After one semester of college, Mina's father relented and Mina went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., one of the best cooking schools in the country. The summer after his first year, he had an internship with George Morrone, a talented chef who was responsible for the success of several high-profile restaurants on the West Coast. The 19-year-old Mina arrived in L.A. to find that the internship had been given to someone else. Just as in Seattle, Mina didn't accept rejection. "He was very persistent," says Morrone. "Every day he'd come by in a suit and be like, 'I read about you, I want to come work for you.'" Eventually Morrone gave him a gig assisting on the pastry station.

Mina returned to the CIA in the fall of 1987, but started spending his weekends in Manhattan working at Aureole, the buzzy Manhattan restaurant from another legendary chef, Charlie Palmer. He worked every station and got to see firsthand the rhythms of an important, successful kitchen. After graduation the following year, he returned to L.A. as Morrone's sous chef. The next year, the two were approached by an Aureole regular, Charles Condy, whose accountant owned a failing sports bar in San Francisco's Financial District. Would the two men like to open a restaurant in the space?

They did, and the resulting restaurant, Aqua, would eventually become the heir apparent to Stars and give Mina the biggest break of his career. He moved to San Francisco and felt like his early Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous dreams had finally come true. But the dream was deferred his second day in town when the 1989 Loma Linda earthquake struck. Building permits and everything else for Aqua were pushed back as the city rebuilt. Here was one situation that Mina couldn't engineer his way out of. He bounced around kitchens in San Francisco and New York, getting more experience under his belt, biding his time.

Though he's not in the kitchen as much as he'd like to be these days, running restaurants is still Michael Mina's top priority.
Marc Fiorito, Gamma Nine Photography
Though he's not in the kitchen as much as he'd like to be these days, running restaurants is still Michael Mina's top priority.
Michael Mina as a young, rising star chef.
Michael Mina as a young, rising star chef.

Aqua was a big deal from the moment it opened, finally, in 1991. Morrone was executive chef, and the 22-year-old Mina was his second in command. The restaurant served only fish, which Mina says was "basically unheard of" back then, and its kitchen was the stuff of legend, with a deep bench of culinary talent, including Traci des Jardins (of Jardinere and the Commissary), Bruce Hill (of Zero Zero, Fog City, Bix, and Piccino), Ron Siegel (now the executive chef at Michael Mina), and others. It was also the first restaurant to start "the casualization of fine dining," says Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle's food critic for three decades. Fine dining, in those days, was hushed and staid. Aqua was lively and dynamic. The tables were close together, the room had huge flower arrangements and contemporary art. "[The room] had a very uplifting, California feel. So did the food," Bauer says.

"Intense" is the word people use when they talk about the kitchen at Aqua. Mina and Morrone had very high standards. Hill, who had put in time as a line cook at Stars, remembers Aqua as the first kitchen he'd worked where a chef scrutinized every plate before it went out to the customers. "If something wasn't right, it was just made again," he says. "Other chefs would say, 'We'll do better next time.' But at Aqua it was like, 'This isn't going out.'"

Melissa Perello came into the kitchen as a young chef on an internship. The four-star restaurant had to do about 250 covers a night, and the pressure to make each one of them perfect was expressed through yelling and, occasionally, items being thrown. Perello doesn't hold any grudges. "That was the norm for kitchens back then," she says.

Mina knows he's mellowed since those days. "Of course you do things differently in your 30s and 40s than in your 20s," he says. For him, that's been learning to trust and rely on the people around him. "With chefs the problem is we have to be very confident because people are looking at us for that. So pretty soon you think you're a plumber, you think you're an electrician, you think you're an accountant. Everyone was asking questions I had no business answering," he says. "Collaboration is a better process."

Today we take for granted that chefs sign autographs and go on book tours and appear in Vogue like any other celebrity, but the celebrification of chefs has happened just over the past 20 years. Aside from a few well-known personalities like Tower and Wolfgang Puck, chefs in the '80s and early '90s were considered more servants than artists. But in 1993, the Food Network launched, the same year that Morrone left and Mina took over as executive chef at Aqua. From the beginning, the fledgling network opened up new avenues for ambitious chefs.

Its first star was Emeril Lagasse, who trailblazed the route many others followed: multiple TV shows, catchphrases, cookbooks, spice blends — all things that took the New Orleans chef away from his restaurant kitchens for days at a time. Then there were people like Rachael Ray, who had never worked in a restaurant kitchen but had the kind of folksy charm that appealed to the masses. Later there was Anthony Bourdain, a chef who left the line behind to become a TV host and writer.

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