On the Line: Raj Dixit And Michael Mina Of Stonehill Tavern, Part Two

After a whirlwind day of discussing, learning about and dining on local cuisine, both chefs were still game to put on their whites back at Stonehill Tavern. A chef with 26 concepts (and counting) across the country, it is no surprise that Michael Mina was just nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restauranteur. Our final installment focuses on Mina's family values and his devotion to his craft.

Don't forget to check out the first part of our interview, featuring Stonehill Tavern's very own Raj Dixit. That can be found over here.
When you're ready . . .Michael's responses are below.

Let's talk about being a 15-year-old Garde Manager in a French restaurant. What was so intriguing about the restaurant industry?
Seeing guests interact with one another over food was so fascinating for me. The fact they could be so moved by a dining experience I had helped to create was incredible. I've built my career on continuing to provide that exceptional experience for guests. I crave that ability to help others create lasting memories together over a meal.

What made you select Orange County/Dana Point for Stonehill Tavern?
The St. Regis brand is known for providing a bespoke experience for their guests. When the opportunity arose, we felt like it was a perfect fit for our philosophy on superior guest service.


How did the discussion of a restaurant group come up with Andre Agassi? Is he still involved?
Andre is an amazing and inspiring mentor; he was an avid supporter and frequent diner when I was at Aqua in San Francisco. He and Steve Miller have played a vital role in guiding me.

Hardest lesson you've learned.
Luckily, I've had some amazing mentors that have shared their lessons with me, so that I've not had to learn them the hard way too often. One of the greatest pieces of advice I've received is when you think you have things figured out, chances are someone is right behind you and has things figured out even more. You have to be relentless in your pursuit.

What turns you on– creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Collaboration with fellow chefs. Really building a team of great people that is constantly inspiring me to be better.

What is the most important quality you look for in a chef?

You have a whole day to yourself; what do you do?
I'm rarely by myself. I try to spend most of my free time with my family since I travel so much. If my kids are out of school, chances are we're heading to Lake Tahoe or anywhere near the water. If not, Diane and I will take a drive up to wine country for a relaxing afternoon.

As a chef and restauranteur, you advocate a work/life balance. For aspiring chefs, give three pieces of advice on how one can maintain that balance with their wife and child(ren).

  • Be present. When you're in the kitchen, give 110% every minute. When you get home, do the same.
  • Remember to stay connected emotionally with your family. They grow and change so fast, there's this fine balance of being a parent, but a friend on some level, too– so they know they can come to you with any issue or problem.
  • It's hard when work requires travel, so you have to find ways to keep connected. I bring my sons with me whenever possible. It's a great experience for them. They're exposed to different people and places; not to mention traveling gives us such wonderful bonding time and incredible memories.

Tell us something most people don't know about you.
The most relaxing place for me is in water– the ocean, the pool. It's the perfect way for me to clear my mind.

What's your favorite childhood memory?
My mother's falafel is one of the greatest food memories I have from childhood. It lent a certain comfort and warmth to my meals that I wanted to share with guests, so I incorporated her family recipe for falafel into a burger, served on a toasted brioche bun with tahini sauce, warmed heirloom tomato and grilled scallion. It's accompanied by a cucumber and tomato relish, duck fat french fries and tahini dipping sauce.

Does your lobster pot pie have a story behind it?
The lobster pot pie became my first signature dish at Aqua and was a labor of love. Your goal as a chef is always to create dishes people remember years later. The pot pie is one I couldn't articulate properly until we figured out how to do it tableside; the carving, the aromas, the reconstruction of the lobster– it helped me understand how impactful tableside service can be in a dining room.

I hear you're a Niners fan. What do you think about the recent changes?
I'm a huge Niners fan and have been for years. I'm really looking forward to what the team has in store for 2015.

Tell us about your concepts in Levi's stadium: Bourbon Steak & Bourbon Pub and Tailagate.
BOURBON STEAK is our modern American steakhouse that highlights our interpretation of classic steakhouse dishes. We use the highest quality ingredients, including dry-aged Brandt Farms steaks, the freshest local seafood and innovative vegetable sides from well-known South Bay farms. Here you'll find all our Bourbon Steak favorites– truffle mac & cheese, 18-ounce, bone-in rib eye and Maine lobster pot pie.

BOURBON PUB is a more casual space that's geared towards the sports fan. We had a lot of fun creating the menu of reinvented pub fare– from nachos like you've never seen before, to the Gold Rush burger.

On 49ers home game days, the whole space turns into Michael Mina's Tailgate, the exclusive, members-only experience open before and during games. This is the tailgate of your dreams, where we bring in guest chefs and highlight cuisine from the opposing team's city. Last season we had Chefs Thomas Keller, Jose Andres, Charlie Palmer and more! I can't wait to reveal what the 2015 season has in store!

With concepts across the country, what is your goal? When will you have enough?
Our goal has always been to stay true to our philosophy of presenting bold, yet balanced flavors while providing an unwavering spirit of hospitality to every single guest. The number of concepts has never been our focus. When a new concept presents itself and makes sense for the time, the company and a multitude of other aspects, we jump on it.

The Mina way is to continuously challenge ourselves with the goal to never stop learning. Opening new restaurants, whether an entirely new concept or a new location of an established brand, presents so many exciting challenges that we take it on with a level of enthusiasm that's pretty wild.

What would you be doing if you weren't in this business?
I would have loved to try my hand at advertising. The creative side of that career has always been interesting to me.

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