By Betty Cortina-Weiss
He was only 15 when he landed his first restaurant gig, but Michael Mina remembers it perfectly. “I was a dishwasher, and it was a really small restaurant,” he says with a chuckle. Growing up in the tiny town of Ellensburg, Washington, some 100 miles outside of Seattle, he didn’t have much in the way of culinary choices but says he instantly “fell in love with everything about the restaurant business—the intensity, the camaraderie, the instant gratification.”
On his own time, he’d slide out of the dish room and onto the line so he could learn to cook. His first dish? “Smoked salmon with hollandaise sauce and asparagus—I can still see it!” he says. Now 50, Mina is a bona fide master—the renowned chef and founder of the Mina Group oversees a 34-restaurant empire that spans the globe, from San Francisco to Dubai—but says he still learns something every day. And South Florida, home to his acclaimed Bourbon Steak restaurant, has proved to be quite the classroom. Here, he shares six lessons a decade in the Sunshine State has taught him.
Humility is important—even for a chef.
“The first year we opened Bourbon Steak was really challenging. Everybody thought this was a private club, so just getting people to come in was hard. And the clientele was tough! One lady would send back her tomato salad every time we served it to her. She wanted it a certain way, and we just weren’t giving it to her. By our second week in business, she’d been to the restaurant three times and was still sending the salad back. Finally, I went to the dining room, grabbed her and said, ‘Come back to the kitchen and make the salad with me.’ I told the entire kitchen staff to stop what they were doing to watch. And you know what? We learned to make the salad her way, and she became one of our best customers. That’s what made this restaurant: our willingness to take a different approach, to be flexible, to tell people, ‘This is your home, and we’re going to give you what you want.’ It’s about being humble enough to have an open mind.”
Relax and embrace who you are.
“When you come into Bourbon Steak, the first thing you receive when you sit is complimentary french fries. Why? When we opened in South Florida 10 years ago, my restaurants were viewed as really formal places. But I wanted this to be something more casual. I thought, ‘What’s the best way to help people relax when they walk in? Let’s drop french fries on everyone!’ We put a lot of thought and technique into them—we made three kinds with three seasonings and three sauces—but they’re still just french fries, something everyone is going to grab. I also knew there had always been this perception that American food was all meat and potatoes. Instead of fighting that perception, I wanted to embrace and elevate it.”
Judge passion, not ideas.
“The kitchen teaches you a lot about teamwork. I’ve learned the only way to stay on top of your game is to surround yourself with good people—up-and-comers and those who’ve been around forever. Collaboration is king. As a chef, that’s a hard idea to embrace because it’s usually a dictatorship in the kitchen. But for me, being able to work with people—to teach them as well as learn from them—is what gets me out of bed every day. Part of working with others is also being open to letting them try things and allowing mistakes to happen. Because you may think something isn’t going to work but the truth is… you don’t know. I’ve learned to never say never and to judge a person’s passion and not just their idea.”
Remember the importance of beauty.
“I was 22 when I joined the opening team of Aqua in San Francisco, and one of the things I was tasked with was finding an interior designer. I had a list of recommended people, but since I didn’t really know anything about design, I asked each candidate just one question: ‘If we work together, how are you going to make this space something everybody talks about and becomes infatuated with?’ One lady, who had not done a lot of restaurant work, answered, ‘I am going to make women look more beautiful in this space than they look anywhere else.’ She went on to say that if you make women look beautiful, they will always want to come back. And your staff will look beautiful, too. And everyone will feel great about just being there. Forty restaurants later, I still use that idea when I open a new place. I meet with designers now and tell them, ‘Your job is to make women look beautiful in here.’”
The food industry provides mind-blowing experiences.
“I was born in Egypt and came to America with my parents when I was 2 years old. We moved to Washington state and lived in a small, rural town about 100 miles east of Seattle. My dad ran the business department of a university and my mom worked as a chemistry professor. Being a chef was not something that was expected of me. For an Egyptian kid, there were only three possible career options: lawyer, doctor or engineer. Being a chef was like being a servant. But my parents eventually understood this is what I wanted and supported me. All these years later, I’ve cooked for three American presidents! Once for George W. Bush; twice for Bill Clinton, who came into the kitchen and talked to me for an hour about how to make bread; and several times for Barack Obama. I did an anniversary dinner for him and Michelle. I had just been watching him in a debate on television, and then we got the call at the restaurant asking if they could have the private dining room—and if I could be there. It blew my mind. Here I am, this punk kid from a little town—an immigrant!—talking with the president of the United States. This business has given me the most amazing opportunities.”
As exciting as the last 10 years were, the next 10 in South Florida look even more promising.
“There are only two places where all the big chefs have opened restaurants this quickly: Las Vegas and South Florida. I really think that, in the next decade, it will only continue to grow and get even more competitive. Mediocrity will get weeded out. And everyone will learn to make a better tomato salad!”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 Issue.