As part of Food Bowl, May’s monthlong festival of food, dining and sustainability, the Los Angeles Times is presenting the second annual Gold Award to chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. The Gold Award is to be given to a California chef annually, with the idea of honoring culinary excellence and expanding the notion of Southern California cooking. The award, which last year was given to Wolfgang Puck, celebrates intelligence, innovation and brilliance as well as sensitivity to aesthetics, culture and the environment.
It is hard to imagine anyone who has shaped the idea of what a Los Angeles chef might be than this year’s honorees, who have worked as partners since their early years of apprenticeship and who have run restaurants together here since the early 1980s.
At the original City Café on Melrose, Feniger and Milliken turbocharged the idea of a neighborhood restaurant, and at their ambitious City Restaurant on La Brea, which served finely realized versions of dishes from a dozen countries, they blurred the boundaries between street food and fine dining in ways that some of us are just now beginning to appreciate. (Feniger later formalized the blurring at her short-lived Street.)
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At Border Grill, they explored regional Mexican cooking a decade before the idea became fashionable. (A lot of people who wouldn’t dare admit it at the moment may have first tasted panuchos, tinga, freshly made tortillas and pescado Veracruzana at Border Grill.) They wrote five cookbooks together.
They were the original hosts of the “Good Food” show on KCRW. Their long-running series “Too Hot Tamales” may have been the first genuine hit in the pre-Emeril days of the Food Network; Feniger, in a solo turn, was a star on “Top Chef Masters.”
And, not least, they have always been among the most generous of chefs, pouring countless hours and organizing countless fundraisers for Share Our Strength, No Kid Hungry, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the Scleroderma Research Centers, among many others.
Tacos and tamales, we have learned, can bring the world together. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken have shown us more than a few of the possibilities.