Work Hard, and Hold the Pretense

Chef-owners of LA's successful `City' restaurant say the key is that `everything is critical'

WHEN Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken met at Le Perroquet restaurant in Chicago in 1978, they were the only women in the kitchen. Naturally, they developed a friendship, but it grew not so much because they were the only women, but because they both lived, ate, and breathed their work. Today, as chef-owners of two top LA restaurants (another is on the way), chefs Feniger and Milliken seem to have perfected a recipe for restaurant success: Hold the pretense; heat up the perseverance.

In an interview at their eclectic, much-talked-about ``City'' restaurant here, Ms. Feniger and Ms. Milliken took a rare break to discuss their philosophies of cooking and running restaurants.

What's the difference between being your own boss and working for someone else? ``Owning our business is very similar to what it was working for someone else,'' is Feniger's surprising reply.

In other restaurants, ``whatever responsibilities were given us - we took them as seriously as if we owned the restaurant,'' adds Milliken. The two were chosen ``Chefs of the Year'' by the California Restaurant Writers Association in 1988, the first women to be so honored in the 20-year history of the prize.

The transplanted Midwesterners attribute their extraordinary success to a longstanding work ethic - lots of sweat, stamina, discipline, long hours, patience, and willingness. To get somewhere, ``you worked really hard and did the best job you possibly could,'' says Milliken.

Both chefs started in the food business as teenagers: Milliken in a Michigan pizza parlor and Feniger in an Ohio cafeteria. ``Both of our mothers cooked a lot,'' says Feniger. ``My mom still cooks quite a bit. Mary Sue's mom works for us now,'' in the pastry department.

After culinary school, the chefs sought jobs. But when Milliken applied for a job at Chicago's Le Perroquet, the executive chef said he wasn't interested in hiring women - especially a pretty one who might cause chaos in the kitchen. Milliken persisted, and finally landed a job peeling vegetables. Feniger joined her later, becoming the second woman to work there. Then, as now, the work was physically arduous and mentally an ``endurance game,'' says Milliken.

``When you start out, somebody says: `OK, dice 50 pounds of onions,' and you think `Oh, good.' And then you get through the first 15 and you think `Man, my arm is aching, my wrist hurts, I've got a big blister here on my index finger.' But what you do is you endure it,'' she says. While you're dicing those onions, ``you have to pretend like you're making it a career.''

That work experience has given them respect for their own kitchen staff, Feninger says. Because she and her partner were so close to it, they know that the ``people in those positions are so critical to making our business work.'' Nearly every lunch and dinner, Feniger and Milliken can be found somewhere on the kitchen line in one of their restaurants.

From Le Perroquet, the two went separate ways. Milliken stayed in Illinois while Feniger went to California to work in Ma Maison under renowned chef Wolfgang Puck. Then, without either one knowing of the other's plan, Milliken and Feniger landed in France for a cooking stint within days of each other - Feniger on the Riviera, Milliken in Paris. They met up in Paris, and promised each other to work together in the States someday.

``We work so well together,'' says Milliken. ``Our tastes are similar. ... It's a real gut way that we cook.''

Feniger returned to Ma Maison in California, and made a name for herself cooking mornings in the fledgling City caf'e. Soon, she became a partner at the caf'e and called on Milliken for help; the two eventually took over. After an overwhelming response, the chefs moved the caf'e to its present location (a large, ex-carpet warehouse that seats 125 as opposed to 40) and called it City. The old caf'e was revamped and turned into the Border Grill, serving Mexican fare. Their second Border Grill restaurant will open later this month.

``When we opened up City restaurant it was so difficult - physically and mentally - that I was afraid of doing another restaurant,'' says Milliken. ``It's taken us five years just for us to get the guts up to do it again.''

Good chefs have failed before. So have good restaurants. How have the two women succeeded? ``We have a really good grip of the big picture ... the importance of all the elements,'' says Feniger. ``I don't think we undervalue each element - service, the way people look, attention to detail, the food, the atmosphere, the importance of dealing with your staff [soon to exceed 200], communication. That's what we think is the success of our business: Everything is critical.''

Most people who come away from City restaurant remember the food more than the colorful interior, chic tableware, and LA-hip servers. City's food is a blend of ethnic foods with bold flavors, colors, and textures. But Feniger and Milliken have trouble defining their cuisine.

``City cuisine is based on the food that we like to eat,'' says Milliken. They also owe a debt to the dozen or so prominent chefs with which they have worked, she says.

Try a cool Thai Salad or Rigatoni Stuffed with Chicken and Fennel; Yam and Ginger Soup; Roasted Potatoes served with Warm Confit of Duck. Or how about naan (an Indian puffy bread) with homemade yogurt; Cupcakes Hostess Style; or Lemon Hazelnut Tart?

It comes as no surprise that the chefs have been influenced by the cuisines of countries they've visited: Feniger to India; Milliken to Thailand.

But perhaps most memorable were their trips to Mexico together - specifically, the Yucatan. ``The food is just spectacular, really unbelievable,'' says Feniger. ``We just went down there for five days and all we did was eat and go to tiny markets in tiny, tiny towns and we wrote 15 pages of notes down about it,'' she says.

``When we go to Thailand, India, Mexico - we're never afraid to eat the stuff on the street, and I think that's where we come up with some of our best ideas,'' adds Milliken, noting that Poona Pancakes - ``something that Susan ate on the street'' in India - have been on City's menu for a long time. Recreating the foods they discover on the street is ``as satisfying as creating it ourselves,'' says Milliken.

The process of ``creating'' a menu-quality dish is difficult to pin down. Oftentimes with chefs ``there's an ego involved, and we don't have that,'' says Feniger, glancing at her partner.

``I don't think either one of us has ever had this thought: `Oh, I created that.' It's almost like `Where did that come from?''' says Milliken, suggesting that the creation of a new dish is a combination of stored knowledge, personal likes, instinct, and a sensitivity for food.

After the interview, Feniger and Milliken dive into City kitchen's noontime rush. Standing near the Tandoor oven, Milliken slips a piece of naan bread to this writer, saying ``it's my favorite!'' Feniger shouts out an order for brisket of beef, then turns to take control of a frying pan. Cooks and servers are in fast motion. The people in the restaurant ``mmm-ing'' can also catch the kitchen action: A TV screen at the bar displays it all. And no one asks to change the channel.

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