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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

Page 4 of 5

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."

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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