Mina chose the day-to-day mechanics of running restaurants over the spotlight occupied by his friends and peers. He's not ready to step away from his restaurants, not right now anyway. "I'm not saying it'll never happen. I just never really had the time to stop and put all the focus on it," he says. "There are many enormously talented chefs who are more talented than I am doing that. It's personal preference, what makes you happy."

In the late '90s and early '00s, other chefs began to expand their brands not through entertainment but through empire-building. Following the example of Wolfgang Puck and others, Michelin-starred chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud began to open multiple restaurants, creating a new kind of chain that offered food and a dining experience at a level way above steakhouses like Hillstone and Morton's.

The press, Mina says, was not kind to restauranteur-chefs in the beginning — including himself — criticizing them for not being in the kitchen all the time. But for Mina, chefs are as qualified to run a restaurant as any businessman because they understand the kitchen. "We know who's talented to give the reins to better than a quote-unquote restaurateur who didn't come out of the restaurant business," he says. "I'd rather have Daniel Boulud have 20 restaurants than some restauranteur. It's going to make the food in our country better."

As a 23-year-old chef at San Francisco's hottest restaurant, Mina saw his world expand rapidly. He and Condy opened a second San Francisco restaurant, Charles Nob Hill, and Mina might have taken another path, might have opened a few more places in the Bay Area and stopped, but he was approached by hotel mogul Steve Wynn in late 1996 about opening a restaurant in the new Bellagio hotel. At first he resisted; he'd visited Vegas once and hadn't been a fan, and was concerned about sourcing high-quality ingredients in the Nevada desert. He didn't want to extend his reach at the expense of his vision.

But Wynn came to Aqua and laid out his vision for the Bellagio, which already had some of the country's best restaurants like Le Cirque and Jean-Georges attached to the project. "I listened to him for an hour and a half, and I was mesmerized," Mina says. So he went ahead with the Bellagio project, and started on the path that he follows today, opening restaurants in hotels.

To Mina, hotels provide invaluable infrastructure that has enabled his empire to grow more quickly than if he had to find independent spaces for each of his restaurants in every city. They're also a good match for the Mina Group's emphasis on hospitality (this is, after all, a company that calls its customers "guests").

In 2002, Mina and Condy went their separate ways after opening eight restaurants. According to Mina, they had different ambitions: Mina wanted to continue with hotel restaurants, while Condy wanted to keep opening free-standing cafes. (Condy died in 2006.) Mina walked away from Aqua and formed his own corporation, the Mina Group.

One of the Mina Group's early investors was tennis legend Andre Agassi, who had gotten to know Mina a few years before when the chef had catered his New Year's Eve party. One day Agassi got a call on his cell. It was Mina, saying he still remembered their time together, and would the tennis star be willing to hear a pitch for his new venture? "I was like, 'Michael, I never forgot your attention to detail, certainly your talent, your care for people, the interest you create in your dishes,'" Agassi says.

In 2004, Mina opened his first real showcase since Aqua: Michael Mina in the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, where his Bourbon Steak is now. It had an ambitious menu conceit centered around dish "trios" — the same ingredients rendered three different ways on the plate, like a triptych. It was an instant success. In his review, Bauer called the restaurant a "masterpiece," writing, "In no time at all, people will begin to think of Michael Mina as San Francisco's equivalent of the French Laundry."

The Mina Group expanded quickly, opening three hotel restaurants in 2006, three more in 2007, and five in 2008. During those years, Mina continued to refine his company structure. Every day, each restaurant has a daily meeting, kind of like a scrum at a tech company, to go over every detail from the service from the night before, the coming night, and the night after. Higher-level meetings happen weekly and monthly.

To keep on top of the food, Mina developed the Recipe Exchange, a networked library of Mina's collected culinary wisdom that, with its 30,000 recipes and 3,000 videos, puts dedicated recipe websites to shame. Every menu item has a recipe, the recipe of its components (a sauce, for example), a photo, wine pairings, instructions for plating and silverware, the verbiage servers can use when they drop it off at the table.

Aqua, which had stayed open since Mina left though had never reached the same level of acclaim, shuttered suddenly in 2010 and Mina took over the lease. That October, he reopened his titular restaurant Michael Mina in the former Aqua space, where it remains today: an elegant, sophisticated power-dining spot, the kind of place where the mayor has lunch.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
San Francisco Concert Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.