5 Life Lessons a Chef Would Tell Her Younger Self

Mary Sue Milliken Courtesy of Border Grill
By Mary Sue Milliken Posted March 10, 2015

"Between full time school and work to support myself, I took on adult behaviors before spending much time growing up. When I look back and think of what I would have benefitted from knowing – it’s mainly life lessons," writes Mary Sue Milliken.

F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. Follow the hashtag on Twitter (@foodandwine).

Who: Mary Sue Milliken
What: Chef/co-owner, Top Chef Master alum
Where: Border Grill Trucks and Restaurants (Los Angeles and Las Vegas); @BorderGrill

Ahhhh what I would give to have a chat with my younger self. I started cooking in a doughnut shop when I was 14. I filled and sugared donuts from 4 to 6 a.m. and then changed into a little pink dress and sold them with coffee from 6 to 7:30 a.m. before hopping on my bike and racing off to high school. I loved working with my hands and moved on to a pizza parlor the following year. Home Economics courses and a chance encounter with a professional chef/bakery owner led me to move away from home to start chef school in lieu of my senior year in high school.

Between full time school and work to support myself, I took on adult behaviors before spending much time growing up. When I look back and think of what I would have benefitted from knowing – it’s mainly life lessons.

Here’s what I would say to dear, young Mary Sue:

1. Confidence is powerful. Do whatever it takes to feel confident and be well prepared to achieve your dreams. Never be embarrassed to ask lots of questions—especially of people you admire and who might feel intimidating to you. They will be flattered and so helpful in ensuring you’re on the right track.

2. You need a balance of repetition and challenge. Do what you’re good at over and over, noticing the nuanced differences and keep improving. You don‘t need to create new recipes/concepts just for the sake of newness. However, challenges keep us focused and inspired so push outside your comfort zone once in a while to take on something that makes you nervous like a new cooking technique or ingredient, new venue, public speaking or a writing project.

3. Mistakes and failures are painful but necessary to your success. You are not defined by just one thing—but many, and when one fails and slips away, the others will remain. And you will be so much smarter for it. Lots of little failures teach you to avoid the bigger, more devastating ones.

4. Change is something you can count on…embrace it and celebrate it. It’s normal to be afraid of change, but you can think of it as your friend: when something is not going well you can remain positive and be assured that it will change! And when things are perfect—don’t be complacent, prepare for the inevitable…change.

5. Step back and look at the big picture more often. It’s too easy to get caught up in the day to day details and you must let those suffer a little in order to have time to revisit goals and aspirations, assess progress and accomplishments. If you don’t—you’ll never get where you want to go.

One other thing my young self would have no way of knowing, but probably sensed, is that success comes and goes and in the end is relatively unimportant. People are what you need most in life. It’s something that guides me every day.

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Why I Skipped Cooking School, by Pastry Chef Lisa Donovan
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