In Marin / CONVERSATION
gras with fish. What was your
relationship with Morrone?
I did my (culinary school)
internship under George at the
Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles.
I was the pastry chef there before
I became a sous-chef. We both
worked for Charlie Palmer in New
York; Charlie Palmer actually
introduced us to the investor,
Charles Condy, who funded Aqua
originally. We basically had, and
to this day still have, a great relationship. Food is collaboration
and you work on it together. We
created many great dishes there,
and we did it as a team.
So you’ve got this one restaurant,
in a rather iconic space with an
iconic chef. How do you move from
that to what you've subsequently
done, which is build this program
of San Francisco restaurants, and
then partnerships that expanded
beyond San Francisco? After
George moved on, I was left with a
dilemma — what do you do?
I literally was doing the same thing
I was doing before. The only real
difference of what I was doing,
for better or for worse, was dealing with the media. You get the
praise, you get it all, be it good,
bad or in between. The timing
was interesting, though. This
was around 1994. It was when
Jeremiah (Tower) was leaving
Stars. When we were conceptualizing Aqua and everything else,
we would go to Stars all the time.
It was, to this day, my favorite res-
taurant in San Francisco.
I just thought it was just magical.
Stars was your template?
A lot of the people who worked
there ended up moving over here
[Aqua] and working here after
Jeremiah left. And it was great,
because they were seasoned
veterans. What a crew we had.
One of the industry’s
restaurateurs shares his
secret sauce for success.
By Christina Mueller
SINCE THE LATE 1990s, chef Michael Mina has defied the conven- tional wisdom that 80 percent of restaurants
fail before they celebrate their
fifth anniversary. With eight
restaurants in San Francisco,
another 30 scattered around 10
states and a brasserie in Dubai,
the chef who first rose to fame
at San Francisco’s Aqua shows
no signs of slowing the pace,
developing partnerships to build
his brand far beyond California.
The longtime Nicasio resident
continues his expansion with
restaurants closer to home, too:
The Lodge at Sonoma welcomed
his Wit & Wisdom earlier this
year. A collaboration with chef
and cookbook author Ayesha
Curry led to the opening of the
first International Smoke restau-
rant in San Francisco in 2017,
with subsequent openings in Las
Vegas, Miami and, most recently,
Del Mar in north San Diego
County. And a project in the for-
mer Guaymas space in Tiburon is
slated for a late summer opening.
Your family is of Egyptian heritage but you grew up in central
Washington state. Did that have
an impact on your desire to go
into the restaurant industry?
My dad was Coptic Christian,
so we left Egypt when I was
two and moved close to where
my mom’s brothers and sisters
emigrated. My dad got a job at
Central Washington University.
The region where I grew up is all
farming community. It’s known
for growing the timothy hay that
is sent to Japan to feed wagyu
beef cattle. When I was 17, I said
I wanted to go to culinary school.
And when you're from Egypt, you
get three choices: doctor, lawyer,
engineer. You can do any of the
three, but chef wasn’t one of them.
You famously came up under
George Morrone, who was doing
innovative things like pairing foie