Dishing With Michael Mina

We recently had the opportunity to spend the weekend at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City where we were wined and dined to our delight! We also had the chance to sit down with the celebrity chef at his restaurant, Seablue, to find out what’s his best advice for burgeoning chefs-in-training and what would be his desert island dish!

How did you get started in the industry?
I started young; I was 15. I grew up in a small town in the center of Washington state, and I started as a job, started doing dishes and prep cooking. And then, the gentleman that I was working for got really sick, and my junior and senior year, he really let me run the restaurant. And I fell in love with a lot; I mean definitely the cooking and the food and the creativity on that side. But it was more that that. The restaurant was such a family and that immediate gratification with the customers that time was probably '84, '85. There wasn't the Food Network and celebrity chefs, and all this. I started doing some research and found out that you could make a career out of it, and then I went to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in New York right after high school, did my internship at the Hotel Bel-Air, and then went back to New York for the second year and worked in New York, and then went back to Bel-Air. And ultimately, went to San Francisco in '89, and '91, I opened my first restaurant, which was called Aqua. I was young — I was 22 when it opened.

What’s the biggest change you've seen in the industry?
I'd say that the change has been magical and beautiful in our country. And what's great about change is when change works like it's worked in the United States with food; the clientele is getting educated as fast as the industry is bringing more talent. That's kind of what's happened. Our industry became popular, media helped make it popular – television and everything else. My father almost wanted to kill me when I told him I wanted to be a chef, he said, “No, you're going to go to college, there's no way.” Now, I have CEOs of multiple companies, [asking], “Can you let my son come in and spend a day in the kitchen? He really wants to be a chef; I want him to do it.” Just the quality level of young chefs is continuing to rise. And I think that what's happened is the food in the United States has gotten so much better, that there're so many more great restaurants, so there's so many more great protégés coming out, and that's a great thing! It's plain to see, at the same time, the consumer in the United States because of farmers' markets and Whole Foods, and all these things they've gotten more educated on product and quality of food. So, you've seen this thing where they both have come up together, and it's really helping our country start to really establish itself as a serious food country.

Best advice for someone looking to get into the food industry?
Go work in the food industry! A lot of times, people say, “I want to get into cooking, I want to go to school.” Go work in a restaurant first. Go to school, but, even if it's just for a summer, get into a restaurant and work in it. Granted, every restaurant is going to be different. When we opened Bellagio, everybody said, “You'll never be able to find staff in Las Vegas.” What I found very interesting was there was already staff in Las Vegas, there were already people serving 400 people a day, they just weren't doing it at this level. They were still doing the physical pieces of the puzzle were there; there was an educational piece missing. If nothing else, you get into a restaurant, you'll start to get a feel of what you're in for.

If you were trapped on an island and you were only allowed one dish, what would it be?
Fideos in Spain, that's my guilty pleasure. I could eat videos everyday – toasted pasta with aioli stirred into it. No problem.

Are you looking to open up a new restaurant any time soon?
Not right now. We're doing a lot of refresh on our restaurants, and we've been working for the last few years on this culinary website that is for all of our employees, front and back of the house, Recipe Exchange. That's our big focus this year.

Is there a location in the U.S. that you really want to tap into?
We just opened a couple more [restaurants] in Baltimore, so now we have four on the east coast. Right now, there's nothing in particular that I say to myself, “I have to be in that city,” because San Francisco is home. I always seem to be looking at more things there because I'm there. But right now, I really like the east coast because I love the product on the east coast. And I love product on the west coast too, but they're different. I'm not sure what's next.