Michael Mina
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Michael Mina

Carolyn Jung / May 2011

Food Arts presents the May 2011 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael Mina, who over a meteoric two decades has established 18 glitzy restaurants and one glam lounge across the country—more establishments than any other San Francisco Bay Area chef who cut his teeth on fine dining. They range from the elegant Michael Mina restaurant and the swank Clock Bar, both in San Francisco, to the opulent Bourbon Steak in San Francisco, Scottsdale, Miami, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., as well as five Las Vegas ventures: American Fish, Michael Mina, Nobhill Tavern, Seablue, and Stripsteak.

Perhaps the one opening that meant the most to the 42 year old Egyptian-born chef, though, was the one last year when he relocated his eponymous flagship restaurant from Union Square to the Financial District to the exact spot where he first made a name for himself at age 21. It was a very emotional homecoming of sorts for Mina, who had helped create the upscale seafood restaurant once there, Aqua, which evolved into a top dining destination during his nine years as its executive chef.

"There is a very special feeling at this restaurant for me," says the James Beard Award–winning Mina, who can be found there four nights a week. "I grew up here." Mina has always had a knack for having his pulse on the dining zeitgeist. When the frenzied dot-com boom hit, he foresaw the appetite for luxe food that felt comforting, adding truffle popcorn and lobster corn dogs as mainstays to his menus. At a time when wine competes for center stage equally with food, Mina opened RN74 in 2009 in San Francisco, a wine-centric restaurant named for a highway that runs through Burgundy.

It's a dream come true for a chef who longed to work in San Francisco so much since vacationing there with his family at age 13 that he decorated his childhood bedroom with scenic posters of the city. At age 15, he started working as a dishwasher in a small French restaurant in Washington state, where he practically ended up running the place a year later after the chef/owner suffered a heart attack. As a student at The Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York, he spent weekends working at Aureole in New York City, where chef/owner Charlie Palmer eventually introduced him to chef George Morrone, who tapped him to help open Aqua.

It was at Aqua that Mina met the man who would become his only other individual investor besides himself in the Mina Group--tennis great Andre Agassi, who, since 2003, has lent financial support, while allowing Mina the freedom to craft his restaurants. "He's been trying to teach me one tennis shot, but I absolutely do not know how to play tennis," Mina says with a laugh. "Plus, Steffi [Graf, Agassi's wife] is the one you really want the lesson from. She has all the patience."