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Why Is This Man Cooking?: How Michael Mina Said No to Fame and Built a Restaurant Empire 

Wednesday, Jun 18 2014

It took chef and restauranteur Michael Mina three months to decide on a ramen bowl for his new Embarcadero restaurant, The Ramen Bar. He and his partners tried dozens of different kinds; none provided the ramen-eating experience that Mina was looking for. Eventually, Mina, along with Patric Yumul, president of the Mina Group, and Ken Tominaga, chef of The Ramen Bar, turned to a potter friend who had designed serve-ware for Mina's restaurants before. They would create their own.

The resulting custom-made bowl differs from the multitudes already out there in subtle ways. Its walls are a little thicker, keeping the broth warmer and the outside of the bowl cooler to the touch. Its interior is cream-colored, so you can see the delicacy of the broth and ingredients. It's the right size for the ramen they're serving, versatile enough to work on a plate or off, and handsomer than most, with an exterior of brushed cerulean to echo the water theme of the restaurant.

Michael Mina has built his company's success on paying attention to details like these that incrementally contribute to the best dining experience he can provide. There are hundreds of maddening items that go into running a successful restaurant, and that make chefs such volatile, obsessive, Type-A personalities — or that attract such personalities in the first place. One thing wrong can throw the whole enterprise out of balance. Good chefs can run a restaurant for a few years. Great ones can make a career out of it.

Mina is something else entirely.

In the next two months, the Mina Group will open three more places: The Ramen Bar and its adjacent Pabu sushi bar near the Embarcadero, and the 180-seat Bourbon Steak & Pub in the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara. Which are in turn just a small part of Mina's empire: 17 other restaurants, in cities from Las Vegas to Miami.

You might be wondering why you don't know who Michael Mina is. You've maybe seen his name on the façade of a restaurant in some nice part of some cool city. You probably don't know what he looks like, even though his restaurant empire is bigger than that of better-known chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Rick Bayless, Tyler Florence, or Todd English. His focus on running his restaurants has cost him the fame of many of his contemporaries — even in San Francisco, the city where he's spent his adult life. He's never had a TV show. He's published only one cookbook. He doesn't do product endorsements or license his name to cookware. You won't see his face on soup cans in Safeway.

It was all offered at some point or another. But Mina, 46, doesn't regret the opportunities he turned down. He's exerting his influence on American food in a quieter way. Mina loves working in his restaurants, loves setting up systems to make them run better, loves tinkering, loves focusing on details like the ramen bowl. A celebrity chef on TV will inspire amateurs and perhaps the next Food Network star. But the product of the massive, super-efficient restaurant machine that Mina has engineered is not just great food, but great chefs and great managers, who then go on to open their own places. In the unstable world of restaurants, Mina's great success is creating stability, and in training others to create stability, too. And he hasn't done this by breaking the rules in food or service; he's gotten here by following them really, really well.

There is perhaps an even simpler reason why Mina hasn't sought the spotlight over the years: He's just not wired that way. Michael Mina's not a Personality. He doesn't suck all the air out of the room when he walks into it. In person he's reserved, maybe even a little shy, at least as much as a grown man with 1,500 employees can be. He's funny, self-deprecating, kind of a normal dude, one who showed up for an interview on Giants opening day wearing a black-and-orange jersey.

Could he have overcome the shyness, learned to mug for an audience? Sure. It took Mina's peers like Emeril and Mario Batali and the rest of them a while to get comfortable in front of the camera. But fame — at least the brand that gets you recognized when you walk down the street — has not been part of his personal definition of success. More to the point, taping a TV show or developing a line of cookware or writing another cookbook would take him away from what he loves.

"The part that I know I enjoy most is the restaurants. You can't do everything, you know?" he says. "For me, the priority has been being deeply involved in my restaurants and figuring out different ways to make them run better."

As a diner, you think of a restaurant like a store: You order the ahi tuna tartare at Michael Mina's eponymous restaurant in downtown San Francisco; a waiter goes in the back and gets it for you. But a restaurant is more like an impossibly intricate play that consists mostly of improv. There are so many variables on a given night, so many things that can go wrong. One guest shows up a half-hour late for a reservation, jamming up the front of house; another goes to the bathroom just as his table's main courses are ready and the plates have to be held or re-fired, jamming up the kitchen. There are no-shows, service mistakes, equipment breakdowns, finicky diners. And that's just when the restaurant is open to customers. Writing menus, tracking food costs, ordering ingredients, repairing damaged furniture, organizing payroll — just a few of the things a restaurant owner needs to keep on top of every day or the business and guest experience start to suffer.

On a busy night, the Mina Group will serve about 3,500 people at its 17 restaurants. Michael Mina knows what's going on at all of them. His company's ability to run high-quality restaurants at scale hinges on a smart corporate structure, which Mina and his team have been setting up since they started the company 11 years ago. And it's not the same sort of corporate automating and 3-ring bindering of a Chili's or TGIFriday's or any other chain. Mina's restaurants win awards, big ones: The list of accolades is long, from Michelin stars to James Beard awards to four-star restaurant reviews.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.


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