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Reading Food : The Making of "City Cuisine"

November 08, 1990|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger started out they had one tiny restaurant, City Cafe. Now they've built an ethnic food empire: Their Border Grills serve Mexican cooking influenced by yearly visits to the marketplaces of Mexico. At City, their world view expands. When it came to cooking, they found instant success doing things their way. But they found cookbook publishers have their own ideas:

FENIGER: When we started talking about doing a book we both felt sure that we really wanted a book that would represent us , the restaurant. We wanted a book that would work in the kitchen, that would be really functional, that would lay flat, that people could use in their homes.

MILLIKEN: But there were a lot of battles to be waged. The publishing business is so different from being a cook. The agents we talked to wanted to sell a cookbook, but they didn't want to sell our cookbook. Finally, Susan and I went to New York and we met with 12 publishers, just the two of us. We had Mike Fink, who does all the graphics for us here, do a comp-up of what we wanted. It had a spiral binding and acetate covers . . .

FENIGER: It was wonderful.

MILLIKEN: You could go in the kitchen and lay it down on the counter, and it wouldn't get all scummy. You could just wash it off.

TIMES: What were the reactions of the publishing people?

FENIGER: Absolutely terrible.

MILLIKEN: They laughed us out of their offices.

TIMES: And said what?

MILLIKEN: This is ridiculous . . .

FENIGER: This is way too expensive. They didn't ask us about the food; the issue was the design.

MILLIKEN: We were willing to work with the budget and make it work. But it didn't make sense that it couldn't be spiral bound. Everywhere you go there's a junior league with a spiral-bound cookbook. When we met Anne Bramson, who became our editor, she was more interested in convincing us to do a little paperback Border Grill cookbook. We were able to convince her though and she really believed in us, she was great.

FENIGER: But we had to convince her . . .

MILLIKEN: At least she was open to it.

FENIGER: What ended up really surprising us, was the actual process of testing the recipes. I think we really both felt that . . .

MILLIKEN: . . . it would be a lot easier than it was.

FENIGER: We thought we'd test the first five, six, maybe ten recipes. After that we thought we could have one of our strong people in the kitchen test the rest. We would just taste. Well, after we did the first ten we thought, there's no way .

MILLIKEN: We're very control-oriented people anyway. It was just really apparent that no one else could make those decisions about a quarter teaspoon of salt, or whatever. Since it's going to be something that's around and living for years and years, the recipes had to have exactly the flavor we wanted.

FENIGER: The cooking process was a lot slower than we're used to, just because you have to keep track of everything. We couldn't just throw stuff in.

MILLIKEN: And then also, because there are two of us, we'd say, "Do you like this?" "Yeah I like it." "Well I don't like it." We had to both agree that we liked it. I remember with a couple of dishes it was like, "but this is delicious . . ." And then, "No, I don't like that. And I was shocked at how much cream we used in some things. Our collaborator Helene (Siegel) kept saying, "No more cream! No more cream! But we're always automatically just pouring more in. I think the rigatoni and the gnocchi had the most cream.

TIMES: How did the publisher react to the finished book?

FENIGER: Everyone liked it. But they wanted us to come up with those words.

MILLIKEN: We had the cover designed just as it came out, but the marketing department had these strips of white going across that said, "Over 250 mouth-watering recipes!" like some used car salesman.

FENIGER: Or else, "Thai! Japanese! Indian!" It was like, are you kidding? We argued it and argued it.

MILLIKEN: For two hours we were in the office at Morrow. We lost the argument. But then, we get into the elevator to go downstairs, and we're dejected--really , really . . .

FENIGER: . . . disgusted.

MILLIKEN: Upset. And the elevator door opens and our editor says, "Oh, this is the vice president, or the president of the company, and Susan, she's so brilliant, she goes up to him and says, "What do you think about the cover of this book? Do you think this is good like this?" And he says, "Yeah, I think that looks pretty good." Then she says, "Well, do you think it needs like a tag line? And he says, "No, absolutely not, it's good just like that."

FENIGER: So I looked at Anne and said, "Anne, that's the answer. He said we don't need it." So we didn't have it. It was really great.

MILLIKEN: We were lucky. But you know, even still, Williams-Sonoma won't carry the book. They think the cover's too ugly . . . they said it doesn't match their store.

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