For Chef Michael Mina, the true beauty of his profession is in the sum of all its different elements. "I love to cook. I am truly curious to learn more about food every day. I enjoy having a big hand in a person's pleasurable experience of an evening. I thrive on the intensity of the fast pace and the pressure in the kitchen. And I adore the challenge to be creative and produce reliable results."
These days, the award-winning chef, whose accomplished culinary skills make him appear seasoned beyond his youthful age of 33 years, has plenty of opportunity to showcase his abilities and creativity. Aside from consulting with his other restaurants Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco, Aqua at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and Pisces in Burlingame, the four-star chef also continues to excite diners with his mouth-watering creations at the renowned seafood restaurant Aqua in San Francisco where he is also a partner. In July 2001, Mina launched a new restaurant concept, NOBHILL, at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas while bringing his acclaimed Aqua restaurant to the St. Regis Resort and Spa in Dana Point, California.
Despite the demanding schedule and intense pressure, cooking simply remains a labor of love for the James Beard Foundation-lauded Rising Star. "I started to cook when I was really young," explains Mina. "And I am still as interested and intrigued with the process as I was back then as a 15-year-old when I got a job as the Garde Manger in a small French restaurant in my hometown."
Mina has come a long way, both literally and figuratively, since then. Born in Cairo, Egypt, and raised in rural Ellensburg, Washington, Mina developed a fondness for cooking and a determination to live in San Francisco early on. "I wanted to move here ever since I saw a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge when I was a kid," he remembers.
Before he had the chance to fulfill his childhood dream to take up residence in the food capital of the West Coast, Mina went on a detour across the nation to formalize his culinary training. In 1987 he joined the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York and for the next 18 months spent weekends honing his hands-on cooking skills in Charlie Palmer's kitchen in Manhattan at the famous Aureole.
Eventually, a six-month "externship" briefly returned the young chef to the West Coast and introduced him to George Morrone, Executive Chef of the Hotel Bel Air. In 1989, after graduating the Culinary Institute, Mina returned to Los Angeles and Morrone's kitchen. Opportunity came knocking shortly after. Within six months of his arrival, the two men were presented with an opportunity to join forces with restaurateur Charles Condy to develop a concept and create a menu for a high-end seafood restaurant in San Francisco.
Determination, hard work and the instinct to follow his dreams paid off for Mina as he finally made his move to San Francisco. Unfazed by an earthquake that greeted him on his second day in town, he dedicated himself to hiring and training the kitchen staff and refining the menu as Aqua's Chef de Cuisine. When Aqua opened in 1991, the restaurant immediately drew national acclaim. Remembers Mina, "A restaurant with such an impact hadn't opened in San Francisco in years."
While his clients' appreciation and the concept of world-class seafood cuisine combined with high standards in food quality and service have remained unchanged, Mina's role and the food in the restaurant have evolved since the early days. As Executive Chef since 1993, Mina has allowed his sophisticated, bold and flavor-intensive dishes to develop over the years, continually upgrading the menu, educating guests about the multi-faceted bounty of the oceans and earning diners' trust. "It is exciting to see that people will allow me to introduce them to unusual fare such as fresh eel or even sea urchins," comments Mina on the more adventurous seafood specials that sell out regularly. "I enjoy seeing the same people return over the years and love to get their feedback on new variations of dishes or recent menu additions."
Now a partner with Charles Condy in Aqua Development Corp., parent company to Aqua, Charles Nob Hill, Pisces, Aqua at Bellagio, NOBHILL and Aqua at St. Regis Monarch Beach, Mina feels fortunate to be able to take his ideas for innovative and inventive dishes of seafood delicacies directly to the table. "Fish is such a diverse and interesting product. There are over 100 different kinds of fish that are all butchered, handled and cooked differently," he explains. "With so much variety, cooking and eating always remains new and exciting."