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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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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.

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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