Recently, I chatted with Chef Michael Mina about everything from quality controlling his 18 restaurants in eight states to the surprising tunes on his iPod.
Mina has established himself as a culinary powerhouse here in Las Vegas, with five restaurants in four properties: Stripsteak at MGM Grand, Michael Mina at Bellagio, Seablue and Nobhill Tavern at MGM Grand and American Fish at Aria. His creative cuisine, attention to the diner’s experience and use of fresh ingredients has solidified his spot as a top chef in Vegas and nationally.
Here’s what he had to say.
Where’s home for you now?
You certainly represent San Francisco well, but where are you from originally?
“I was born in Cairo and I moved to the United States to a small town in the center of Washington State called Ellensberg.”
Is your origin reflected in your cooking at all?
“I would say it reflects my palate as much as my cooking. I grew up and my mother’s cooking was always Middle Eastern. A lot of spice, a lot of flavors, a lot of acids and sweetness and really bold flavored food — and I cook that way. I use some of the spices in certain things.
Definitely, growing up in the middle of Washington State, it was all agriculture and fresh produce. We’d go over to the coast all the time and get everything from crabs to some different fish to mussels, to clams, to oysters. I grew up with everything from really pristine seafood to great ranchers. A lot of my friends’ families had really good dairies and good produce.
I wasn’t really exposed to it the way you’re exposed to it now, it was a lot simpler growing up. You would go to the dairy to get your milk. You didn’t realize really, it just seemed like that was the norm.”
What are some of your signature dishes at Michael Mina Las Vegas?
“Ahi tuna tartare, the lobster pot pie, the caviar parfait and the phyllo-crusted Dover sole.”
The Mina group is very successful, what do you expect out of your team and staff that derives greatness?
There are a million moving parts and moving details to a restaurant. But if you want to sum it all up…one thing that I’ve really found is a restaurant will never be the same two days in a row. My restaurant will be better or worse tomorrow than it is today. It’ll be better or worse the next day than it was yesterday. That’s a constant because you’re dealing with human nature.
You have to strive every day — every day you have to push to say I’m going to be better than I was yesterday. If you do that, it gives you the best chance at being consistent.
You can’t just say I got to this point and now I’m going to keep it like this because that’s not human nature. People will let up. So you have to be pushing it forward every day to gain consistency and the reality is consistency is the name of the game in the restaurant business.”
You have five restaurants in Vegas, how do you quality control them?
“Probably the biggest thing we do as a company is you have to start with the two people that run your restaurant—it’s going to be your general manager and your chef. You have to build those people from within, make sure they’re trained properly and then give them all the tools it takes to be successful.
We have everything from a website that is completely dedicated to the chef, for the wait staff and the cooks.
There are a lot of tools for consistency but at the end of the day we do everything from a half an hour before service everybody puts up every plate in the restaurant, the chef tastes everything in the restaurant. Every day they do their meetings, they review the day before, what happened yesterday, what’s going on today and what’s happening tomorrow. There are very detailed lists about what they go through.”
When a guest dines at a Michael Mina restaurant, what experience would you like them to have?
“I want them to always have that feeling that the place is cutting edge as far as creativity and consistency. You get a high level of food, a high level of service.
It should be professional, but friendly and you really felt comfortable. I really use the word “comfortable” a lot because I really feel like people should walk out of your restaurant and say, ‘yeah the food was great but the service was great. But, I don’t know, that was probably one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had. It was everything, from the lighting was really good so I looked good in the restaurant. I actually look better in this restaurant than I do in other restaurants.’ ”
“Honestly, you wouldn’t believe how many people come back to a restaurant just because they actually looked good in that restaurant.
I’m a chef and I always want to bring it back to the food and the restaurants…What makes me feel great is when I hear “I loved that dish.”
How do you keep your restaurants current and relevant over time?
“You push. It’s your key people.
The one advantage we do have because we have multiple restaurants in different states — it’s really nice because all the chefs can see all the websites, so they see the food — they see what’s in season all the time.
They’re challenging each other and then we’re challenging them. Obviously I have to challenge myself. I have to travel, I have to eat out I have to continually understand what’s going on in the food world.
It’s also about staying true to what you believe in. It’s not about chasing a fad in food, it’s about staying relevant and staying current on what’s out there and product has a lot to do with it. Product is going to constantly drive creativity.”
Would you serve something today that you served 10 years ago in your restaurant?
“There are certain things, like the tuna tartare, I’ve served for more than 10 years, the lobster pot pie I’ve served for more than 10 years.
Sometimes…am I tired of serving it? Yes. Would I take it off the menu? No, because the reality is if I take it off the menu I will have dissatisfied people coming to the restaurant.
Now, I’ll never let a menu go more than 25 percent that way, because if a menu is more than 25 percent signature dishes, then they are not signature anymore, they’re copouts.
If every dish is a signature, then you’re signing too much.”
Are there any culinary trends you are wild about right now?
“In general it’s been pretty interesting to see the great thing about this real heavy push toward product – where everyone from chefs to farmers markets to Whole Foods and specialty grocery stores have had a huge part of making this relevant in the United States, which is just great for chefs.
There’s a really great balance going on right now of product driven food and technique driven food coming together. What I mean by that is I would say European food, French food has a lot of technique to it, a lot of different techniques. Then you look at California cuisine and Italian and [they are] much more product driven.
There’s really a great marriage [of technique and product] going on right now in food where you see a lot of food where the combination of technique, creativity and product really are coming together and I think it’s elevating dramatically.”
When did you first know you wanted to be a chef?
“When I was 17, my ‘ah-hah!’ moment was watching ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ [hosted by Robin Leach] and he was doing a special on Stars, which was an unbelievable restaurant back in ’80s and ’90s. He was walking around the restaurant and tasting sauces…at that moment that was what I wanted to do.
I didn’t understand anything at that point, what it would take for me to do that, but that’s what pushed me to go to culinary school in New York and what pushed me to move forward. That was that moment when I realized there was an ability to create a career out of it.”
Did you foresee yourself being as successful today, back then?
“No. I went through the steps. I went to school, cooked and went through the steps and the motions like most people. I was very fortunate I fell in love with something I seem to be good at.”
What inspires you to cook?
“I think that overall, I love to please people. I’m that person that’s always loved to throw parties and loved to see people… That was one of the things I absolutely loved about cooking in the beginning — that immediate gratification you get.
But I think that creative side of it is the driver. Because when you get a great idea, nothing is more fun than going behind the stove and making it come to life.
To be able to have an idea and to be able to bring it to life like that [is] priceless. But, at the end of the day, I think the two of them combined is what makes it so great. Bringing it to life and then seeing other people enjoy it.”
Do you have any specific people in your life that have inspired your culinary career?
“You know, I’ve had many. George Morrone and Charlie Palmer. Those are the two that have probably had the biggest influence on me.”
Do you have any advice for young chefs?
“It’s really important to take the time to pick where you’re going to work, very closely. Only work in a place where you see what ultimately goes out of the kitchen is something that you strive to get to.
You have to set your expectations to where they seem almost unachievable because that’s how fast our business moves.
And then, enormous amounts of studying.
The last thing is constantly understand that it’s going to be a team of people around you that will ultimately be the reality of you making great food. It won’t be just you making great food.”
Sometimes chefs guard their recipes. What do you think about sharing recipes?
“I think you have to share them the correct way.
What I mean by that is you absolutely should share your recipes. Your recipes should constantly be moving forward. The reality is, if you have a great restaurant, you want to constantly be working on making your restaurant great. Not just this one dish.
In this day and age, it’s going to be shared anyhow. There’s no way you’re going to be able to teach it to the people in the restaurant without it being shared because somebody’s going to put it on the internet so you might as well control the messaging and how it’s shared.”
What do you see in your future?
“I’m at a crucial stage with my children. They’re 10 and 13 and they’re two boys so a lot of my focus goes on them— and I want to do more with them. I’ve been working with them since they were four years old in the kitchen. They enjoy it and so my balance in life is continuing to further them.
Right now, I have a group of people around me that have really built up my business and made it great.
Right now, I don’t see us taking a huge directional change. We build one to two restaurants a year and I don’t see that changing. I don’t see us building seven and I don’t see us building zero in the next few years.
I see us continuing to elevate what we do.”