Michael Mina ’89, The Mina Group
Award winning chef and restaurateur Michael Mina ’89 heads up a successful restaurant group with 27 restaurants located in Miami, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Seattle, Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “My philosophy of cooking is my philosophy of life: create balance and harmony,” says Mina. “I like to introduce unexpected flavors and accents, what I call complex simplicity. I have a deep belief that balance—care and attention to ingredients, beauty, and thoughtful service—will stand the test of time.”
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Chef Mina’s family moved to Ellensburg, WA when he was two years old. “My mother cooked Middle Eastern dishes and I learned a lot through all those spices. My mother’s falafel is one of the greatest food memories I have from my childhood. Dining was always an event and we spent many hours around the table enjoying meals as a group,” he recalls. Chef Mina’s culinary journey began at the age of 15 as garde manger for a small French restaurant in his hometown. “I was a dishwasher, bus boy, prep cook, and just really gravitated toward the kitchen,” Mina says. “I started coming in on my own time, all the while learning more and more. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a chef.”
As a CIA student, Chef Mina spent his weekends in New York City working for Charlie Palmer ’79 at the renowned Aureole. After earning his degree, he accepted a position with Chef George Morrone ’83 in the kitchen of the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, where he had previously taken his CIA externship. Within six months, chefs Mina and Morrone were developing the concept and menu for a high-end seafood restaurant in San Francisco. The result, Aqua, opened in 1991 to immediate acclaim. Beginning as chef de cuisine, Chef Mina quickly advanced to the executive chef position, which he held from 1993 to 2002.
In December 2002, Chef Mina split from the Aqua Development Corporation. He founded Mina Group with partner and tennis great Andre Agassi and began opening up restaurant concepts across seven states and Washington, DC. In November 2006, Chef Mina released Michael Mina: The Cookbook, which won the 2007 James Beard Foundation Award for photography. He was at work on his second cookbook in 2012 when he decided to change course. Chef Mina had been approached several times to do television shows and knew he wanted his first program to be an educational show, a place where he could demonstrate his philosophies of cooking. Cook Taste Eat is a 365 day-a-year video series that features two-to four-minute videos comprising a whole meal, dish-by-dish. “In this day and age, I’d rather have the cookbook on video,” he says. “I think it’s more fun and you can reach so many more people.” Cook Taste Eat is available on AOL and Youtube and features guest chefs like Charles Phan, Tyler Florence, and Traci des Jardins.
In late June 2015, Chef Mina turned the idea of a restaurant on its head in San Francisco when he announced the creation of The Mina Test Kitchen, a pop-up that would allow his team of toques to experiment with different culinary concepts. “The Test Kitchen is an ever-evolving and exciting concept, allowing us to both test out possible restaurant concepts and dishes, as well as showcase our amazing culinary and beverage talent,” Chef Mina says. The first pop-up theme was Middle’terranea followed by Little Italy. The next showcase debuting on March 1, 2016 will be traditional Indian meets San Francisco.
In additions to his restaurants, Chef Mina has developed the Michael Mina Wine Club. Curated by Mina Group Wine Director Rajat Parr ’96, members receive carefully selected wines quarterly accompanied by recipes from Chef Mina. A die-hard San Francisco 49ers fan and season ticket holder, Chef Mina’s Bourbon Pub in the new Levi Stadium is the site of an elaborate tailgate party during football season.
Technology is an essential tool for Chef Mina to oversee all of his entities. He stays connected to every dish at every restaurant through the company’s online database. Every new dish proposal must be submitted to Chef Mina through the database, called Recipe Exchange. If a cook has an idea for a dish, he or she sends Chef Mina a photo of it, the recipe, and the dish it replaces. If Chef Mina approves, the cook adds a demo video, cost analysis, recipe notes, menu description, beverage pairing, possible allergies, silverware markings, and the exact wording a server should use to describe the dish to diners. Everything is recorded. It’s a painstakingly detailed system but has allowed Chef Mina to maintain tight control on his empire with the use of an iPad.
In February 2016, Mina announced a shake up in his restaurant group. He has decided to step away from his post as CEO and selected restaurant group veteran Bill Freeman as CEO of Mina Group to run the company as it continues to grow. Freeman will take on the big picture and day-to-day business side of the company, including helping to provide opportunities and support for the 1,800 employees that Mina Group manages. Mina says that bringing on a new CEO will allow him to work more in the kitchens and as more of a creative force for the restaurants. “We’ve been growing, but we need more structure in the growth to keep the quality,” he says.
Chef Mina’s talents have been recognized by the foodservice industry with some of its most prestigious honors. He won three James Beard Awards—for Rising Star Chef in 1997, Best California Chef in 2002, and Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in 2013. He has earned Bon Appétit’s Chef of the Year in 2006, Restaurant & Hospitality magazine’s Richard Melman Award in 2009, Food Arts magazine’s Silver Spoon Award in 2011, and Wine Enthusiast magazine’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2012.
The true beauty of Chef Mina’s success is in the sum of all its different elements. “I love to cook. I am truly curious to learn more about food every day,” he explains. “I enjoy having a big hand in a person’s pleasurable experience of an evening. I thrive on the intensity of the fast pace and the pressure in the kitchen. And I adore the challenge to be creative and produce reliable results.”