Saturday, April 28, 2012

[EID Feature] Michael Mina: The Inconspicuous Celebrity Chef

Photo from dcist.
After a lengthy chat with Wolfgang Puck - arguably the first and most celebrated of celebrity chefs -- and Michael Symon -- the iconoclast-turned-icon -- it seemed only natural to speak to metro Detroit's third nationally-recognized celebrity chef, the comparatively quiet and under-the-radar Michael Mina. 

Mina has two acclaimed restaurants in Detroit: Bourbon Steak and SaltWater, both inside the MGM Grand Detroit. Despite his stature in the culinary world -- and rest assured, he's right up there with the big dogs -- Mina manages to maintain an air of mystery. You don't see him in magazines or on talk shows. He doesn't give a lot of interviews and doesn't have his own TV show. And all of this is very intentional. Mina may seem shy, but in reality he's as affable as the more showboaty chefs -- he has a plan in place, and he's very patient. I had a rare opportunity to speak with this self-professed control freak last week, and this is what he had to say.

Mina grew up in Washington state in Ellensburg. He started his cooking career when he was 15. "I fell in love with it and decided to pursue it and try to make a career out of it." He attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York where he had an opportunity to work with "super chef" Charlie Palmer. Later, after graduating school, he had the chance to move to San Francisco and open his first restaurant, Aqua. (That restaurant would eventually close, but in a move that was both a personal triumph and highly symbolic for Mina, it would later reopen in the same location as the eponymous Michael Mina.) At the time he was only 22 years old. 

Aqua was an all-seafood restaurant and was a "very big success." From there he went on to open what he calls his "favorite" restaurant, Michael Mina at Bellagio in Las Vegas. And this is where I pause. Mina is nothing if not exceedingly humble. In recapping his life story for me at this point he says simple that he "opened a few more restaurants" before skipping ahead to Detroit (which is, of course, my primary point of interest). To clarify, "a few" is a grand total of 19 restaurants over 20 years. Not too shabby for an inconspicuous celebrity chef most people wouldn't recognize if he cooked for them personally right at their table. 

Photo from Eater Las Vegas.
MGM would eventually buy the Bellaggio which led to more opportunities for Mina to open more restaurants in various properties owned by MGM Resorts International -- including Nobhill Tavern and Seablue at MGM and Stripsteak at Mandalay Bay. It was this established relationship with MGM that, much like in the case of Wolfgang Puck, brought Mina to Detroit.

"I did not know much about Detroit but I had a chef, Marc St. Jacques, who had lived in Detroit for the majority of his life and he was very excited. [He said] 'I would love to do it; I would love to go there and work!'" At the time Mina had two restaurants inside the MGM in Las Vegas so they asked him to open two in Detroit (which had a lot to do with how the kitchens are set up and shared; wholly unglamorous reasoning, I know, but reality). 

Mina admits that any hesitation over opening a restaurant (two!) in the city of Detroit in the year 2007 was assuaged by the fact that he would have the built-in clientele of the casino (reality check: this was before Slows became a national media darling, when the dominant Detroit narrative both nationally and locally was one of never-ending doom and gloom; before Kwame was a convicted felon and still our beloved mayor whose biggest scandal was racking up credit card debt with the city's cards, leasing an SUV for his wife at the city's expense, and making some unpopular decisions like shuttering the Belle Isle Aquarium and Zoo ... a mere drop in the bucket for what was to come). 

"It wouldn't be a stretch [to open a fine dining restaurant] if you're from there, but I wouldn't see [Detroit] as a place to open a restaurant if it hadn't been in a casino. With the MGM you have the hotel; it's a draw. But obviously if you spend time [in Detroit you see] the chefs who have been there a long time [who have a] good clientele [base] they have built up over time." As an "outsider" chef in a downtrodden city (that can sometimes take as well to outsiders as the locals in Deliverance...hell, this town will turn on you if you live a mere nine miles north), Mina was definitely taking a chance. But, he says, "Being in the casino you have more interaction right at your front door. That was a draw. And sometimes you have to go just a little bit with your gut feeling."

Slow down before you all start getting defensive and arguing that Detroit is the most bestest city to open anything anywhere ever. He continues, "The clientele in Detroit has been phenomenal." When opening a new restaurant, Mina always stays in the city for a month (again, he is a self-professed control freak). "I made wonderful friends there. These are lifetime friends; I can tell. I talk to them on the phone all the time ... the people [in Detroit] are tremendous. I really enjoyed my time there."

As far as culinary sensibilities, Mina notes, "People say 'Oh people in Detroit don't want this or that'; it was surprising how flexible [the clientele] really [is]." For that month Mina met with purveyors to make sure they could get the products they needed and also interviewed staff. "Those are the two pieces you have to make sure you can get: product and staffing. Then location but it is a little bit different to be inside a casino; you have some built-in clientele. It's not like you're trying to do something in the middle of downtown, leasing a space and building from the ground up."

Photo from Marin Independent Journal.
Mina didn't treat his Detroit locations any differently than any of the other cities. "You have to look at them individually. Every Bourbon we do there's a core to the menu that's about 40% [of the menu]. Besides that it all goes by seasonality which is different everywhere, then we give the chef a little bit of flexibility on the menu to make changes which is dictated by the clientele which evolves over time as you get to know your clientele."

Which is definitely something they found true in the case of SaltWater. "We started out where we didn't really know how much high-end dining there would be. SaltWater was geared to be a high-end fish restaurant, but realistically with the economy the way it was, over time we've adjusted the style of food and brought the price point down considerably." Bourbon Steak also went through its own adjustments, such as adding a more affordable bar burger menu.

Mina might not be the most recognizable name or face in celebrity chefdom, but he is still the only celeb chef presence in Detroit with two high-end restaurants under his name, and he has absolutely no regrets about not being more in the limelight like some of his flashy culinary brethren. "I’m very fortunate: I’ve cooked for two presidents in the same week and have experienced things no one in the word has experienced, and it all came from cooking. I have a very methodical plan in my mind of how I like to be exposed." We may be seeing more of Mina in the media in the future, but for now at least we can enjoy his restaurants.