Having first started cooking at the age of 15, Egyptian-born chef Michael Mina made a name for himself at Aqua in San Francisco, from where he established – with tennis star Andre Agassi – an empire of 18 restaurants across America. Since being named the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year in 1997, he has won several awards, fronted a TV program and written an eponymous cookbook.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
Anything cooked outdoors. At home, in northern California, I am blessed to have an outdoor kitchen in the garden with a wood-burning oven. Often, I’ll give guests a basket to pick vegetables from the garden, which we then cook over wood. I love things like fresh vegetables on pizza, or côte de boeuf cooked on the flames. I adore shellfish, too, particularly abalone from the Bay area, which I grill with lemon, egg-batter with brown butter or sauté, niçoise-style, with olives, capers and lemon.
What do you eat when you’re home alone?
Spaghetti with thinly sliced garlic, cooked nice and slow in olive oil with a hint of red chili and lemon.
Anything local you’ve been inspired by?
Greens that we don’t get anywhere else, exceptional seafood and wonderful tomatoes. My wife makes the most amazing Bloody Mary using them.
What’s the dish you’re most proud of?
A dish I made for my wife on our honeymoon in Hawaii. She wanted caviar, so I found some and served it to her in bed with warm potato cake, smoked salmon and eggs. It’s a dish I now serve in all our restaurants.
What’s been the most memorable moment of your career?
Winning the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef in the United States. I was so proud, as it was my first award, and because there are so many young talented chefs. Another great moment was my son being accepted into the Culinary Institute of America.
Are there any foods that are overrated?
Anything that’s out of season. And beef that’s called “Kobi” or wagyu beef but isn’t. Real wagyu is one of the most amazing products there is, but the term can be used rather loosely.
Are there any particularly fine ingredients in California?
So many. Particularly good are sanddabs, which are like little sole. We fry them in a pan with a little oil and butter and serve them with lemon.
What do you like most about Dana Point?
The community, which is made up of arty surfers. They’re very social and love interacting with our staff, which makes the restaurant relaxed and fun.
If you could revisit any meal in your life, what would it be and why?
A dinner at Sushi Kanesaka in Tokyo, which was the most perfect meal I’ve ever had. The chef cooks for only four people at a time and everything he did was unbelievable. We had 28 courses, including several kinds of tuna, each of which had a different fat content, and spiny crabs that were cooked, taken out and mixed with their roe, then put back into the crab shell.
What’s the secret to running a restaurant?
Having balance; precise but engaging service; and connecting, making friends and building long-term relationships with each other and our clients. Having the right chef and the general manager is essential, too, as they are the mother and father of your new restaurant family.
What was your favorite food as a child?
Hamburgers, which I still love. But they have to be perfect. The bun (ideally potato) has to be toasted right. The meat has to be ground quite coarsely, then flattened just before it’s cooked, so it’s still full of juicy air pockets. Extras should be simple: I like a piece of cheese, ketchup, onion and pickle.
What meal most reminds you of home?
Kusheries, which my mother has made all my life. It’s a typical Middle Eastern dish, made with rice, lentils and chickpeas in a spicy tomato sauce with caramelized onions. It’s not something you can just whip up: the lentils and chickpeas need soaking overnight and the tomato sauce has to cook for a couple of hours. But it’s worth the effort because it’s so delicious.
Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina
Whole fried jidori chicken for two, one of Stonehill Tavern’s signature dishes
The restaurant’s imaginative tasting menu uses the freshest local ingredients