Q&A with Mary Sue Milliken, Border Grill Restaurants

Published on
January 20, 2015

Celebrity chef Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner and co-chef of Los Angeles, Calif.-based Border Grill Restaurants and Truck, has been a sustainable seafood advocate for nearly 20 years. All her restaurants source only seafood deemed “yellow” or “green” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Milliken’s use of sustainable and natural ingredients has received global attention when she competed on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Masters,” co-starring in The Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales” and numerous other TV appearances.

SeafoodSource talked with Milliken about the recently opened Border Grill at The Forum Shops at Caesars, where the restaurant company sources its seafood, and Milliken’s upcoming TV appearances.

Blank: What is different about the menu at the Caesars’ Border Grill, and how have you transformed the menus at your other restaurants?

Milliken: We did a lot of tweaking and updating of the menu. We have a nice, big ceviche bar in the dining room. Ceviche is the perfect thing to have in Las Vegas. Our Baja Ceviche is made with shrimp and our sustainable catch of the day. Our Ahi Ceviche features Peruvian chilies and plantain chips. We also have a Guatemalan shrimp cocktail, made with shrimp poached in beer. We do lots of oysters, including shooters and oysters on the half shell.
Our menus are dictated by the sourcing of ingredients and the great products we can get, including meat raised without hormones and antibiotics. We are always evolving, and refining and improving the dishes.

Which sustainable seafood organizations do the Border Grill Restaurants and Truck support?

There are many different ways to go about sustainable seafood, including the Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch. The Monterey Bay Aquarium program is stringent enough that my children and great-grandchildren will get to eat a variety of fish. The Monterey Bay website for professional chefs is good. We also distribute Seafood Watch fliers to our customers. They are appreciative and like learning a little bit about it. Our 400 employees are also very proud of the fact that we don’t serve any seafood unless it is sustainable. They really feel good about that choice. It is about more than just coming to work and getting a paycheck.

Where do you source sustainable seafood?

Sourcing ingredients is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of the job. If you get great ingredients, you don’t have to do much to them. We buy from a lot of different seafood purveyors and fishermen, including Ben Hyman in California. He sells things that he gets right off the boat. No matter which seafood purveyor you use, you have to watch them. Even if you say, “I’m only going to use ‘green’ or ‘yellow’ fish on the Seafood Watch list, they may inadvertently slip it in.

Why is sustainable seafood such a hot trend among chefs and consumers?

We are really hitting the turning point. The word has spread to the masses and consumers are so much more knowledgeable, demanding and sophisticated. The National Restaurant Association is saying that one of the top culinary trends is sustainable seafood. That is pretty exciting to me and others who have been working on this issue for 15 to 20 years. Sustainable seafood was the first thing we took on in our restaurants, and then we switched to all organic rice and beans, and then hormone and antibiotic-free meat and poultry.

Also, there are a lot of organizations that are courting chefs, including Monterey Bay Aquarium; Chef’s Collaborative, which I co-founded; the Chef Action Network, an offshoot of the James Beard Foundation Boot Camp; and Tom Colicchio’s Food Policy Action. I’m a member of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council as well.

What’s next for your television career?

I’m going to be a judge on “Beat Bobby Flay”  I don’t know when the episode airs. I will have a couple other appearances. I also did a web series, “America Cooks,” for the Clinton Foundation, in which six chefs were paired with six families who wanted help with their cooking habits.

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