Michael Mina is known around the world as a celebrated chef and prolific restaurateur. His meteoric career has humble, hardworking roots. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he was raised in Ellensburg, Washington. In 1987, he began attending the Culinary Institute of America, while staging in New York City at Charlie Palmer’s famed Aureole. His culinary career took off when he help open Aqua in San Francisco in 1991. During his tenure as its executive chef, he earned his first two James Beard Awards: Rising Star Chef of the Year in 1997 and Best California Chef in 2002. (In 2013, he earned a third James Beard Award for Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America.).
Partnering with tennis icon Andre Agassi, he formed the MINA Group. The company now boasts 45 restaurants on its roster, including Michael Mina, Bourbon Steak, PABU, RN74, and STRIPSTEAK, which have earned the chef Michelin stars and innumerable accolades, including Bon Appetit’s Chef of the Year in 2005. His cookbook, Michael Mina: The Cookbook, is a modern classic, and he has cooked for three U.S. presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife Diane, a successful entrepreneur who founded a line of garden inspired cocktail mixers, and their two sons.
As the first guest on our new podcast, “Heart to Table,” Mina chats with our host, Laurie March. Their wide-ranging conversation covers why it’s he thinks this is the most wonderful time of the year, his family’s traditions, festive ideas for listeners who want to create a memorable holiday, and how to get children involved in the kitchen.
Throughout their discussion, Mina’s love for the season shines through. “I love every connective moment of Christmas where you’re connecting to people,” he says, “but more than anything else, just the memories that it stirs up and reminds you of being little, being a child…You don’t have to worry about how old you are at Christmas. You are young again.”
The pandemic has upended life as we know it on every level. But Mina doesn’t think it will extinguish the Christmas spirit. “I actually think that people are going to be really happy for the holidays to get here,” he says. “I think that people are ready for a little bit of normality.”
You don’t have to worry about how old you are at Christmas. You are young again.Chef Michael Mina
He and his family go all out. Mina’s wife makes the leadup to December 25th a month-long holiday and he suggests everyone take the time this year to really express their seasonal spirit. “Put in the extra work to really decorate your house,” he recommends, “because you’re probably gonna enjoy it more this year than you ever have [by] getting to see the decorations, the lights and everything for more hours than you ever have.”
No matter what’s happening, his family follow the same traditions year after year. “There are certain times that you don’t want to get into a routine in life, but for me, the holidays are not that time,” Mina says. “I like there to be some structure around it.”
On Christmas Eve, his Italian mother-in-law always made crab cioppino, a hearty seafood stew that rose to prominence thanks to San Francisco’s Italian immigrant community. Though Mina’s mother-in-law is no longer alive, he still makes her famous dish, dotted with plenty of Dungeness crab. He loves the aromatic interplay of the tomatoes’ sweet freshness forming the foundation, which contrasts with the briny shellfish that builds up its body and carry the intimation of an ocean breeze.
For Christmas Day, there is always bagel bar boasting lots of lots and schmears for breakfast (“It’s simple, it’s easy to clean up,” rationalizes Mina), while prime rib always takes a starring role at dinner.
For those looking to mix things up by adding a new food tradition to their holiday festivities, Mina’s advice is simple: pick a dish that gives off an enticing aroma when you’re making it. It doesn’t need to be something extravagant. French toast and chicken noodle soup both smell amazing on the stove – and neither one costs much or takes too long to make.
New Year’s Eve is glitzier and glammier proposition. “If you’re going to pick a day to splurge, I would pick that one,” says Mina, who likes celebrating with giant blinis topped slathered with butter and crowned with caviar.
For those having guests over, forgo a formal seated dinner and opt for grazing stations instead. Given the safety concerns surrounding the pandemic, Mina highly advises hosts be extra careful with how food is served. Don’t leave out shared utensils; everyone should use their own utensils to put food on their plates.
The arrival of 2021 (And not a moment too soon – adios 2020!) marks a fresh opportunity for families to embark on new adventures. Parents who want to teach their children how to cook should first take a chill pill (or pour themselves a glass or two of wine). “A lot of times people tell me, ‘Oh, my kids hate to be in the kitchen,’” Mina says. “And a lot of times it’s because parents are stressed out when they’re in the kitchen. They don’t want to be around their parents when their parents are stressed out. And so, you got to start with an attitude that it’s going to be really calm and really relaxing.”
The second key to success to think like a child. What would work for someone of their stature and their rudimentary skills? “Bring everything down to them,” Mina recommends. “The knife needs to be the right size for their hand. Start them on easy things when they do get to cutting. I started my kids cutting bananas.”
Keep lessons short and simple. “Kids usually have short attention spans, so don’t give them a job that’s 20 minutes,” Mina advises.
Instead, give them six different shorter tasks spanning those 20 minutes. “I’d set up the little stations and have them do a little bit of this, a little bit of this, a little bit of this,” says Mina, who took this approach with his sons. “And as they got older, I made them do more and more and more of each one.”
With a little luck and more than a little patience, your child will be ready to help cook Christmas dinner next year – a great new tradition for the whole family to enjoy.