Snowdrifts are surrounding New York, and Michael Mina is a tad worried about his impending flight to Chicago. He has a dinner reservation at Alinea, and then he’s bound for Wisconsin to watch his hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers, take on the Green Bay Packers. “Not a bad weekend,” he laughs. Mina’s tight with the Niners; he was a longtime regular at Candlestick Park, and at the football team’s forthcoming digs, Levi’s Stadium, fans will sit down in a tweaked version of his well-known steakhouse, Bourbon Steak & Pub.
Mina’s culinary empire is vast, spanning 19 restaurants and lounges across seven states and Washington, D.C.—from wine-centric RN74 in San Francisco and Seattle, to contemporary Vegas seafood shrine American Fish, to comfort-food tavern Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore. Despite the sheer scope of the Mina Group empire, the affable chef’s imprint is visible on each of them: balanced, timeless cooking that highlights fresh and organic ingredients.
During my junior and senior years of high school I was literally running the kitchen at a little French restaurant.
Born in Egypt, Mina and his family moved to rancher-heavy Ellensburg, WA, when he was two. “My mother cooked Middle Eastern dishes and I learned a lot through all those spices,” he recalls. “I had two best friends. One’s father owned a meatpacking plant; the other one owned a dairy. So I was exposed to food early on.” But it wasn’t until he was a 15-year-old fry cook that Mina’s future began to take shape. “During my junior and senior years of high school I was literally running the kitchen at a little French restaurant,” he says.
That precocity led him to the Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduation, the West Coast beckoned again, and after a Los Angeles stint at the Hotel Bel-Air, he headed to San Francisco to develop the menu for Aqua, the swank seafood temple that put him on the map. As executive chef from 1993-2002, he garnered two James Beard Awards. Two decades later, the restaurant morphed into the Japanese- and French-accented Michael Mina.
Michael Mina 74—a low-ceilinged bistro with “a throwback supper club feel” and roving carts of shellfish—is Mina’s current baby. Situated at the oceanfront Fontainebleau Miami Beach, the restaurant features dishes inspired by Mina’s worldly travels, like jerk quail with foie gras and potato-crusted pompano. The star attraction: a private boat that makes unpredictable, daily seafood runs. As Mina says, “You never know what you’re going to get.”
The 10 dishes that most impacted the prolific Mina are just as surprising.
Scallop-potato sandwich at Aureole (NYC)
When I was going to culinary school in Hyde Park, I worked as an extern at Aureole on the weekends. The sea-scallop sandwich with potatoes was a great dish that became a signature, and it was one of mine to pick up. Charlie Palmer would shred the potatoes to order himself, so anytime you burned them he would have to do it all over again; not something you wanted. It was a dish that helped bring discipline to my cooking early on. (Photo: Yelp)
White-truffle pasta at Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA)
I was 21 when I moved to San Francisco, and Chez Panisse was one of the first restaurants I ate at in the Bay Area. It happened to be truffle night, and I had never experienced white truffles before. Paul Bertolli was the chef at the time, and he made ravioli with shaved white truffles and brown butter that had the perfect thickness and amount of filling. To this day, it’s the best pasta I’ve ever had. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Lobster pot pie at Aqua (San Francisco)
Lobster pot pie became my first signature dish when I opened Aqua. Your goal as a chef is always to create dishes people remember years later. The pot pie is one I couldn’t articulate properly until we figured out how to do it tableside; the carving, the aromas, the reconstruction of the lobster—it helped me understand how impactful tableside service can be in a dining room. (Photo courtesy Mina Group)
Copper River salmon at Daniel (NYC)
I went to dinner at the original location of Daniel, and Daniel Boulud was gracious enough to offer us the tasting menu. One of the dishes was a Copper River salmon that was roasted whole, bone-in, with the tail. It was presented with artichoke barigoule and it had a delicious fattiness and acidity. It opened my eyes to thinking outside the box of primal cuts; the tail was spectacular. (Photo: James Beard Foundation)
When you think of shabu-shabu—the hotpot dish with thinly sliced beef—often it’s at casual restaurants. But Masa [chef Masayoshi Takayama] made one with Wagyu beef when he was still in L.A., and it was the first time I had such a high-level experience with the dish. What I especially loved about it was eating together and interacting. It blew my mind, and now at the new restaurant we do our own version tableside. (Photo courtesy Mina Group)
Green-apple Napoleon at JoJo (NYC)
I always thought of desserts as decadent and fruit as simple, but there is a dessert at Jean-Georges’ JoJo, in New York, that has stuck with me for a long time: a baked Napoleon with layers and layers of sugar and green apples cut thinly on a mandolin. There was cinnamon and a little bit of clarified butter, and it was served with green-apple sorbet. How light and gratifying it was. (Photo: JoJo)
Porchetta sandwich at RoliRoti Gourmet Rotisserie (San Francisco)
RoliRoti Gourmet Rotisserie, in San Francisco, may be the most famous food truck in the U.S. Thomas, the owner, is from Switzerland and does all the butchering and cooks on the rotisserie. Half a dozen chefs are in line every time for his porchetta sandwich, rolled in herbs, with crispy skin, and topped with onion marmalade. It’s served on an Acme roll with just the right amount of sourdough, and he mops up all the juices with it. You think of something as simple as a pork sandwich, and then you realize the technique and execution that goes into it. There’s a reason the line is 200 people deep. (Photo: Yelp)
Jean-Louis Palladin’s chicken in pig bladder
Jean-Louis Palladin was an inspiration to chefs—the man everyone looked up to and wanted to be around. Along with Wolfgang Puck, he was one of the first chefs to open a fine dining restaurant in Las Vegas, and when he was there we did an event with him in Napa. Afterwards, he cooked different parts of the animal you would never think about for the chefs; back then they weren’t served in restaurants. The dramatic, tableside chicken stuffed in the pig bladder was cooked perfectly and took in so much flavor. (Photo: Amateur Gourmet)
Hana (Sonoma County, CA)
Hana is a little place in a strip mall in Rohnert Park, in Sonoma County, and a lot of chefs end up meeting there. I started eating there 15 years ago, and the chef, Ken Tominaga, is now my partner at PABU. A lot of times I’ll go for lunch and he’ll make me something that isn’t on the menu—beef sabayon folded into rice right after it’s cooked, with perfect uni on top and a salmon roe he cures, as well as just a little bit of crispy seaweed beside it. I crave this so much, I make it for myself. (Photo courtesy Mina Group)
I was using American Wagyu when you couldn’t import Japanese. Guests expected it to be more tender, so instead of taking a piece of meat at room temperature and throwing it onto an 800-degree grill, we started working on this idea of slow-poaching it in butter and herbs before grilling it on wood. It makes the meat more tender and flavorful. (Photo courtesy Mina Group)