Interview with Bravo TV's Top Chef Masters finalist Mary Sue Milliken

Submitted by Judy on Fri, 07/29/2011 - 3:53pm.

Mary Sue Milliken, chef co-owner of Border Grill
Restaurants and Truck, talks to me about her recent experience on Bravo TV's Top
Chef Masters.

KANCIGOR: What was the biggest surprise between what you thought you
were getting yourself into when you agreed to do the show and how it
really played out?

MILLIKEN: At first I was pretty reluctant to do the show. It took me a
long time to warm up to the idea to do it at all. I was braced for the
worst. One thing I found to be really interesting and exciting is I
allowed myself to focus on nothing else except the competition every
single day, a pure concentration I probably haven’t had since my
twenties. There were no distractions, no email, no phone calls, no kids.
I just gave myself this gift and allowed myself tunnel vision. I really
learned and grew through that. Now when I get frustrated or irritated, I
just focus. Anybody could probably use a dose of that kind of focus.

KANCIGOR:Did you do anything special to prepare for the show?

MILLIKEN:I asked Susan [Feniger], my partner of 30 years, who had been
on the show in Season 2, “Do you think I should get in the kitchen and
work on the line for a few weeks?”

She said, “No, you’re not going to have any problem. You’re fast with a

What I tried to do to prepare is think back through all the different
dishes I’ve made and loved that were a huge success, make myself a list
of those and remember them, so I could access something pretty quickly.
You don’t want to change gears midway through, but choose a dish to cook
and stay with it and cook it at as beautifully as you can while you’re
jumping through hoops.

KANCIGOR: How did it feel to watch the show? Were there any moments you
wish had not been edited out or wish had been edited out?

MILLIKEN:I was really looking forward to it. You live through maybe 16
hrs and it gets edited into one hour. I was pretty happy. One of my
goals was not to be bleeped. I think I accomplished that. When I cut the
tip of my thumb off, I expected that to end on the cutting room floor.
It happened so fast. It was right at the beginning of a challenge, so I
was irritated. How could I do this?I was really surprised when I saw it
on TV. I forgot I even cut myself.

KANCIGOR:My readers love tips. On the show you really have to think on
your feet. I’ve looked at the clock when expecting company and felt the
fear of the moments ticking away. Do you have any tips for the home cook
on preparing for company and staying relaxed?

MILLIKEN:Absolutely. I am exactly the same way. I entertain as well as
have a restaurant and do catering. I think the best thing the home cook
can do is to sit down and make a list and really work backwards from the
moment the guests walk in the door to 48 hours back. Make a shopping
list so you have all the ingredients on hand. Make a prep list. Even for
the competition, if I had a little bit of time, I’d try to make myself a
list. It really saves time and keeps the brain free to do the bigger
things. And then check things off the list. If the guests arrive and
you’re not done, realize that you set the tone. Just go with a smile and
enjoy your guests. If you’re not finished, ask a few of them to peel
some onions. Engage your guests. Everything is forgivable. What is not
forgivable is when the host is a nervous wreck. It’s uncomfortable for
your guests.”

KANCIGOR:There is much less backstabbing and drama on Top Chef Masters
than on Top Chef. Even though you were competing against one another,
you seemed to viewers like a real community. Yet the unbelievable
pressure can make tempers flare. How did you hold up under all that

MILLIKEN:There was definitely pressure. It is hard and can get to you. I
think for me just being a woman in a male dominated field since I was
17, I found a way of coping, to constantly focus on the positive and
moving my agenda forward and not let myself get sucked in or acknowledge
pressure, wasting valuable energy. I needed to spend all my energy on
positive things. That comes pretty naturally to me. We had a really nice
group of people. Some were less mature than others, but even the younger
ones who didn’t have the benefit of having been around the block - I
found a way to look at them. Nobody got on my nerves.

KANCIGOR:Would you do it again?

MILLIKEN:No! Oh, I probably could be coerced. I’m just thrilled I didn’t
get thrown off. It made my kids and staff proud of me, but it was a lot
of work.

KANCIGOR:You earned $40,000 on the show for Share Our Strength. How can our readers help?

MILLIKEN:This is a moment in our country when it’s within our grasp to
end childhood hunger. We have a strength we can share. I‘ve been on the
board for 10 years and involved for 20 or more. There are so many
different ways to get involved.Go to
<> and learn about the programs. You can become a
volunteer, participate in bake sales or fundraising through Taste of the
Nation. We do classes and teach kids and families living at or below the
poverty line how to cook, how to shop, how to stretch their dollars.
There are federal dollars left on the table for people who need them and
who are having trouble finding access to those programs. We have kids
who are not signed up for breakfast or lunch programs. We find ways to
help those people access those funds. Go to the web site and take the no
kid hungry pledge Become part of the pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015.

KANCIGOR:Any chance we will see the Too Hot Tamales again on TV?

MILLIKEN:There’s nothing concrete, but we do love teaching. Susan and I
are always trying to scheme and love getting out there and teaching
people how to cook.