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World Chefs: For Mina great food is a balancing act

With 18 restaurants dotted around the United States and three more due to open soon award-winning chef Michael Mina says preparing memorable meals is all about balance.
/ Source: Reuters

With 18 restaurants dotted around the United States and three more due to open soon award-winning chef Michael Mina says preparing memorable meals is all about balance.

The Egyptian-born chef and cookbook author, who is based in San Francisco, started his career as a teenager cooking in a local restaurant in Washington state and later studied at the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, New York.

Since establishing his reputation with Aqua in San Francisco, Mina has served his innovative dishes to customers across the United States.

Executive chef Wesley Holton has joined his Seablue restaurant at the Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, and Mina will debut a cafe and two restaurants at The Four Season Hotel Baltimore in November.

Mina spoke to Reuters about his approach to cooking, his business partnership with tennis great Andre Agassi and cooking for three U.S. presidents.

Q: What is your secret to creating great food?

A: "There are four components -- acidity, sweetness, spice and the fat content -- the richness. Those are the four things you have to constantly balance. They have to be in balance. Salt and pepper have to be there but the reality is those are the four ingredients you have to keep in balance.

"So when you add spice to something, you have to balance it with some sweetness and some acid, but you have to balance it. So when I am tasting food that is what I am thinking of. Not every dish has to have all four. But when you have all four, it is a complex dish ...

"The idea is to make memorable food. Presentation, of course, plays a part in it. Quality of products and technique play an enormous part. They all go hand-in-hand but balance has to be there."

Q: Who have been inspirations for you in terms of cooking?

A: "John-Louis Paladin was probably the first person I just oohed and aahed about and just thought was the end all in our industry. I became close friends with him but unfortunately he is no longer with us. He had, not only the most impact on me, but he probably had the most impact on bringing that incredibility to all great food in the United States. I worked with Charlie Palmer and I worked with chef George Morrone -- those three."

Q: How did your business partnership with Andre Agassi and the Mina Group begin?

A: "He became a close friend. We actually did so many of the same things in Las Vegas, whether it was charity events or whether he was having dinner at my restaurants there but we never crossed paths in Las Vegas. He moved to Tiburon (California) and the second week he lived there his doctor brought him to dinner at Aqua and I was cooking for him and I went out and said, 'Would you like me to select your menu and cook for you?' ... The partnership is just phenomenal."

Q: How long have you been partners?

A: "It will be nine years, this year.

Q: You have cooked for three presidents, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. How intimidating what it?

A: "It was very intimidating. The last one, for President Obama, was at a gentleman's house in the Bay Area (of San Francisco). He called me up, very casual and said 'I will have 70 people' ... A couple of weeks later he said, 'By the way it is for President Obama.'"

Michael Mina's Classic Cheese Fondue Recipe

Serving Suggested for 2


1/2 loaf Sourdough bread - diced into cubes large enough for dipping (1"x1")

1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

1 cup shredded Ementhaler cheese

1 bay leaf

1 clove of garlic, smashed

1/2 T Kirsch liqueur or brandy

1/2 tsp cornstarch

1/2 cup white wine

Salt & pepper to taste

1. Place garlic, white wine, Kirsch & bay leaf in pan, bring to a boil

2. Mix cornstarch with 1 tbs water to make a slurry

3. While liquid is boiling, whisk in cheese and slurry rapidly until emulsified

4. Finish with salt & pepper

5. Serve with cubed sourdough & enjoy!

Recommended wines: White Burgundy