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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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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?

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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