like of being on Top Chef Masters?
Mary Sue Milliken: I loved being with all the other chefs and learning about who they are and learning from them. It was basically the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was high pressure and just an incredibly intense experience. I enjoyed it more than I expected. When I look back at all the challenges, the ones where I went in with a fair amount of confidence were the ones I did really well in. If I started to doubt myself or get nervous, that is when I seemed to have the most trouble.

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Was there one challenge that sticks out in your mind as being extremely challenging?
Well, I did not win one single Quickfire. We were calling Traci the queen of the Quickfires and I was at the bottom a lot. I think when I have that kind of time constraint (on me) the pressure is just overwhelming. It wasn't my thing. I did not like the Quickfires at all! For the military (challenge) I felt like I’d never be able peel all those potatoes, roast all the peppers…I had a very vegetable intense menu which is time consuming and I cooked for 100 people by myself. But I love the eliminations. In the quickfires it was like I did not even have time to think.

Watching it on TV, the finale seemed incredibly long and mentally draining. What was the finale experience like?
The finale was the longest one. We had 6 hours to shop and prep and then we served. That was an incredibly long day. The waiting was really long too. I don’t know what took them so long but I was just past exhausted. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You go out, then you go back and wait more, then you go back in…

Did you know the other finalists? How was it competing against them in the finale?
Traci is one of my best friends. We cook together and go on holidays and family vacations together. We have a huge amount of camaraderie and friendly competition between us all the time. Floyd I’ve also known for about 20 years but I’ve never had a lot of time to spend with him and he was a delightful guy to get to know and I have such respect for him. The three of us have a real affinity for each other. We were all thrilled to be there and I know it doesn’t make for as good TV, but we felt like whichever one of us won, it was a win for all of us.

You said that being on Top Chef Masters has reinvigorated your perspective and your creative abilities. What do you see as a next step after doing so well on the show?
The great thing about being on Top Chef Masters this season is I totally allowed myself to be immersed in this intense experience. I didn’t allow any distractions. I didn’t worry about my husband or my son’s homework or check my email. Nothing. What I learned was that I need to do that more. I need to figure out how to block out some of the distractions from my daily life so I can be more immersed in the food.

Can you talk about the charity you represented on the show? How did you become affiliated with the organization and why is it important to you?
I played for SHARE OUR STRENGTH [a leading organization in the charge to end childhood hunger] and I’ve been a strong supporter since 1987 when we did our very first Taste of the Nation LA and I was invited to come as a chef and cook.

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For me it’s criminal that there are children in a country like the United States that don’t have enough nutritious food to eat that are having trouble focusing at school because the haven’t had a good breakfast. For a wealthy country we can raise a hunger free generation and we should be doing it right now. I handle food all day long and I know we have ample food in this country, we just need the political will to get it into the hands of all our children so they can grow and thrive and learn.

How has being on Top Chef Masters impacted how you cook and how will it impact your restaurant moving forward?
I don’t think it’s going to change the way I operate. I hope that there are more opportunities that come out of this for Share our Strength and for me. I think that the other really enjoyable think for me is all the incredible fans and diners that I meet every day in my restaurant who are coming in and I can introduce them to a modern new style of Mexican food and that’s very fun for me.

Who was the most exciting guest you got to meet through the show? Who was the toughest critic?
(Laughs) Well, I don’t have time for too much pop culture. So I wasn't really that aware of a lot of the people who came on. Like Maroon 5, I didn't know who they were. But I was really excited to meet Padma [Lakshmi, Top Chef host] and she was so delightful. I think I was most worried about cooking for Gael [Greene] because I am not as familiar with her and my impression of her is she is more haute French cuisine and although I apprenticed in France and lived in Paris for a year and I worked in high-end French restaurants, it's not where I like to be or my favorite thing to cook or eat. So I think she was the one that in the back of my mind I was thinking 'how am I going to impress Gael?'