When chef, author and TV host Mary Sue Milliken first met Julia Child, it didn’t go according to plan.
“I’d never been that nervous in my whole life,” said Milliken, who was speaking with her business partner, Susan Feniger, on a panel of female chefs that Child was moderating in the early 1980s. “When they put the lavaliere mic on me, I thought it was electrocuting me. But I was actually having an anxiety attack.”
Onstage, Child gave each panelist the chance to introduce herself. When she got to Milliken, “All of a sudden, my mouth went dry, and I didn’t say anything, and [Child] said, ‘Oh, we’ll come back to you, darling!’ ” she said. She “helped me to feel the least amount of mortification possible at forgetting what my name was.”
That wasn’t their only embarrassing run-in with Child. Feniger said that in the early ’80s, the TV host also came to their first restaurant in Los Angeles, City Cafe, “our tiny little restaurant that had two hot plates, and we had two hibachis in the parking lot out back.” To get to the bathroom, guests had to walk through the kitchen. Feniger was putting a delivery of vegetables into the fridge.
“She came walking into the kitchen, looked over at us, and knocked her head on the pots and pans,” said Feniger. “To hear her voice in person was pretty dreamy, and surreal.”
Milliken and Feniger went on to achieve culinary acclaim on their own. City Cafe was widely praised and led them to other opportunities, including the Mexican restaurants Ciudad and Border Grill, the latter of which has expanded to other locations in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Many industry veterans credit them with transforming the L.A. restaurant scene. Like Child, they’ve each published an assortment of cookbooks, and they were early Food Network stars for their show “Too Hot Tamales.” Their partnership has endured for nearly 40 years.
And now, they’re both going to receive her namesake award. The pair will be the first set of partners and the first women to receive the Julia Child Award, which was previously awarded to chefs Jacques Pepin and Rick Bayless, and restaurateur Danny Meyer. The award will be presented to Milliken and Feniger on Nov. 1, at a gala for Smithsonian Food History Weekend at the National Museum of American History, where Child’s kitchen is on display.
The Julia Child Award is intended to honor a living person of distinguished achievement in the industry. The award is given to someone who has had “a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats and drinks,” and who has made a name as an educator, communicator and philanthropist, among other characteristics. Like the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the award is selected by an independent jury of chefs, journalists and academics.
Feniger and Milliken’s restaurants “reflect curiosity and continued growth, much like Julia,” said Eric Spivey, chairman of the Julia Child Foundation. “They’ve been also really great mentors and role models for a whole host of new chefs over the years.”
Milliken and Feniger were able to make up for their inauspicious early impressions, and developed a professional friendship with Child.
“She was always so humble, so interested in what we were doing,” said Feniger. “She just was one of those very giving, caring people, and the way she treated us and everyone around her was so crazy respectful that it just made you fall in love with her.”
She and Feniger appeared on Child’s show “Cooking with Master Chefs” in 1993, and remember the taping at Milliken’s house fondly. Child would begin early in the morning, giving them advice and direction, and typing out notes on a computer in the living room. Then they’d break for lunch, and Child would throw tennis balls into the pool for Milliken’s dog to retrieve. They were both struck by how down-to-earth the star was.
“She was always up for a beer at the end of the day,” said Milliken.
The award comes with a $50,000 prize, which is intended to be donated to a food-related charity. Feniger and Milliken will split the money but haven’t yet announced their beneficiaries. The duo have been involved in several charities, including Share Our Strength, the LA Food Policy Council and Oxfam. They also continue to expand their empire, with plans to open a new restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., later this year.
In the tradition of the Julia Child Award, the recipients will donate artifacts from their archives to the Smithsonian’s food exhibition. While they’re not yet certain what they’ll donate, an early contender is a set of colorful tableware from their restaurants. And being in the museum with Child’s kitchen makes them feel closer to the star who became the model for their careers.
To be part of a museum archive is “so much bigger than just what I do every day,” said Feniger. “The award has a deeper meaning than getting some other tangible award, because I feel like she was very real and honest and authentic and down to earth, and I feel like that’s an important part of who I am and how I like to run our business.”
Knowing Child “really gave me a template of a way to approach my career,” said Milliken. “I learned a lot from just watching her and emulating the way she carried herself in public.”
One of the qualities that the judges consider in Julia Child Award winners is that they must be a “bridge-builder.” Feniger and Milliken saw that in Child’s repeated graciousness to them.
“I don’t think she was a very big fan of our food. I think she liked it. And she thought it tasted good and everything. But if she was going to go out to eat she would not go out for an ethnic meal,” said Milliken. “She tried not to let it show. But you could tell that she would much rather be eating, you know, beef Wellington or something.”
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