Interview with Chef Michael Mina of Aqua, San Francisco

October 2011

You're one of the youngest chefs to run a first class restaurant.
What do you attribute your early success to?
M: I was real fortunate to get to work with some really good chefs in New York and I learned good discipline and good basic technique and background from people. What you really do when you're cooking is you learn as much as you possibly can. You constantly learn every day from every person that you can get any information from. You take everything that you learn -- all the classic, traditional ways of doing things and you begin to start to use your own cooking style and your own cooking techniques. When you develop your own style, you just have to hope that people like it. That's really what it comes down to and we've been fortunate here. You're cooking for the general public, but you're also 95% of the time going to cook something that you like. Then you have to hope that the general public likes it. So far, we've been real fortunate here.

Is there any chef or cuisine that has influenced your work?
M: I worked under Charlie Palmer in New York, the chef at Aureole. I worked with Don Pintabono. He's the chef at Tribeca Grill in New York and both of them had a big influence on me. And the previous chef here (at Aqua) George Morrone had a big influence on me as well. I think all three of those chefs had a very similar philosophy and that was just: try and keep everything as clean and simple as possible, but use exciting flavors and try and do something that the general public isn't shown every day. Try and show them a little something different with flavors or styles or presentations or a combination of everything, but yet keep the techniques and everything classical.

You have said that you have a deep belief in simplicity. Is there a dish that you consider your simplest?
M: I have a dish right now on the menu -- a grilled snapper with roasted vegetables served with roasted potatoes, whole roasted shallots, sautéed wild arugula. It's really almost a rustic dish and then there's a traditional English vinaigrette that has Worcestershire, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and rosemary that you make about 2 or 3 days in advance and you let it sit. The dish is simple and the flavors are just dynamite together and you can substitute any piece of meat or almost any fish and it works with the dish. Those types of dishes excite me because they are very versatile. I like dishes that are versatile and then there's other dishes that have to stand alone. The way you do them is the way you do them. You can't substitute anything.

Is there something about seafood that inspires you?
M: Yeah, very much so. The thing that I like most about it is ... as far as being a chef, you don't have to cook anything really ahead of time. In these busier restaurants, a lot of times when you have large cuts of beef, they take so long to cook that you have to begin to cook them ahead of time and then finish them when you're picking the plate up. The thing that's great about seafood is you cook everything to order so it's always very juicy and fresh. There's just so much more of a variety with seafood. There's so many different fish in the world. And every day you're finding a new fish or something to work with.

Do you go through phases with the fish you use?
M: Definitely. You'll find something that you like and you'll start to use it. Not just with fish, with produce, everything.

Do you have a favorite fish right now?
M: Black cod. They call it butterfish. It's a really fatty fish. We do a miso and a saki marinade on it and then we broil it. It's just incredible -- a nice big flaky fish. We serve it with hot and sour shrimp spring rolls and a green scallion sauce.

Do you get all your fish locally?
M: I get it through a company that's local, but I get it from all over the world. We get fish flown in from France. We get lots from back east. It depends on the season. We use Dungeness crab from San Francisco.

What do you fly in from France and the east coast ?
M: Doversole, rige, langoustine. It just depends on the season. All those are from France. I like alot of the East coast fish as well. I like the Atlantic cod. I use that. The sea scallops from back east.

Do you miss the east coast -- New York?
M: I miss the competitiveness. I miss the camaraderie between all the chefs. The thing that's a little different in New York in the food industry -- when everybody would leave work, everybody would go out together. Everybody talked about food all the time. It was kind of a way of life for us all. Here it's a little bit different, probably because by the time you get off here all the bars are closed. New York City is a bigger city. The high end level of restaurants -- the top top restaurants -- there's just more of them because it's a bigger city. So there's more of a variety to see. I like that. But I also think San Francisco has a really good diverse cuisine -- all different types of cuisines. A lot of real interesting Asian restaurants. I wouldn't say they're better than the ones back east, but there's a lot of different varieties to choose from. But I think of the high end restaurants, there's more to choose from back east.

You went to CIA?
M: I went to CIA.

Have you been to Greystone? What do you think of their program?
M: I have been to Greystone. Hopefully they'll end up opening it up to all students. Because I know, myself, being from the west coast, I would much rather have gone to school in Napa then Poughkeepsie or in Hyde Park. I think when they do that, it'll be a real successful school.

You had an event on September 8th, tell me about that.
M: It' was the Aqua five year anniversary.

Congratulations.
M: Thank you.

You are so young, do your colleagues recognize you as a "boy-wonder chef?"
M: A lot of people are ready to run restaurants at this age because you start when you're young. I started cooking when I was 15 and I graduated from CIA when I was 19. And while I was at CIA I worked all the time in the city on the weekends and then when I got out of school I worked two jobs. The whole time I was in New York, I worked 17-18 hours a day, just so I could learn. You have to say to yourself sooner or later: I'm going to just take the risk and try and do it. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a restaurant like this, that's so dramatic looking and everything, and it was just a matter of, you're either going to try it or you're not. As long as you keep your head open and you don't begin to have any sort of ego or an attitude about cooking and close off your learning process, there's no reason why, if you physically can run the restaurant, not to do it. As long as you don't start to feel like you can't learn anything from anybody else and you have to show everybody everything. If everybody works together and works as a team, one person's the leader, but the restaurant's all basically a team. When people come in that have worked in other restaurants, and have good ideas, I love seeing it. We use it.

Take me through your timeline. You were born in Washington state?
M: I was born in Cairo actually and I moved to Washington when I was two. I moved to a small town about 100 miles east of Seattle. Ellensburg. A little farm district. It was really nice. Great farming and they have some really good meats and lambs and things like that that come out of there. I was running a small French restaurant when I was 16 and I was cooking there with the owner and then the owner had a stroke and didn't want to cook anymore. So I hired two people to work the kitchen with me and I got to run that restaurant. And I did like a work-study when I was 16 and 17 in high school. Then I decided at about 17 that I wanted to go to Culinary Institute and my father wanted me to try to the University, so I went to the University of Washington for one year and I worked at the Space Needle when I was there. The agreement that I made with my father was that I would try school for a year and I ended up doing only two semesters of general college. And at the Space Needle I worked the grill at lunch. We did about 900 lunches a day. It was crazy. But it was nice, it was my first exposure to a busy busy restaurant.

Then I went back east to the Culinary Institute. And I went to the Hotel Bel Air and did my internship there. That's where I met George Morrone. The only position he had was in pastry, so I started in pastry. Then the pastry chef left a few weeks after that. The guy that took over got sick, it was just one of those things, and I ended up, for about six months, running the pastry shop. Then I went back to school. And that's when I met ... the pastry chef that originally was there left to go to New York to be the pastry chef at Aureole, the restaurant Charlie Palmer was opening. That's when I got to meet Charlie Palmer. I went to work there on the weekends. I'd go down to the city and work every weekend.

When I graduated from school, I went back to the Bel Air just for about six months. Then we met Charles Condy, who is the investor of Aqua, and he said he wanted to do this restaurant. So George and myself came up and we looked at the space, told him what we needed to do, so we both left the Bel Air.

There were some things that tied up the restaurant. We had the earthquake here, some things that really put the restaurant on hold. I went back east and worked again at Aureole and Tribeca Grill.

Were you ever able to study abroad?
M: I haven't been fortunate enough to do that. But the United States is definitely coming up to the level of any other country as far as food goes. The only thing that I think is different here is, for the most, people like to eat faster. That's been the biggest challenge with this restaurant because this restaurant is so busy and it's a high end restaurant, so you get such a diversity of clientele. You have people that want to take three or four hours to eat. Then you have the people that want a soufflé in 10 minutes. It's a hard thing to balance. The first couple of years that was the biggest challenge in this restaurant was balancing. Most of the real high end restaurants like this, especially in San Francisco, have smaller dining rooms. People are more apt to sit longer and if they're not sitting longer and they want to eat fast, it's a little easier to do it. We can get so many orders at one time.

Anyway, then I came back when we finally got close. We opened the restaurant and now we've been here for five years. And I've been here ever since.

What's your first memory of food?
M: My first memory of food ... I remember my mother always making us salmon. She always overcooked it and I hated salmon. And the first time I ever ate salmon cooked right, I couldn't believe it was the same fish. That's probably the first thing that stands out in my head -- my first memory of being exposed to food cooked properly and the difference. And my mother's a good cook, fish wasn't her thing.

When did you really become interested in cooking?
M: I started getting really interested in cooking probably when I was about 14 or 15. Just because I started working in a restaurant and I was interested. I used to love the pressure. I loved it. When I was 15 or 16 I loved the pressure of being so busy and having all these things to do at one time. Now it's the thing I like the least about it.

How big is your staff? Do they alleviate any of that pressure?
M: Thirty five to forty people in the kitchen. Throughout this restaurant and the other restaurant I have about 130 people total that work for me.

Like I said, now the pressure is the one thing I dislike the most about it. You always wish you had a few more minutes to make each dish. I do every service. I expedite lunch and dinner, and cook lunch and dinner. We're closed on Sunday and we're only open for dinner on Saturday, so it's great. I do lunch five days a week and dinner six days a week.
I cook every night. I do service, then I start working on my specials in the middle of the day and then do dinner service.

What about on your day off? Do you cook at home?
M: I love cooking at home. Pasta. I like to keep it real simple. I like red sauce. I like pasta with red sauce. A little grilled shrimp or something with it. My wife loves pasta so we cook pasta. I try not to eat it too much at work so I can make it on Sundays and enjoy it.

Do you have a favorite restaurant?
M: Probably JoJo in New York. I love his food. It's really clean and simple and the flavors are always real interesting and it's just dynamite. And Daniel in New York as well. Those two are definitely my favorite two restaurants, I think in the country.

Favorite cookbooks?
M: Pierre Markle White's "White Heat" That's definitely my favorite cookbook.

Is there a tool that you could not do without in the kitchen?
M: There's a lot of tools I can't do without. Hmmmm..... Your knives are real important. A potato ricer. Whenever you're making mashed potatoes and you boil the potatoes, then you put them through a potato ricer so they're really fluffy and you don't get any lumps in them. That's one thing that people never have at their house. And whenever you go and you cook at somebody's house and you try to make mashed potatoes, they never come out right if you don't have a potato ricer.

What's the best meal you've ever had?
M: White Truffle night at Chez Panisse six years ago.
Paul Bertoli was the chef.

How do you handle the private dining room?
M: An a la carte menu and then we offer a tasting menu every night. A five course tasting menu every night and that varies.

How do you get your ideas for recipes?
M: Reading. Every night I read for an hour before I go to bed, no matter what's happened in my day. I just pick up a book and I read. Cookbooks, all different cookbooks. Any place I can get my hands on them. I get ideas through that and I really work my purveyors a lot for different product. I push my purveyors to get different product in. So I have new things to play with and to work with. I keep a pad right beside my bed every night because that's when I get a lot of my ideas, late at night.

How soon will we get to see a cookbook from you?
M: About a year and a half. I just started shopping around for publishers.