lunch with lydia

Lunch with Lydia: Chef Michael Mina of Michael Mina 74 at the Fontainebleau

Chef Michael Mina was born in Egypt, grew up in quiet Ellensberg, Wash., and has long made his home outside San Francisco in cool, wine-country idyll. But he has one-upped Cuban Miami’s Caja China, that low-tech box roaster that was born in the mid-1980s in the decidedly unfoodie town of Medley when a Cuban father-and-son team decided South Florida’s apartment and townhouse dwellers should be able to roast a whole pig on Nochebuena — even on their balconies if they wanted to —without the benefit of an old-school backyard pit.

“I customized mine,” the James Beard award-wining Mina, who nabbed his first Michelin Star when he was in his 20s, said during one of his visits to Michael Mina 74, his critically acclaimed American bistro-style restaurant at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Collins Avenue. “I take it to tailgate parties in San Francisco. I can cook anything in it. And when I’m done cooking, I drop my coals down to the bottom, add a customized tray and use it as a steam table. Containers go in and everyone can just walk up and serve themselves from the Caja China. The coals continue to add smoky flavor and keep everything warm. It’s kind of the Mina China.”

Michael Mina 74, his 19th restaurant (among the others are Bourbon Steak in Aventura, Washington, Scottsdale, San Francisco and Los Angeles; Michael Mina in Las Vegas and San Francisco; RN 74 in Seattle and San Francisco), opened just in time for Art Basel Miami Beach this past December. By next December, there should be a second Mina restaurant at the Fontainebleau, in the former Gotham Steak space. It’ll be his second STRIPSTEAK. The Las Vegas original happens to be an award-winning hit.

But all of his restaurants, whatever their concept, follow the same philosophy.

“I stick to the theory of keeping food balanced,” Mina says over a lunchtime tasting at Michael Mina 74, which manages to be a success among serious foodies even while it’s ground zero for the Fontainebleau’s hardcore nightlife contingent. It helps that the restaurant is just steps below the cavernous nightclub LIV, where you really better know somebody or be somebody if you’re trying to get in. On weekends, a Mina 74 DJ cranks up the party tableside and the kitchen sends out quality eats until 3 or 4 in the morning.

“By balance, I mean the balance between acid, sweet, spice and fat. Of course, I make sure that with whatever is coming out of our kitchens, the technique is right, the product is right. But it’s more about acid-sweet-spicy-fat,” he says as he spoons spiny lobster cavatelli, with sea urchin, toasted poppy seeds and lemon, onto your plate. After that comes jerk quail with mung beans, mango and foie gras.

“It’s important for the flavors to come alive. Especially in Miami, where people are into big flavor. One of the most important things, when you’re learning how to cook, is to actually taste what you’re cooking. You have to train yourself to taste for balance. A recipe can call for half a lemon, but depending on the time of year and the type of lemon, it could be sweeter or more acidic. You want the flavors to play off of each other, not overwhelm each other. It might seem weird to use the Japanese yuzu in a pasta dish, but sometimes that’s what I use. Why yuzu? Because I’m looking to brighten the dish with citrus, but I may want a certain sweetness with the acid.”

Mina, 45, knew he wanted to be a chef from the time he was 16 and working in the kitchen of a French restaurant in Ellensberg. But his parents were not about to let him go down in flames like that.

“When you’re from the Middle East, you basically have three career choices: doctor, lawyer, engineer. When I told my father I wanted to go to cooking school, it was a very short conversation. It was 1985. There was no Food Network yet. In his mind, I was going to be just a cook, a servant, really. He ran the business department at Central Washington University. My mother was a chemist. They had a certain plan for me, and it didn’t include cooking school.”

The family came up with a compromise: Mina would enroll at the University of Washington and work part-time at a restaurant in the Seattle area to see if the cooking obsession was just a phase.

“I got a job at the Space Needle restaurant. When I would come home, the restaurant is all I could talk about. Not school. In my father’s defense, he realized quickly that I wasn’t going to change my mind and he started researching culinary schools. He hadn’t been on a plane since he left Egypt, but he got on a plane and he went to visit the Culinary Institute of America on his own, and he came back and said, ‘Don’t waste your time anymore.’ The following semester, at 18, I started at the CIA. Of course, my father is very happy with the way it all turned out. Not everyone is fortunate to know what they really want at such a young age.”

Mina grew up on his mom’s Middle Eastern food, but as a chef, his signature is contemporary American cuisine.

“We’re always interested in working with products and techniques from around the world. But there are certain things that drive me crazy. I had one of my chefs cook a dish for me, and he says, ‘Look, there’s chorizo powder on the plate.’ And I said, ‘Why not just put chorizo on the plate?’ Experimentation is great, and it’s great to add one element like chorizo powder, if layered properly with other elements. But not getting the balance right is where fusion cuisine can go wrong. A lot of people may use fish sauce, but not a lot of people know how to use fish sauce.”

Mina doesn’t love a lot of new-fangled tricks, but he’s not against a little theater. Michael Mina 74 may be about serious dining, but it’s also about understanding the celebratory nature of the South Florida beast.

“We mix the ingredients for the tuna tartar tableside, for example, because it’s great to see all of those different components separately before they get blended together. And protein is a big thing in Miami. We have this seafood cart full of everything you can imagine that we roll around to every table. Everybody loves it.

“I don’t believe that a great restaurant has to be only 30 seats where everybody comes to silently worship the food. A restaurant should be fun, an extension of your home. It should be a party. Why not? Of course, not every party is the same. The party at Bourbon Steak is not the same party that happens here.”

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