WHEN Mary Sue Milliken applied for a cooking job at a top French restaurant in Chicago, Le Perroquet, in the 1970s, she was offered the slot of hatcheck girl. When Susan Feniger went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, she was the only girl in the class. Doors to the chefs' world were not exactly wide open to women. But today the two women are chefs in their own right and are opening their third restaurant, City Restaurant, in Los Angeles. The road to their success, however, was not an easy one.
``I'd just graduated from Washburne Academy, a Chicago trade school, and Jovan Trboyevic said he would never hire a pretty girl to work in the kitchen,'' says Ms. Milliken of her first experience at Le Perroquet. ``He said it would cause chaos.
``I kept calling every few weeks to see if there was an opening and finally he said I could wash onions and peel lettuce,'' she continues. Two years later she had moved up the line and when the chef left for the summer, she was in charge.
Ms. Feniger says of her student days, ``I was very serious about wanting to be a chef. I went to school from 6 a.m. to 1:30 in the afternoon, then drove an hour to a restaurant and worked until midnight.'' She also worked at a wholesale fish market and at a restaurant in Kansas City where the chef didn't want a woman helping him. Later she became the second woman, after Milliken, hired at Le Perroquet, and the two became friends.
Eager for broader experience after working at the Chicago restaurant, Feniger searched for a job in one of the top restaurants in France, where she had to start again at the very bottom. ``I had more experience than most of the apprentices there, but when you're working for Europeans there's no room for women's-lib thinking,'' she says. She concedes it was difficult at first, but well worth it.
Later Feniger and Milliken met up again in Los Angeles. This time they decided to open up their own restaurant, called City Caf'e. Three years later they closed this restaurant and opened the Border Grill, which became well known for its sophisticated Mexican food.
Their new restaurant, as the others, has a very individual style. The huge white dining room has red chairs and a green floor, with nothing to distract from the food -- no art on the walls, no flowers or candles on the tables. The food is served on odd-size plates of vibrant colors -- blue, mustard, mint, and orange, for example. The giant City logo of crossed fork and knife is emblazoned on dishes, matches, ashtrays, waiters' lapel pins, and the like.
The food has personality, too. Milliken and Feniger have developed a new kind of melting pot. Using spices from places like Thailand, Mexico, Indonesia, and China, they mix the ingredients of one region with the techniques of another to create their own versions of such dishes as tandoori chicken, Chinese spring rolls, and other ethnic classics.
``We like the challenge of creating dishes that surprise the palate and broaden the concept of what food can be,'' Feniger explains.
Both chefs became interested in ethnic foods after their training in classic cooking. ``Essentially,'' says Feniger, ``we started with our French country cooking. But we're always adding something new.''
Recently Milliken worked in Bangkok, Thailand, for the summer, while Feniger spent time in India. Both learned a lot about cooking with the spices, seeds, and flavors of the two countries.
Between the two of them, Milliken and Feniger cook 12 or 13 entrees every night. They make their own sauerkraut and p^at'es and smoke their own meats. The kitchen in their new restaurant includes a tandoor oven and two huge woks. For the restaurant's pastry shop, Milliken makes 16 or 17 kinds of pastry a day.
Today they are caught up in the excitement and responsibilities of opening the new City Restaurant, where they serve what they've defined as city cuisine -- very eclectic foods sparked with their own ideas.
Entrees include Chicken and Fennel Mousse; Roasted Salmon With Horseradish, Lime, and Spiced Sprouts; Moussaka With Pimento Sauce; Tomatoes, Fresh Herbs, and Feta Cheese With Parsnip Chips and Steamed Okra; plus the following dishes: Sweet Potatoes With Honey and Lime 6 medium potatoes, about 2 pounds 1 cup heavy cream 1/2 cup (1 stick) soft, unsalted butter 1/4 cup honey 1/4 cup lime juice (2 limes) 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon white pepper, or to taste
Bake sweet potatoes in preheated oven at 375 degrees F. until tender, about 25 to 35 minutes. Peel while warm.
Pur'ee potatoes and cream in blender or processor. Combine in medium saucepan with remaining ingredients and reheat over low heat before serving. Basic Tamales 10 ears fresh or dried corn husks 2 cups fine cornmeal, or masa harina 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup lard 1 1/2 cups meat or poultry stock 1 1/2 cups cheese, turkey or meat filling
Soak corn husks about 5 minutes and drain. Combine meal, baking powder, and salt. Cream lard in an electric mixer. When fluffy, add cornmeal mixture gradually until well mixed. Slowly add stock, beating constantly.
Spread out corn husks in 4-by-9-inch portions, overlapping if necessary. Spread on each leaf about 1 tablespoon dough in a rectangle about 3 by 4 inches.
Spread a small spoonful of cheese or meat filling down the center of the dough-lined rectangle. Wrap by overlapping edges lengthwise, then folding up ends.
Layer husks in steamer-colander and steam 1 to 2 hours or until dough is firm enough to pull away from leaves. Serve with yogurt sauce and salsa. Yogurt Sauce 1 pint yogurt 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds 1 teaspoon pur'eed garlic 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger Pinch hot dried chili flakes 1/4 teaspoon paprika 2 teaspoons peanut oil
Heat oil in shallow pan and add first the mustard seeds and cook until they pop, then add garlic, ginger, turmeric, chili flakes, and paprika, cooking mixture a little after each addition. Remove from heat and add yogurt. Add salt and chill sauce. Green Salsa 2 cloves garlic, peeled 12 tomatillos, peeled and washed 1 bunch cilantro, washed, destemmed 1 onion sliced 2 tablespoons butter 3 cups water
Remove cores from tomatillos and quarter. Saut'e onions in butter. Put garlic, tomatillos, cilantro, onion, and water in blender and pur'ee well. Strain into a pan and bring to boil. Add salt to taste.
City Restaurant is located at 180 South La Brea Avenue. Call (213) 938-2155, reservations required. Lunch for two $20-$30; dinner for two $40-$60. The Border Grill, 74071/2 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles (213) 658-7495. Dinner for two $30-$50.