Our new series brings together two chefs who have cooked up great friendships. The first installment features two James Beard Award winners: Traci Des Jardins – whose San Francisco restaurants include Jardiniere, The Commissary, and Arguello – and Mary Sue Milliken, who is one-half of the culinary powerhouse behind Border Grill locations in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. We got them talking about how they met and some of their many escapades.
Mary Sue Milliken: In 1995, the Spanish government took a group of chefs on an intimate, five-star culinary adventure. I was very excited, but I didn’t know who else was going to be on the trip. I met Traci right as we were checking into the hotel. There are those people you meet in life who you realize had the same childhood and adolescence as you did. We grew up the same way in the same industry.
Traci Des Jardins: We were both really driven overachievers within our families and left home early. We shared the common experience of being in hyper-male kitchens.
MSM: We just bonded over pretty much everything. At the end of the trip, we joked we needed to go to Betty Ford before we went back to our kitchens.
TDJ: We started talking every other day and traveling together. I would be invited on all these culinary trips, so I would always say, ‘Okay, but you have to invite Mary Sue as well’ and she’d say the same thing when she was invited. That’s how we would spend time together.
MSM: We took trips to New York City, California wine country, Tokyo, and Chile.
TDJ: I quickly learned that Mary Sue wasn’t just a great chef; she was also a great businesswoman. That was incredibly helpful for me at that juncture because I hadn’t opened my own restaurant yet. To this day, if I have a question about a contract or a negotiation or how much I’m getting paid for something, Mary Sue is one of the first people I call.
MSM: During those early times, it was not a one-way street because I would learn things from Traci about cooking, how she organized her kitchen, how she kept her staff motivated, and how she approached events and overcame cooking challenges. On top of that, we love cooking together. It’s very natural and normal. I’m always happy to take a backseat. If I feel like we’re going in the wrong direction, I’ll put my foot down, but generally, we are very simpatico in the kitchen. There’s no ego. It’s always really fun.
TDJ: I remember Mary Sue called me in 2005 and said, ‘Iron Chef America just contacted me. They want me to go on the show, but it’s so not my thing and I don’t want to do it.’ So I was teasing her and giving her a hard time about even considering doing it. The next day, they called me and asked me to come on the show. We both ended up doing it and they filmed us back to back.
MSM: Top Chef Masters called us for season one, and we said no. They called us for season two, and we said no, except my business partner, Susan Feniger, who said yes. For season three, they asked me six times and I originally said no. But then Bon Appetit called and said they wanted a recipe from us, so I offered to get on the phone. Except they said they didn’t want to talk to me, they wanted to talk to Susan, because she was a Top Chef Master. Right after that call, one of the Top Chef Masters producers called and I said I would do it. My next call was to Traci to tell her she had to do it, too. We both thought we’d get kicked off in the first episode. Every morning, we’d have tea in my room. Every night – sometimes after taping for 15 hours – we’d have tequila in Traci’s room. We had a real system going, which is what got us to the final. We were convinced one of us would win and so excited it was going to be a woman. We wanted to represent the girls out there. I’m still shocked Traci didn’t win.
TDJ: We were not happy at the end. But you move on. Since then, we’ve been doing what we call ‘chick trips’ to far off places. We went to Mongolia with April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig), Anita Lo (Anissa), and Loretta Keller (SeaGlass Restaurant). That was a trip of a lifetime.
MSM: After being out in the woods in Mongolia, then we went to Seoul, Korea for massages, scrubs, and food like you wouldn’t believe, like live octopus on your tongue. It was the perfect after-party.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.