In 1993, I dined at Aqua in San Francisco, a restaurant headed by a 20-something, Egyptian-born, American-bred chef named Michael Mina. To me, it was revolutionary.
It was the first time I ate a piece of fish that wasn’t caught by my mother and subsequently fried. I don’t remember what type of fish it was, but I remember it was buttery, delicate and visually stunning. And I remember being mesmerized by the look and feel of Aqua — a sparkling Poseidon wonderland.
Before that exalted dinner, I was in the early stage of a fateful affair with food, the result of marrying into a family whose womenfolk were phenomenal Southern home cooks. The Aqua experience was another piece of a puzzle I was subconsciously putting together — revealing a map that would lead me in whole new direction. Less than two years later, I left the corporate world and moved across the country to attend culinary school.
Fast forward to the summer of 2008, when I received an assignment from my editor at PHOENIX magazine to review a new steakhouse at The Scottsdale Princess resort called Bourbon Steak — a Michael Mina restaurant. There was plenty of scandalous buzz surrounding the opening of Bourbon Steak, most notably a $175 Japanese A5 Kobe strip steak on the menu. I blew my generous budget before the end of my second visit, but I went back one more time on my own dime before I wrote the review to dive deeper into the estimable menu. (Yes, I did eat that conspicuous steak, and loved every bite.)
Mina recently celebrated 20 years as a successful chef and restaurateur during a tribute dinner in his eponymous San Francisco restaurant, Michael Mina — the former home of Aqua, where he began his meteoric rise.
Instead of kicking back and enjoying the spoils of celebrity chef fame, Mina is doing what he knows best: he is opening his 20th restaurant, a new concept called Pabu, a Japanese izakaya at the Baltimore Four Seasons, in collaboration with his friend, Chef Ken Tominaga, owner of Hana Japanese in Santa Rosa.
Mina was in Scottsdale last week to visit his team and help introduce a few new seasonal dishes. I caught up with him after he’d spent the day writing the new menu, tasting the new dishes and generally cheer-leading his team, headed by Executive Chef Daniel Patino.
Sitting outside, he comments on one of the reasons he looks forward to coming to town: the weather.
“It’s so calm, so still — there’s no wind,” he says. “Where we are, you don’t have many nights where you can sit out after work and relax.” He doesn’t even mind the hot Arizona summers, a welcome change of pace from his usually chilly base in the Bay Area.
I tell him about trying the infamous $175 steak, and he laughs. I ask if the economy drove it off the menu. The steak did generate buzz, he says, but no, it wasn’t the economy. Japan stopped exporting their Kobe beef to the U.S. It’s just as well, Mina says, citing the sensibilities that came with the economic crash in late 2008, plus the increasing quality of the more reasonably priced American Wagyu.
“Anyone who tells you the economy doesn’t impact high end restaurants? Well, that’s not the case. Only a few restaurants are that bullet proof,” he says.
Bourbon Steak in Scottsdale has weathered the recent rough waters by building a loyal, local clientele. Relying on resort guests, Mina says, can only take a restaurant so far. He believes the reason the restaurant has not only survived, but thrived, is because they work hard to appeal to locals through seasonal menu changes and attention to detail, especially focusing on the guest experience via exceptional service.
Mina’s Recipe for Success
With 19 — almost 20 — restaurants in 10 different cities, Mina has plenty to keep track of, including more than 1,300 employees. How does he do it?
“Well, I was very fortunate. I’ve had two opportunities to do this, first with Aqua. When I spun off [to form the Mina Group], I had the chance to start over, and I made a commitment to building an infrastructure before building a restaurant. I’ve had a lot of good people who worked with me for many years. We’ve grown up together, really, and that team became the core of my company,” he says.
Part of Mina’s infrastructure is a website developed for just the staff, both in the kitchen and the front of the house. Mina is also committed to constant training and education. The website, which took five years to create, contains thousands of recipes and videos.
Chef Matthew Taylor of Phoenix-based Restaurant noca, who was Executive Sous Chef at the Las Vegas Michael Mina restaurant at the Bellagio and the Nobhill Tavern at the MGM Grand for two years before taking over at noca last fall, says “Mina surrounds himself with great people and he’s not ego-driven — at all.”
Taylor also says that at any given moment, Mina can tell you exactly what’s going on in each restaurant — from what is on the menu to the financial forecasts. Taylor helped create content for the staff website, and says there’s nothing else like it.
“It’s really cool,” Taylor says. “There are recipes for every dish and videos for each dish — videos showing how to cook the dish, videos on how to plate it, and in some cases, how to serve it.”
While the rest of us can’t access the private staff database, we can get a glimpse of Mina’s cooking philosophy on the public website through a series of short cooking videos demonstrating his mantra of “acidity, sweetness, spice and richness.”
“What’s really fun is when you get into things that combine these [attributes], like pineapple or green apple, with both acid and sweetness,” he says.
Some of Mina’s favorite ingredients? They all fit into one of his four cornerstones of balanced cooking. He adores citrus and Banyuls, an aged French red wine vinegar (acid); and radishes, ginger and chiles (heat); and coconut cream and avocado (richness).
Exchange of Knowledge
Mina says he was lucky. “I was center stage of a major restaurant at a young age. That doesn’t happen very often. I got to learn from watching great people who came to work for me and I had a very open mind. I still do. Now when I want to learn something, I learn from my chefs. It’s an exchange of knowledge and it’s great.”
Twenty years later, Mina is still drawn to the same thing that led him to cooking in the first place: a desire to understand the craft of cooking.
Almost as many years later, so am I, thanks in part to Mina.
The Mina Group
The Scottsdale Fairmont Princess Resort
7575 E. Princess Drive, Scottsdale