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.
For the cranberry relish, he stews fresh cranberries with the juices of an orange, lemon and lime, Champagne, sugar, and a sachet of spices, folding in the zest of the citrus at the end.
To make the stuffing, Mina leaves bread out overnight to dry, then toasts it and tosses it with a mixture of sweated onion and celery, browned mild Italian sausage and parsley and sage. He adds hot turkey stock until the bread is moist, then eggs, and bakes the mixture in the oven.
The children are involved in every step of the preparation. “I like to chop anything hard,” cries Sammy, “like onions!”
“When cooking with kids, the first thing you must think of is bringing everything down to their level,” Mina says. “I have heard some people say, ‘Get a milk crate and let them stand on that,’ and I say, ‘You stand on a milk crate and chop and dice and see how comfortable it is!’” Both boys have their own tray at their own level and work side by side with Dad.
Born in Cairo, Mina was raised from age two in Washington State, where his father was president of Central Washington University. His attraction to food arose early on. At 15, he took a job in a local bistro, where he worked as a garde manger. Fascinated by the restaurant world, he started cooking. Mina’s parents wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer, but ultimately they reached an accord that required him to attend the University of Washington for at least one year but also allowed him to work at the restaurant in Seattle’s Space Needle.
“I lasted one semester,” Mina says, grinning ruefully. “When my dad finally realized I was serious about this food thing, he flew to New York to check out the Culinary Institute of America. He did his research and let me go.” While at the institute, Mina spent weekends gaining hands-on experience at Charlie Palmer’s top-drawer Aureole in New York City. At 19, when others his age were still figuring out what to do with their lives, Mina graduated and reconnected with his mentor, chef George Morrone, at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles.
Mina followed Morrone to San Francisco to help open Aqua in 1991. Three years later, with Aqua a success, Morrone (who now works in development for Mina) moved on, leaving Mina to take over as executive chef at age 24. It was then that he started playing with his signature dining concept of many variations on a single ingredient, an idea he’s put into practice at Michael Mina San Francisco, his swanky restaurant in the Westin St. Francis Hotel.
In 2002, Mina and his business partner, tennis legend Andre Agassi, founded Mina Group, which oversees eight restaurants, including Mobil-four-star-rated Michael Mina Bellagio, and Seablue, Nobhill and Stripsteak, all in Las Vegas; four-star Stonehill Tavern in Dana Point; Arcadia in San Jose; and Seablue in Atlantic City. Bourbon Steak Detroit and Saltwater were slated to open at the MGM Grand Detroit in October; Bourbon Steak Miami is scheduled to open in Aventura, Florida, in December.
On the occasions when he goes out to eat near his home, Mina favors local restaurants like Boca Steak in Novato, in which Morrone was a founding partner. The family’s favorite restaurant, however, is Rohnert Park’s Hana Sushi, where the boys happily fill up on sashimi. “We go there at least twice a week,” he says.
Mostly, however, he likes to stay home. “I have so little time off that we just prefer it that way,” says Mina. His only day off, Sunday, is sacrosanct. “Sunday is family day,” says Mina. “We’ve set up our house to entertain and to spend time there. When I’m home, I don’t really want to go out and deal with traffic.”
Yet the über-chef says he never tires of the world of cuisine or of running his restaurants. To him, burnout is an alien concept. “Every day I am excited to go to work,” he says. “Every day you learn something new. That’s what I love. As soon as you think you’ve got a handle on something, you pick up a cookbook from another country and you see you really haven’t.”