Chef Michael Mina Roots for the San Francisco 49ers
Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina and his teams at Bourbon Pub and Bourbon Steak at the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium are in the middle of the third season of Michael Mina’s Tailgate. Each home game turns the celebrity chef’s home turf into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity tailor-made for season-ticket holders featuring a star-studded lineup of guest chefs from around all over country. He has joined thousands of 49ers fans for Sunday pre-game tailgates as a proud season ticket holder for almost 30 years. Mina has been named one of the country’s top celebrity stadium chefs by American Way’s Celebrated Living Magazine. The Daily Meal had the chance to chat with Mina about this year’s events, his favorite tailgate foods, and his love of cooking.
Courtesy of Michael Mina
The Daily Meal: What are you most looking forward to at this year’s tailgate event?
Michael Mina: This is definitely our best season yet! We have been delighted to welcome some of the top chefs in the country as our guests this season. And with our experience from past seasons, we are more intimately aware of what our guests want from this experience. More than ever before. We are thrilled about our third year here and are enjoying a great season thus far.
What would you like for your guests to gain from this experience?
Our biggest goal is to make our guests to feel like they are walking into a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even if they return again and again. The goal is for them to be awed every time. Each game, we bring in a something new from our collaborations with our guest chefs and put something new on the table to surprise and delight. We want our guests to have as much fun experiencing the food we create as we do in cooking it. Each game, we strive to create a menu that truly captures the spirit of each opposing team’s local flavors. We also give a lot of creativity to our guest chefs, and it’s really fun to see what they come up with.
What is your favorite tailgate food to cook?
With the new stadium and our beautiful restaurant, I am most passionate about the two giant rotisseries that can handle multiple animals at once – including an entire saddle of beef. Our extremely high-tech kitchen is able to handle the crowds as well as support our incredible culinary team. Each tailgate offers a different taste of something truly incredible and unique for guests to enjoy.
What, in your opinion, is the best thing about tailgating?
There’s nothing like tailgating. Honestly, the 10 tailgate parties that we have each season before the 49ers games have become my 10 favorite days of the year. What started out as an over-the-top parking lot party for my friends and family has grown into an incredibly special and unique event for our 500 special guests at Levi’s Stadium.
We started tailgating 24 years ago. Even back then, our parties were epic. While we were building Aqua, I took a job as a pastry chef at the Four Seasons Clift Hotel. Kelly Mills, the executive chef, did this tailgate. I was begging him, asking, "How do I get to go to the game?"
Mills' tailgate was a group of 10 guys. I cooked two courses that day. I knew I had to cook really great courses so I would get invited back. We served around 20 guests, and I was hooked. It was pretty intense. We always had a few burners, and we'd do a boil. Then we would have a big charcoal grill, a wood grill, and a rotisserie. Each chef would take a turn. You cook a course and pass it around, and then everybody eats. Then you cook another course. Then winemakers would start coming and bringing their wines. My wife, Diane, started her epic Bloody Mary bar, and now it’s a big tradition and part of our tailgates at the stadium.
Tailgating is really another way to show camaraderie. There's so much camaraderie being at a game, and everybody's cheering for their team. But, tailgates are even more fun because the game hasn't started yet. It’s also been incredible to have the opportunity to be a part of the new Levi's Stadium and be able to throw the most epic food and sport experience in the world. We'll usually do eight hot dishes and then four or five cold dishes. We have the ultimate Willy Wonka ice cream station with every kind of chocolate and candy. Then there's Diane’s Bloody Mary bar, which has the biggest crowd. She serves between 2,000 and 3,000 Bloody Marys every tailgate.
You get your tailgate tray and you come through the line. The food is all in tasting dishes, and people load up their trays then sit down to eat. There's room to stand up, walk around, mingle, hit the bars, hit the food stations. We serve food all the way through the third quarter. People come back; halftime is big. Some people stay the whole time and it's great. It's a carnival.
I couldn't be any prouder of it and I couldn't be any happier with how it's come together. It's become exactly what I hoped it would be. It's like a family. Players come too - Everybody comes to these events! And you have all these really great chefs. It's a dream come true.
How did you know you wanted to pursue cooking as your career?
I started in the kitchen when I was very young, and I am still as intrigued with the process of cooking as I was when I was a 15-year-old garde-manger [chef at the cold food station] in a small French restaurant in my hometown. In 1991 at the age of 22, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime — to help design an upscale seafood restaurant in San Francisco from scratch — and I threw myself into the project, heart and soul. It became Aqua and opened to rave reviews in a town known for great cuisine. Now, more than 20 years and many restaurants later. I reimagined Aqua and completely restored it to create Michael Mina restaurant. Since then, I’ve opened almost 30 destination restaurants with world-class executive chefs and the best teams you can find. With their help, I am honored to say, my restaurants have achieved a success that has put the Mina Group at the top of its class.
What do you know now that you wish you had known earlier on in your career?
The best lesson I've learned over the years is to surround yourself with real talent and hire amazing chefs. I learned more from the chefs I have working for me than you could ever imagine.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs out there?
Every chef has a demanding schedule, being in the kitchen remains a labor of love for me. Hand in hand with balancing flavors is achieving balance in my life. And the key ingredient is family. I cherish the time I have with my family.
What does cooking ultimately mean to you?
My philosophy on cooking is my philosophy on life: Create balance and harmony. In the end, it is all about creating lasting relationships. My job as a chef, and my team’s job, is to make food come alive. We strive to create incredible meals each and every day that make our guests sit up, take notice, experience delight and wonder, “Exactly what was in that dish?”
What’s next on your agenda once the Tailgate is over?
We’ve had an amazing year. We opened Stripsteak in Oahu this summer and PABU in Boston in early November. I’ll be turning my attention to some new projects and openings for 2017, but continuing to spend time in all of our restaurants. It is a constant evolution of growth and we are ready for it.