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Michael Mina

Michael Mina Marin’s über–chef discusses Thanksgiving recipes and more

Michael Mina with his sons Sammy and Anthony.

Photo by Tim Porter

(page 1 of 2)

No place is more food-obsessed than the Bay Area. And with good reason. With a plethora of culinary superstars plying their trade in local restaurants, we know a superb dining experience is never far away.

Marin County has its share of kitchen gods, among whom Michael Mina stands out. Named by the James Beard Foundation as Rising Star Chef of the Year in 1997 and Best California Chef in 2002, he first came to fame wowing critics with his innovative creations at Aqua, San Francisco’s four-star seafood restaurant.

Eight years ago Mina picked Novato as his home base, in part for strategic location. “We chose Novato because, essentially, it’s 45 minutes to the beach, 45 minutes to the wine country, and 45 minutes to the city,” says Mina, who at age 39 operates eight restaurants in California, Nevada and New Jersey, with three more due to open by the end of the year.

He’s surprisingly calm for someone balancing the travel and other demands of a culinary empire with the competing claims of family life. When you see him with his cherubic sons Sammy, 10, and Anthony, 6, it’s clear that for him this is not an easy ball to bounce. The boys, who’ve inherited their father’s Egyptian good looks, are bound to Mina in ways that seem tender and irrevocable, walking with him in step, wrapping themselves around him, clinging to him as he tries to break away for the airport.

On this fall day Mina has brought his wife, Diane, and his sons, identically outfitted in azure dress shirts and blue jeans, to San Rafael’s Thursday Farmers’ Market, where he’ll point out many of the ingredients he uses to create Thanksgiving dinner.

“Everything in Marin is so beautiful,” he muses as we wander from one vendor to another. “Mount Tam, everything. It’s so peaceful here.” Diane adds, “Even though 50,000 people live in Novato, you can’t tell that. We love the quaintness of Larkspur, Sausalito and Mill Valley, but they’re just a little too much. We wanted quiet and open space.”

The couple also craved enough flat, usable land to be able to spread out a little, and in 1999 settled on a one-acre lot in the northern part of town.

There, in the backyard, Mina built a large enclosed outdoor kitchen that he kitted out with the ne plus ultra in industrial cooking equipment—regular and convection ovens by Montague, a rotisserie by Rotisol, a large gas grill from Electrolux and small appliances from Kitchen Aid and Vitamix.

The kitchen has stainless-steel walls, a three-compartment steel sink and a massive butcher block table for prep. Here Mina will whip up a holiday dinner for anywhere from 16 to 40 friends, relatives and employees. “The outdoor kitchen is my kitchen,” he says with cheerful emphasis. “The indoor one is Diane’s. It keeps the peace in our house.”

Wandering among the produce booths, Mina explains how Thanksgiving dinner unfolds at his home. “I like to make a lot of side dishes,” he says. “We invite people early and then we kind of eat throughout the day. We serve the main meal later, buffet style.”

He and his boys stop to admire stacks of firm long beans. “Eew!” cries Anthony, who can barely reach a bunch of purple beans the length of scallions. “These look like octopuses!”

His father grins and examines the beans with interest. “What I would do with these beans is blanch them,” says Mina, who talks so softly and sparingly one must strain to catch all he’s saying. “Then I coat them with a tangerine glaze made from boiling and reducing tangerine juice and serve them with sliced almonds and the segments and zest of the tangerine.”

Mina stops next at the Barbagelata Farms booth to view a dazzling display of brightly colored peppers and squash, and then at the stall for Star Route Farms, where he normally buys his arugula. He handles some substantial-looking beets that he will serve roasted with olive oil and salt and pepper, and some artichokes, which he serves fondue style in a lush purée accompanied by Acme bread for dipping.

At Iacopi Farm’s stall, Mina rolls some firm brussels sprouts sensuously around in the palm of his hand. “These are great,” he says. “I shave them on a Japanese mandolin, sauté them in bacon fat with shallots and serve them with small and crispy bacon bits.”

Mina also checks out the Italian butter beans at Iacopi. “I love Italian butter beans!” he says. He cooks them in champagne and oregano, then takes the broken beans, purées them and folds the mixture into the intact beans.

For potato lovers he prepares three types for Thanksgiving: Yukon Golds made into a purée; roasted knobby fingerling heirloom Ozettes; and sweet potatoes puréed with vanilla beans.

Mina shops at Whole Foods for spices and for the Straus Farm Creamery organic cream he uses in his purées. Diane is responsible for the hors d’oeuvres—duck foie gras and truffle mousses, pears, sweet baguettes, cheese and grapes—and the bar.

For the main dish, Mina makes a sizzling prime rib he gets from Snake River Farms in Idaho. Submerging it in butter, he poaches it for four hours, then roasts it in a 450-degree oven to ensure caramelization. Naturally, turkey is on the menu: he roasts three plump heritage birds on his three-tier rotisserie. Underneath the spits, he lays out onions and potatoes that soak up the drippings, which makes a heavenly accompaniment to the meat.

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