In early November it was announced that ABC and Michael Eisner are developing a sitcom about the intertwined personal and professional careers of veteran restaurant duo Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, the self-styled “Too Hot Tamales” behind the Border Grill and other concepts. THR spoke with the media-savvy partners—who have appeared on everything from Top Chef Masters to The Real Housewives of Orange County—about the fictionalization of the early years of their business partnership in '80s-era L.A.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did this project come about?
Susan Feniger: A couple of years ago we were included in Michael Eisner’s book on partnerships [Working Together]. We interviewed with Michael and his writer. Then, six or seven months ago, we were approached about this [sitcom]. And, of course, we were up to meet to see what he was thinking about.
THR: A sitcom is different from reality television. Were you concerned about how you would be represented on a fictional level?
Mary Sue Milliken: There’s always a risk there. But we’ve been on TV, we’ve got thick skin, and it’s going to be inspired by our journey and not exactly who we are. And it’s important to keep that in mind—that the idea is really just about two twenty-something women in a man’s profession in the ’80s on Melrose in L.A., from the perspective of being in the kitchen all the time.
Feniger: All Mary Sue and I can do is meet the team and see that they come from a really authentic place.
Milliken: And having spent a little time with Jeff Greenstein, the writer, he’s a wonderful guy. He’s very in tune with us and what we want: a great and funny show without it having to be too crazy.
Feniger: When we sit with Jeff and tell the stories about what happened to us in the past 30 years they are funny and some are completely crazy because the restaurant business is always crazy and certainly back in the ’80s it was a wild time with American chefs just coming into their own. It was such a snapshot in time, with women in kitchens that weren’t household kitchens.
THR: How critical is it that this show be set in the ’80s, as opposed to today?
Milliken: If you were to set it today it would be a different thing altogether—two young girls would have to be going on Iron Chef America. The whole path is different. The only high-profile [female] chef was Julia Child. Plus, the time—the music and fashion and the way going out to eat had become sport for the masses—was important.
THR: This isn’t, of course, the first time that your personalities will have been, shall we say, reinterpreted on television. Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon famously spoofed your public radio program Good Food (now hosted by Evan Kleiman) with their Delicious Dish sketches on SNL.
Feniger: We really felt as though we’d made it when they spoofed us. It felt like such a huge honor. It makes you feel, like, “Wow, I didn’t know our life was so exciting.”
Milliken: I still remember when Ana said [in one sketch], “Tune in next week when we do a whole show about salt.”
THR: You both seem admirably willing to let Eisner, Greenstein and the rest of their creative team exercise full creative license. Was there anything that you were absolutely insistent about?
Feniger: Yes. That the actors hold the pans right and strain the sauces correctly. That’s important to us!