In 2009 Restaurant Hospitality presented Michael Mina with the Richard Melman Innovator Award because of his ability to create new and outstanding restaurant concepts. Since then his San Francisco-based company has grown to 18-plus restaurants around the country, including his most recent, Michael Mina 74 at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. He opened his first restaurant in the Miami, Bourbon Steak, a few years back. We caught up to him recently at the South Beach Food & Wine Fest in Miami Beach.
 
1. What drew you to participate in South Beach Food & Wine Fest and how did you spend your time here?

I’ve been participating for years, and it’s been really cool to see how the festival, programming and attendance have evolved throughout the years. I did a dinner with Marc Forgione (a 2008 RH Rising Star) at Bourbon Steak on Thursday. That was an “East Meats West” dinner, bringing California and New York together. It’s the third year we’ve done a collaborative dinner at Bourbon Steak and is always a lot of fun. I also participated in Best of the Best on Friday at Fontainebleau alongside Chef Gabe Fenton of Bourbon Steak and Chef Thomas Griese of Michael Mina 74.
 
2. There appears to be no method to your madness when it comes to expanding your empire. You have several restaurants in California, four in Las Vegas, a couple in Baltimore, another in Scottsdale and even one in Wyoming. How do you decide where to open a restaurant?

There is some method to our madness. It’s really exciting to be expanding; this year alone we have six new openings. As with every aspect of our industry, our expansion is determined much by our relationships. We have built foundations with hotel brands like Four Seasons, Strategic (Hotels & Resorts), MGM and Turnberry and continue to pursue opportunities with these amazing partners. There’s also a strong focus on location. We tend to gravitate toward regions where the culinary landscape is thriving or on the brink of a renaissance—from San Francisco’s renowned culinary scene to places like Jackson Hole and Baltimore, where the food scene is really just beginning.

3. Miami has a very different personality from that of San Fran. How did that figure into your menu? Or can much of your cooking translate anywhere in the U.S.?

At Michael Mina 74 I was able to pull from all of my past experiences to create this unique concept. In Miami, there’s this great mix of global influences, which has allowed us to incorporate bold flavors from exotic places in dishes that use fresh, local product.
 
4. What makes Michael Mina 74 different from all your other restaurants?

Michael Mina 74 is the first restaurant that I’ve been able to create a collection of menu items inspired by my travels. It’s been especially fun since Miamians are so open to bold flavors. It’s very exciting for me because that's what I like to cook, adding my twists on dishes that work well in warm weather, sprinkling in the exotic flavors from around the world.

5. The dim sum-like raw bar items that roll through the dining room are a clever idea. From a business standpoint, does this approach drive the sales of seafood because customers can see and smell it, rather than read about it on a menu?

We pride ourselves on excellent service, and doing tableside services like our shellfish cart, lobster pot pie and ahi tuna tartare gives us a unique way to interact with our guests, but also give our guests a chance to take part in the cooking process. Of course when you have beautiful product coming in like fresh, local spiny lobsters you definitely want to show them off.

Restaurant Hospitality editor Mike Sanson reported live from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach, Fla., Feb. 20-23. The event, now in its 13th year,attracted more than 60,000 attendees, 150 celebrated chefs and 250 wineries and spirits producers. A component of the festival is trade panels designed specifically for restaurant operators. Sanson's reports from South Beach focus on those talks and interviews with top chefs attending the event.