Michael Mina Shares his Secret Sauce for Success
One of the industry’s most successful restaurateurs speaks about his roots and how he built up his restaurant empire.
SINCE THE LATE 1990s, chef Michael Mina has defied the conventional wisdom that 80 percent of restaurants fail before they celebrate their fifth anniversary. With eight restaurants in San Francisco, another 30 scattered around 10 states and a brasserie in Dubai, the chef who first rose to fame at San Francisco’s Aqua shows no signs of slowing the pace, developing partnerships to build his brand far beyond California. The longtime Nicasio resident continues his expansion with restaurants closer to home, too: under the Mina Group umbrella, The Lodge at Sonoma will soon open Wit & Wisdom. A collaboration with chef and cookbook author Ayesha Curry led to the opening of the first International Smoke restaurant in San Francisco in 2017, with subsequent openings in Las Vegas, Miami and, most recently, Del Mar in north San Diego County. And a project in the former Guaymas space in Tiburon is slated for a late summer opening.
Your family is of Egyptian heritage but you grew up in central Washington state. Did that have an impact on your desire to go into the restaurant industry?
My dad was Coptic Christian, so we left Egypt when I was two and moved close to where my mom’s brothers and sisters emigrated. My dad got a job at Central Washington University. The region where I grew up is all farming community. It’s known for growing the timothy hay that is sent to Japan to feed wagyu beef cattle. When I was 17, I said I wanted to go to culinary school. And when you’re from Egypt, you get three choices: doctor, lawyer, engineer. You can do any of the three, but chef wasn’t one of them.
You famously came up under George Morrone, who was doing innovative things like pairing foie gras with fish. What was your relationship with Morrone?
I did my (culinary school) internship under George at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. I was the pastry chef there before I became a sous-chef. We both worked for Charlie Palmer in New York; Charlie Palmer actually introduced us to the investor, Charles Condy, who funded Aqua originally. We basically had, and to this day still have, a great relationship. Food is collaboration and you work on it together. We created many great dishes there, and we did it as a team.
So, you’ve got this one restaurant, in a rather iconic space with an iconic chef. How do you move from that to what you’ve subsequently done, which is build this program of San Francisco restaurants, and then partnerships that expanded beyond San Francisco?
After George moved on, I was left with a dilemma — what do you do? I literally was doing the same thing I was doing before. The only real difference of what I was doing, for better or for worse, was dealing with the media. You get the praise, you get it all, be it good, bad or in between. The timing was interesting, though. This was around 1994. It was when Jeremiah (Tower) was leaving Stars. When we were conceptualizing Aqua and everything else, we would go to Stars all the time.It was, to this day, my favorite restaurant in San Francisco. I just thought it was just magical.
Stars was your template?
A lot of the people who worked there ended up moving over here [Aqua] and working here after Jeremiah left. And it was great, because they were seasoned veterans. What a crew we had.
I mean, we had something that was really, really special for many years. And so that was the foundation. And what ended up happening from that was … at that time, to be quite honest, it was kind of frowned upon as a chef to do more than one restaurant. It wasn’t what exists today. Your second restaurant or your third restaurant, people would be like, “Oh, well, you’re not in your kitchen.” And there’s something to be said for that, obviously. But I think, looking back at it, what I think has helped this country move forward in food, it’s actually that chefs are restaurateurs now, and it’s not some investor who becomes “a restaurateur.” It’s actually the chef. They take a lot of pride in what they do, and you have a lot of amazing talent in these kitchens.
And these chefs can bring up crews of people as opposed to just one crew of people.
In 1997, I didn’t know whether I was going to expand or not expand, but I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity for a second restaurant. It was a partnership with the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and with the Wynn family. It exposed me and opened my mind to something very new, because it was not the traditional restaurant agreement where you lease and build a restaurant. It was much more about your concept, and the partnership with the hotel. And you could focus on what you were good at, the concept and creativity. You didn’t have to be the plumber or the electrician.
When did you decide to build your own restaurant business?
With Aqua Development Corp, which was the name of the company that owned Aqua, it was myself and our original investor, Charles Condy. By 2002, I had built a nice small business. We had three partnerships — we had the Bellagio, we had MGM Grand, and one in Laguna Niguel — and four restaurants in the Bay Area: Charles Nob Hill, Pisces, Aqua and Redwood at Transamerica. I came to feel that I would need to build my own company. I wanted to build something where we could all grow together, and where there was that ability to take care of your people. The magic of what we have is the ability to have this great group of people that grew up together, and then have great young talent that continues to come in as you grow, and coupling them together. And I knew we were going to have to build our own business to do that. And so, then it was just about understanding what is the concept of a business, and different than a lot of restaurant companies, I realized that we had the ability to do more of those partnerships with hotels.
Because of your experience in the industry at that point?
We had the ability to build those partnerships because of our reputation and our track record at that point. I said, Why don’t we focus on what we’re really good at, which is operations, which is human capital, building people, and really put all our focus into that, creativity and concepts? And so that’s kind of what Mina Group started in 2003. Andre Agassi was my first partner. It was hard to leave a successful restaurant and start something new. It was the best decision I ever made and the most uncomfortable.
Everything was on the line.
Had Michael Mina at the Westin not gotten the four stars, and not been that glamour restaurant, everything I had done to that point could have gone the other way. And that’s the thing that you risk as a chef, you put everything on the line. You would not have loved me then.
How have you managed not always being in the kitchen or at all your restaurants at the same time?
You can’t ever be in all of your kitchens. And even if you just have one kitchen, you are not the only one cooking all the food there. What you’re doing is creating a culture. And the important thing is to have like-minded people with a lot of talent.
And when you find them, and when they find you, and when you get to work together, you give them the credit that they deserve because they’re the ones doing the work. And at the end of the day, it is only making what all of us love. You, me, everybody wants to be in these cities that have great food.
How do you like living in Marin?
Greatest place in the world. I’ve been in Marin a long time and I’m not going anywhere. And I’ve got to say, Marin is so special. How do you pick a place that’s more perfect? The agricultural diversity just in Marin … it’s all good.
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Christina Mueller is a long-time Bay Area food writer. She hails from the East Coast and has spent way too much time in South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her child’s school, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.