|NEIGHBORLY: Tony Chi's Stonehill Tavern design combines class, comfort.|
EMPIRE BUILDER: "By the third (restaurant), I started to see that it could work."
CREATIVITY: SeaBlue at the Borgata in Atlantic City offers Mina's signature trios (above), while salt-baked Maine lobster makes for a striking presentation.
With the opening of SeaBlue at the Borgata in Atlantic City, Michael Mina is now bicoastal. His latest addition is a cutting-edge, high-tech adventure in blue, designed by the celebrated Adam Tihany, where whimsy rules on LED screens projecting animated aquatic life and in menu items like lobster corn dogs. Mina, Bon Appetit Chef of the Year in 2005, James Beard Best California Chef of 2002 and winner of numerous other kudos, also recently another bright star to his galaxy of restaurants: Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Beach in California, designed by internationally known Tony Chi, is an upscale, neighborhood-style restaurant, elegant yet comfortable. Meanwhile, Mina continues to showcase innovative cuisine at Michael Mina in San Francisco and at the Bellagio in Las Vegas; Arcadia in San Jose; and Nobhill and SeaBlue at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas. RH contributor Libby Platus chatted with Mina about his growing portfolio.
RH: You recently opened Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Beach, after leaving a few years ago. Why are you back in the area?
Mina: I left Aqua, Monarch Beach, because I split up with my ex-partner. Now I have the opportunity for a fresh start with Stonehill.
RH: Where did you find financial backing after your partnership dissolved?
Mina: Andre Agassi helped me resurrect everything. I had met him before the breakup, but later, he became my only investor.
RH: Cooking is as individual as handwriting. Can you maintain your signature at all your restaurants?
Mina: For those who think a chef is back there cooking every single dish that goes out of the kitchen, it is untrue. There are many other people "writing." You rely on training people who have talent and leadership and share a vision.
RH: Are you planning other restaurants?
Mina: I am in a fortunate position: I don't have to open another restaurant.-I could choose to stop after Stonehill and SeaBlue at Borgata. One reason for a new restaurant would be to place chefs/general managers who have been with me for a long time in properties where they can excel, as we have done with executive chef B.J. Patel, now at SeaBlue Borgata.
RH: What is the difference between a chef having several restaurants and a restaurant chain? Is the line getting blurred?
Mina: A chain does one concept over and over again. That's all. The total effort goes into creating one concept. In the nonchain restaurant, the focus is personal vision. I enjoy doing completely different concepts with numerous little details that make everything flow together.
RH: When did you realize that you could handle more than one restaurant?
Mina: As I started to do more. After my first, I was adamant that the second be small. It is the hardest one you are going to do. You forget that you still have to run the first! If I had opened a larger second restaurant, I would have fallen right on my face. What I learned between opening the first and the second was enormous. By the third, I started to see that it could work. You build confidence and you recognize the pieces you need to put it all together.
RH: How do your new menu concepts evolve?
Mina: We worked on the Stonehill menu for five months. Joshua Skenes, the executive chef at Stonehill, was in my kitchen in San Francisco working specifically on the new menu. Every day we tasted the food until we arrived at something we both had influenced and felt was great.
RH: You have won kudos for the "trios" on your menus. The idea of presenting one product three ways seems so simple, yet you were the first to explore this.
Mina: There is a wealth of seasonal products available, but I can't put them all on the menu. Experimenting led me to try three sets of three ingredients. I'd slip trios into tasting menus and that'd get the diners talking. They freaked out. They just loved it. Then I started really getting serious about it. Could I do a restaurant designed around trios? Now they are included at several of my restaurants. At Stonehill or Borgata, I may have one main product such as diver scallops done three different ways: scallop ceviche, a coconut scallop broth with poached scallop and a heartier, seared scallop with potatoes.
RH: The trios give the diner the opportunity to explore and compare flavors in a way that is inventive, revealing and just plain fun. Why else do you think the customer finds the trios attractive?
Mina: Some people will not sit through a nine-course tasting. It is not only the time involved; servers might visit your table 20-30 times. With four courses of trios you can taste 12 different items with far fewer server visits.
RH: All your restaurants are in hotels. A coincidence?
Mina: I decided the best way to grow was within hotels committed to excellence. Seventy percent of my restaurants are in MGM properties. Hotels have allowed me to create my personal visions. I think restaurants in hotels have started a definite comeback. And lot of hotels have great locations. Michael Mina at the St. Francis Hotel is right on (San Francisco's) Union Square. I could never get my hands on a location like that!
RH: How did you get into the business?
Mina: I was 14. I stopped playing basketball in the middle of the season because I didn't get along with my coach. My father told me, "You don't quit in the middle!" He said, "Go find a job and pay for your own shoes and your own movies." I started working in a little restaurant as a prep cook and dishwasher. I thought it was the neatest thing. I liked all the pressure. I fell in love with cooking and the restaurant business.