Chef/Restaurateur Michael Mina may have his roots in San Francisco, but with 18 restaurants across the country now, you don’t have to be in the Bay to taste his food. In fact, with the opening of American Fishâ€Ž, his latest venture at the sleek ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Sin City now boasts one more restaurant from Mina Group than even San Francisco (for those keeping score, the count is 5-4).
While I was in Vegas for the Food & Wine All-Star Weekend, I had the opportunity to sit down with Chef Mina, taste some of his food, and chat about inspirations, techniques you can bring into your own kitchen, great food, and guilty pleasures. Here’s what he had to say…
American Fish features regional products prepared in four signature cooking methods: ocean water poached, cast iron griddled, sea salt baked, and wood grilled and smoked. What inspired you to bring this concept to Vegas?
You live in San Francisco so you know my background was Aqua and it was a fish restaurant. That’s the first restaurant I brought to Las Vegas. As with everything else, I think times change, and change is obviously good, but that era of fine dining, more and more, is becoming high energy. In the food, I think product and technique more than ever right now is the driving force, and what I mean by that is people are going back to simplicity. It’s interesting because diners are going back to simplicity in dishes but with the highest level of quality of product that we’ve ever seen them be aware of, which is great. I was just in New York at ABC Kitchen and I couldn’t believe it – I was like, what?! Jean-Georges is serving fried calamari with aioli and tomato sauce…but it was perfect. I mean it was perfect, it was delicious…more than ever now, people are looking for simplicity and familiarity, and that’s what this concept is all about. This concept is about things like cooking trout in a cast iron pan over an open fire. As simple as it sounds when it’s done really well people can relate to it and they enjoy it. And that was the idea. The ability to build a showcase kitchen like this and use those techniques and then feature a lot of product from America because there’s such good product here now.
Speaking of product, can you talk a little bit about where you’re sourcing your fish from, how you’re selecting it?
All over. Honestly, Sven, our chef, [Executive Chef Sven Mede] has a lot to do with the day-to-day selection. I’ll give him recommendations of things I fall in love with – for example, I was up in Seattle opening all summer and I was calling him up about all the different salmons and things he needs to have – but the reality is, we’re sourcing from all over. We’re sticking to product that’s being grown in the United States, so, East coast, West coast waters, rivers and streams, lakes, wherever we can find good product in the United States. We actually don’t do much from Hawaii here, but that would be as far as we would go.
Is there anything on the menu that is your personal favorite?
The salt grill technique. That’s definitely my favorite technique. I just love it because it gets both the wood flavor and it gets the salt flavor, and I like salt. I like that natural flavor of salt in the food where cooking it in rock salt gives it to you — it’s like finishing with a finishing salt, I love that flavor.
Something that piqued my interest from this afternoon was when you were talking about poaching the fish in ocean water. How did you come up with that?
I was doing an event in Hawaii, and I literally went and got buckets of water out of the ocean and I poached all the lobsters in it. I started with the lobsters in the shell because I was wondering how strong the flavor would take to it, poached them, then de-shelled them, and then finished them in that same ocean water with a little bit of butter, and it was amazing.
Did you sous vide it like you do here?
Actually at that point, I hadn’t taken it to that level yet. I just did it in a pan, really really slow, poached in water and butter…and I was amazed at what the outcome was. And I was amazed at what people said. Then we got to a point where I actually made a sauce out of some of the water and butter the lobster was cooked in, so you really got that pop of the flavor, and it was great. Then I took it to the next level. As soon as I did that, it was just, every piece of fish I could find the rest of the time I was in Hawaii I was poaching it in ocean water. That’s when I really started getting it. And then, like 99% of everything you do, you find out that it’s been done. I came back to San Francisco and I was talking to my chef, and it was funny because one of the guys who works for me that’s a food runner is from Peru, and he’s like, “Oh, no, in Peru we do that.”
You mentioned earlier that the ocean water used here at the restaurant comes from Monterey or Hawaii. So you’re saying you actually buy ocean water?
I buy it in the sense that I have my fish company bring it when they bring everything else. It was funny because somebody wrote something once that I thought was really interesting. They wrote, “Why in the world would you bring water in?” And as I’m sitting here, drinking a glass of Fiji, I’m thinking to myself, that’s the oddest thing to write. As you’re writing that you’re probably drinking a bottle of water. And, [the poaching technique] doesn’t take a lot of water. It’s not a big pot of it that you’re throwing out every time.
Do you have to purify it?
Well, it’s tested. We don’t actually have to purify it. You just get really clean water. They test it for us.
If I wanted to try this at home, how would I go about getting clean ocean poaching water?
Boil it. You can go get ocean water, boil it, strain it, and then cool it down. That’s the trick. And then use it the same way from a cold state and it’ll be fine.
You’ve obviously done incredibly well in San Francisco. How is it opening up restaurants in different cities? Are you finding that your audience is different?
People who love food are people who love food. Price point depends on the city and what’s accepted in that city, so you have to be aware of that. Also, I think you also have to be aware of the dining experience people are looking for. I know when I come to Las Vegas, and when other people come to Las Vegas, they have a big list of things they’re going to do that night, so time is an issue. People do want to dine fast. I think overall, one of the things that really attracted me to do more restaurants in Las Vegas is what I fell in love with when I did Aqua at Bellagio. I fell in love with how people were coming to enjoy themselves, and you were a part of their enjoyment. It was great. It was such a nice environment. People come into the restaurant and they want to have a great time…and you know, so they’re a little loud. But that’s the piece that I came away with from early on was how much I enjoyed that. It fits my personality, it fits my company, it fits everyone in my company. You can do great food, great techniques, everything else, and you can do it in an environment where people are relaxed and enjoying themselves.
Let’s talk culinary influences. What are big ones for you?
Big influences for me, people-wise…the first chef I worked for was Charlie Palmer, and that was the time that Aureole opened in New York. I was still in school, and so that was such an eye-opening experience, seeing a New York restaurant and how it functioned. Charlie was in the kitchen every day for service, and it was amazing. And then, the first chef that I really fell in love with and really admired was Jean-Louis Palladin. I got to know him after I was a chef at Acqua and to me he was the equivalent of someone who cared so much about food and everything about it. He cared about the people who were coming up after him and just everything about it, and so, that was a big influence on me because I got to spend some time with him personally and just thought that he was an amazing person.
As far as countries go, I love bold flavors. I love strong flavors. And in that sense I love Asian food because I like acidity, sweetness…I like that whole thing of acidity, sweetness, spice, and fat balance. I love balance in food. And so, Asian food in general has that. And then Japanese food, technique-wise and product-wise — I’m glad it has become as popular as it has. We’ve all learned a lot from it. I’m classically trained in French cooking, I went to CIA, and the roots of a lot of that is French. So…those are all big influences. Also, Italian cooking — I think that a lot of California cooking has come from rustic Italian cooking, so I always study and look at that.
Did you always know that your life would be in food, or was it an Ah-ha moment?
It was an Ah-ha moment, but from an early age. I started cooking when I was fifteen. I knew when I was seventeen, I was dead set on becoming a chef, and so I never veered from it. I went to culinary school instead of college and never veered in any other direction. I never thought of going to the business side of the restaurant world first, or anything else. It was always, from the time I was sixteen, seventeen, I knew I wanted to be a chef.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a chef?
Travel. Eat out. Taste. Never taking for granted how something tastes. You have use your palette and your mind at the same time to ever make a statement. You have to learn all the techniques and everything else, but you have to understand what you’re going for in your food. You have to have a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve out of your cooking. And I think that traveling, eating out, has a lot to do with that because you learn so much in the kitchen that it’s so easy to close yourself off to that…it’s a completely different experience as a diner. I mean, I’ve had chefs work for me that I taste a dish and I’m like, “This is great!” And I look at him and I ask, “Have you sat down and eaten a whole dish?” As a chef, you have to eat the dish beginning to end. That’s why entrées are so much harder than appetizers, because you have to keep somebody’s interest, 25 bites into a dish.
What was the last great meal you had?
The last great meal I’ve had? Um…I have great meals all the time. Well I was just in New York, so every place I ate…I would say ABC Kitchen, just in the sense that it was unexpected. I had heard so much about it, but I didn’t expect it to be the way it was, and I really did enjoy it. I really enjoyed the whole feeling. And, to me, any great meal is about your company, it’s about the people you’re eating with. Obviously the food and everything else, but it’s the full experience.
What are some of the all-star dishes you had there?
Like I said, it was actually interesting because it was more about simplicity, so I had a toast with a chicken liver mousse, it was just great, and you know, maybe it was just because I hadn’t had toast with chicken liver mousse on it in a long time, but it was delicious.
Any guilty pleasures? You know, when no one’s looking that you’re sneaking?
Yeah…too many, obviously (as he pats his stomach). Probably…I love barbecue. Yeah, I love barbecue.
Yeah, ribs, anything. I love it. Again, it goes to the whole thing of bold flavor foods — acid, sweet, spice. Barbecue is my guilty pleasure.
Who makes the best barbecue?
Sonny’s in Dallas is really good. The original. Only the original.
I know you have two sons — do they like to cook as well?
Yes, constantly. They’ve been coming to the restaurant with me since they were four. I used to bring one on Friday, one on Saturday. Now they’re big enough that they both can come at the same time. And they cook. They work all over the restaurant. I think I’m completely blessed. I can bring them to work. They really understand what I do. (Whips out his phone) I’ll show you the little one making an ice cream sandwich. Anthony. He’s actually very good, I’m just showing this because it’s a cute video, but I’ve got him making tuna tartar. Sam is the older one. This is him grilling…