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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
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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.

First, the Mina Group focuses on a few restaurant concepts that it replicates around the country. Michael Mina, the group's flagship power-dining restaurant in downtown San Francisco, also has outposts in Las Vegas and Miami. You can visit the upscale steak-and-whiskey restaurant Bourbon Steak at the Westin St. Francis in Union Square, or in Los Angeles, Miami, Scottsdale, or Washington, D.C. RN74, a French bistro in SOMA with a serious wine program, has a sister restaurant in Seattle. There are also a few one-off concepts Mina developed with hotels — a mountainside pub in Jackson Hole, a modern American tavern in Baltimore, a steakhouse in San Jose, others in Las Vegas and Orange County.

But Mina's restaurants aren't carbon copies of each other; he gives his executive chefs autonomy over at least half of the menu, meaning that Adam Sobel at RN74 San Francisco is cooking different food than David Varley at RN74 Seattle, even though the restaurants have the same design and overall concept.

His hand is still steering the ship — he approves all menu items through a company intranet called the Recipe Exchange — but Mina knows that the long-term success of his restaurants hinges on the people he trusts and empowers to carry out the blueprint he's created.

Mina's influence on those who have worked hard for him continues after they've left the company. When his former director of operations, Ryan Cole, was looking at the space that became the neighborhood bistro Stones Throw on Russian Hill, Mina walked through the empty restaurant with him before he signed the lease. Mina advised and encouraged chef Melissa Perello, whom he'd worked with in his early career, when she was thinking about opening the Castro's celebrated California restaurant Frances. He's guided Anthony Carron, former corporate chef who's now heading up growing national pizza chain 800 Degrees, and offered to help former pastry chef Bill Corbett, now with the Absinthe Restaurant Group, who is in the early stages of opening his own place.

By nurturing all these people, Mina's doing more than just helping them out. He's disseminating his vision of above-and-beyond customer service and constant dedication to improvement — two things that every former chef mentioned when asked what they had learned at the Mina Group restaurants — throughout the restaurant world of San Francisco and beyond.

It's a lot for one man, especially one who has been married for 20 years and is raising two teenage sons (he's teaching his eldest how to drive this year) — and as you begin to understand Mina's level of involvement with his restaurants, you see why he never had the time for TV tapings and cookbook writing. When he was the Mina Group's corporate chef, Carron remembers being on the phone with Mina at least five times a day, at any hour. Sometimes when they were talking at night the line would go silent. Mina had fallen asleep.


Mina grew up in Ellensburg, Wash., an agricultural town about 100 miles east of Seattle. His parents, both Egyptian, brought their food traditions with them when they immigrated to the United States when he was a toddler. One of Mina's fondest food memories growing up is the multi-hour Middle Eastern feasts he had with his mother's eight siblings and their families. "You're at the table and there's no rhyme or reason to how the food comes out," he says. "And you sit there and you joke, and you fight, and basically that's what you do. ... The social part of dining is, to me, still what it's supposed to be about."

When he was 15, he took a job working in a small French restaurant. By the next year he was leaving high school at noon to work in the kitchen. But Mina didn't know that being a chef was a career path until he saw an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous featuring the legendary chef Jeremiah Tower, who had run the kitchen at Chez Panisse before opening Stars, the most famous restaurant in San Francisco in the '80s. "At that moment the lightbulb turned on," Mina says. The next day he started looking at cooking schools.

His father didn't share his enthusiasm, though, so they struck a deal: Mina would first try a year of college at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, in the fall of 1986, he saw an ad for a chef at the Space Needle restaurant. He skipped the line of more-qualified chefs waiting to apply, went into the restaurant for lunch, asked to talk to the chef, and bonded with him about pheasant hunting near Ellensburg. He got the job.

After one semester of college, Mina's father relented and Mina went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., one of the best cooking schools in the country. The summer after his first year, he had an internship with George Morrone, a talented chef who was responsible for the success of several high-profile restaurants on the West Coast. The 19-year-old Mina arrived in L.A. to find that the internship had been given to someone else. Just as in Seattle, Mina didn't accept rejection. "He was very persistent," says Morrone. "Every day he'd come by in a suit and be like, 'I read about you, I want to come work for you.'" Eventually Morrone gave him a gig assisting on the pastry station.

Mina returned to the CIA in the fall of 1987, but started spending his weekends in Manhattan working at Aureole, the buzzy Manhattan restaurant from another legendary chef, Charlie Palmer. He worked every station and got to see firsthand the rhythms of an important, successful kitchen. After graduation the following year, he returned to L.A. as Morrone's sous chef. The next year, the two were approached by an Aureole regular, Charles Condy, whose accountant owned a failing sports bar in San Francisco's Financial District. Would the two men like to open a restaurant in the space?

They did, and the resulting restaurant, Aqua, would eventually become the heir apparent to Stars and give Mina the biggest break of his career. He moved to San Francisco and felt like his early Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous dreams had finally come true. But the dream was deferred his second day in town when the 1989 Loma Linda earthquake struck. Building permits and everything else for Aqua were pushed back as the city rebuilt. Here was one situation that Mina couldn't engineer his way out of. He bounced around kitchens in San Francisco and New York, getting more experience under his belt, biding his time.


Aqua was a big deal from the moment it opened, finally, in 1991. Morrone was executive chef, and the 22-year-old Mina was his second in command. The restaurant served only fish, which Mina says was "basically unheard of" back then, and its kitchen was the stuff of legend, with a deep bench of culinary talent, including Traci des Jardins (of Jardinere and the Commissary), Bruce Hill (of Zero Zero, Fog City, Bix, and Piccino), Ron Siegel (now the executive chef at Michael Mina), and others. It was also the first restaurant to start "the casualization of fine dining," says Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle's food critic for three decades. Fine dining, in those days, was hushed and staid. Aqua was lively and dynamic. The tables were close together, the room had huge flower arrangements and contemporary art. "[The room] had a very uplifting, California feel. So did the food," Bauer says.

"Intense" is the word people use when they talk about the kitchen at Aqua. Mina and Morrone had very high standards. Hill, who had put in time as a line cook at Stars, remembers Aqua as the first kitchen he'd worked where a chef scrutinized every plate before it went out to the customers. "If something wasn't right, it was just made again," he says. "Other chefs would say, 'We'll do better next time.' But at Aqua it was like, 'This isn't going out.'"

Melissa Perello came into the kitchen as a young chef on an internship. The four-star restaurant had to do about 250 covers a night, and the pressure to make each one of them perfect was expressed through yelling and, occasionally, items being thrown. Perello doesn't hold any grudges. "That was the norm for kitchens back then," she says.

Mina knows he's mellowed since those days. "Of course you do things differently in your 30s and 40s than in your 20s," he says. For him, that's been learning to trust and rely on the people around him. "With chefs the problem is we have to be very confident because people are looking at us for that. So pretty soon you think you're a plumber, you think you're an electrician, you think you're an accountant. Everyone was asking questions I had no business answering," he says. "Collaboration is a better process."


Today we take for granted that chefs sign autographs and go on book tours and appear in Vogue like any other celebrity, but the celebrification of chefs has happened just over the past 20 years. Aside from a few well-known personalities like Tower and Wolfgang Puck, chefs in the '80s and early '90s were considered more servants than artists. But in 1993, the Food Network launched, the same year that Morrone left and Mina took over as executive chef at Aqua. From the beginning, the fledgling network opened up new avenues for ambitious chefs.

Its first star was Emeril Lagasse, who trailblazed the route many others followed: multiple TV shows, catchphrases, cookbooks, spice blends — all things that took the New Orleans chef away from his restaurant kitchens for days at a time. Then there were people like Rachael Ray, who had never worked in a restaurant kitchen but had the kind of folksy charm that appealed to the masses. Later there was Anthony Bourdain, a chef who left the line behind to become a TV host and writer.

Mina chose the day-to-day mechanics of running restaurants over the spotlight occupied by his friends and peers. He's not ready to step away from his restaurants, not right now anyway. "I'm not saying it'll never happen. I just never really had the time to stop and put all the focus on it," he says. "There are many enormously talented chefs who are more talented than I am doing that. It's personal preference, what makes you happy."

In the late '90s and early '00s, other chefs began to expand their brands not through entertainment but through empire-building. Following the example of Wolfgang Puck and others, Michelin-starred chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud began to open multiple restaurants, creating a new kind of chain that offered food and a dining experience at a level way above steakhouses like Hillstone and Morton's.

The press, Mina says, was not kind to restauranteur-chefs in the beginning — including himself — criticizing them for not being in the kitchen all the time. But for Mina, chefs are as qualified to run a restaurant as any businessman because they understand the kitchen. "We know who's talented to give the reins to better than a quote-unquote restaurateur who didn't come out of the restaurant business," he says. "I'd rather have Daniel Boulud have 20 restaurants than some restauranteur. It's going to make the food in our country better."


As a 23-year-old chef at San Francisco's hottest restaurant, Mina saw his world expand rapidly. He and Condy opened a second San Francisco restaurant, Charles Nob Hill, and Mina might have taken another path, might have opened a few more places in the Bay Area and stopped, but he was approached by hotel mogul Steve Wynn in late 1996 about opening a restaurant in the new Bellagio hotel. At first he resisted; he'd visited Vegas once and hadn't been a fan, and was concerned about sourcing high-quality ingredients in the Nevada desert. He didn't want to extend his reach at the expense of his vision.

But Wynn came to Aqua and laid out his vision for the Bellagio, which already had some of the country's best restaurants like Le Cirque and Jean-Georges attached to the project. "I listened to him for an hour and a half, and I was mesmerized," Mina says. So he went ahead with the Bellagio project, and started on the path that he follows today, opening restaurants in hotels.

To Mina, hotels provide invaluable infrastructure that has enabled his empire to grow more quickly than if he had to find independent spaces for each of his restaurants in every city. They're also a good match for the Mina Group's emphasis on hospitality (this is, after all, a company that calls its customers "guests").

In 2002, Mina and Condy went their separate ways after opening eight restaurants. According to Mina, they had different ambitions: Mina wanted to continue with hotel restaurants, while Condy wanted to keep opening free-standing cafes. (Condy died in 2006.) Mina walked away from Aqua and formed his own corporation, the Mina Group.

One of the Mina Group's early investors was tennis legend Andre Agassi, who had gotten to know Mina a few years before when the chef had catered his New Year's Eve party. One day Agassi got a call on his cell. It was Mina, saying he still remembered their time together, and would the tennis star be willing to hear a pitch for his new venture? "I was like, 'Michael, I never forgot your attention to detail, certainly your talent, your care for people, the interest you create in your dishes,'" Agassi says.

In 2004, Mina opened his first real showcase since Aqua: Michael Mina in the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, where his Bourbon Steak is now. It had an ambitious menu conceit centered around dish "trios" — the same ingredients rendered three different ways on the plate, like a triptych. It was an instant success. In his review, Bauer called the restaurant a "masterpiece," writing, "In no time at all, people will begin to think of Michael Mina as San Francisco's equivalent of the French Laundry."

The Mina Group expanded quickly, opening three hotel restaurants in 2006, three more in 2007, and five in 2008. During those years, Mina continued to refine his company structure. Every day, each restaurant has a daily meeting, kind of like a scrum at a tech company, to go over every detail from the service from the night before, the coming night, and the night after. Higher-level meetings happen weekly and monthly.

To keep on top of the food, Mina developed the Recipe Exchange, a networked library of Mina's collected culinary wisdom that, with its 30,000 recipes and 3,000 videos, puts dedicated recipe websites to shame. Every menu item has a recipe, the recipe of its components (a sauce, for example), a photo, wine pairings, instructions for plating and silverware, the verbiage servers can use when they drop it off at the table.

Aqua, which had stayed open since Mina left though had never reached the same level of acclaim, shuttered suddenly in 2010 and Mina took over the lease. That October, he reopened his titular restaurant Michael Mina in the former Aqua space, where it remains today: an elegant, sophisticated power-dining spot, the kind of place where the mayor has lunch.

Mina runs his company on both a macro and micro level — being able to think specifically about the thickness of a ramen bowl and broadly about the overall concept of a new restaurant is one of his great talents as a businessman. To him, though, it's just part of being a chef. "I think when you run a busy kitchen you're always doing that," he says. There's science to suggest that chef's brains are wired that way. In a 2005 New Yorker story about egg cooks in Vegas, Duke University neuroscientist Warren Meck speculated that a short-order cook's brains might have developed far more synapses on its oscillatory neurons, the things that help the brain time several things at once, than the average person.

Mina is uniquely adapted to control the chaos that restaurants generate. And he's been smart enough to build a machine that mitigates unhappy accidents, like bad service, while encouraging happy ones, like chef experimentation. In the face of that, a few seasons judging a cooking reality show don't seem like a good tradeoff.


Instead of seeking out the spotlight, Michael Mina has spent a decade focused on building his empire, piece by piece. In 2003, the gross restaurant revenues for the Mina Group was roughly $38 million. In 2013, it was $95 million. Now Mina's using his resources and the system he has set up to pursue a few passion projects.

On July 1, Pabu and The Ramen Bar will open in an airy 10,000-square-foot space in the first floor of an office building at Davis and California, just a few blocks from the Ferry Building. Mina has set it up to show off the skills of his friend, Ken Tominaga, who makes some of Northern California's best sushi from his tiny restaurant, Hana, hidden in a strip mall in Rohnert Park.

Mina, characteristically, gives Tominaga the spotlight for the restaurant. "By no stretch of the imagination is this Michael Mina doing Japanese food. I am not anywhere near crazy enough to think that I am a Japanese chef," says Mina. "I am fortunate in the sense that I have a team of people who can help Ken see his vision out and help him have a showcase restaurant."

It is a beautiful space, with rich suede banquettes, delicate murals of cherry blossoms on its brushed concrete walls, and a rope-and-sail motif in the ramen bar. It's set up to be an immediate success with tourists, expense-account diners, and the FiDi lunch and happy hour crowd.

The 49ers project, though — that's what Mina's most excited about. His face lights up when he talks about it. Mina's had season tickets to the 49ers for 23 years, ever since he opened Aqua. The new stadium will house a 180-seat Bourbon Steak & Pub open to all 68,000 stadium visitors during a game, but Mina's looking forward to the tailgate party he's going to host for season ticket holders.

It's Mina at his most micro and macro: The intimacy of a party for friends, for which they've built a 13-foot rotisserie you can put a whole ox on, boiling pots you can drop a few hundred lobsters into at a time, and a massive 8-by-8-foot wood-fired grill. It's the machinery of empire, and the food will no doubt taste great.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
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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