“Somebody made me count the other day. I’ve been here eight times since last June,” said the superstar chef. The other inquisitor? It was Mina’s mom, who still lives near his childhood home in Ellensburg.
“She said to me, “You’ve only been home twice! How many times have you been in Seattle?
“You know, it’s your mom, you really can’t lie, and you want to so bad.”
Mina was back in the kitchen last week to celebrate the first anniversary of RN74, one of his 20 restaurants nationwide. The restaurant is named for Route Nationale 74 through Burgundy, with a focus on wine and a modern spin on French cuisine, as well as a showcase on local ingredients. (There’s another one in San Francisco, and the menus sharply diverge.)
Big restaurant projects from out-of-towners haven’t been that successful here, and I wondered last year how a higher-ticket downtown restaurant would do in today’s economy. But Mina has a built-in advantage; he’s a hometown boy as well as an empire-builder.
Mina’s family had emigrated from Egypt when Mina was a child. He worked at a diner and at a French restaurant in Ellensburg as a teen, then came to Seattle and worked at the high-volume Space Needle restaurant, “very eye-opening,” after graduating high school in 1986. He told his father he wanted to go to culinary school.
“The conversation was very short, very one-sided. Then when he finally agreed, because he realized I wasn’t going to back off it, he started doing some research… and found the CIA. He said if you’re going to culinary school, especially in a trade like that, you have to go to the best school.” Twenty restaurants and a couple Michelin stars later, no one questions the decision.
The first night of the RN74 anniversary dinner sold out, prompting the addition of a second, and the place was buzzing with lunch customers the day we spoke. Mina had come up from San Francisco straight from preparing 70 pizzas at a party for his older son and other 8th-grade graduates. He was relaxed, warm, and clearly proud of his staff and his old city.
“I want to thank people. People have really embraced this restaurant… our business has built up throughout the whole year. I appreciate it,” he said.
“You have to be patient when you go into a new market, you have to be committed and say ‘I’m going to take my time,’ and you’ve got to build loyalty person by person.”
Here’s an edited, condensed version of what else he had to say:
Q: How did you start cooking?
A: “I needed a job, and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the family aspect of it, and the food part of it was just great. Every day you went home and your mind was just racing, you realized that there was so much to learn… and I loved the intensity of having all the tickets at the same time. It’s the part I like the least now, but then I loved it, the adrenaline was great.”
Q: So, what did your father want you to do instead of culinary school?
A: “You have three choices when you’re Egyptian — doctor, lawyer, or engineer. It can be in any order, and you can pick any one of them!”
Q: Why open a restaurant in Seattle?
“For 11 years, I’d looked in Seattle. I always expected to come back to Seattle…A little detour happened called San Francisco.
“The people here are phenomenal. Tonight there will be 30 people in here who went to high school with me in Ellensburg. Everyone stays. It’s a very close group of people. And the things I look for in a city, Seattle had all of them when we were looking. The first thing you look for are employees. Before you ever go to a city you’ve got to understand the work ethic and what it’s going to be like to staff your restaurant… Here you have a really good labor pool, we couldn’t be happier. Then you start looking at the clientele. This has always been a city that loves food, and does more than loves it, they actually put in the time and effort (to learn about it).”
Q: How can you keep your personal stamp on restaurants when you have so many?
A: “Once you make the decision to expand any business, you’re making the decision to integrate and educate your employees and build a culture. That’s all you can do. You have to build a culture and give the most tools you can possibly give your employees for education and accountability, and hope that translates well to the guests… At the end of the day, you’re as good as your employees, there’s no way around it.”
Q: How did you find Seis Kamimura as your current chef?
A: “He’d worked for Wolfgang (Puck) and at Spago, I’ve known his work for a long time…Seis has a really good maturity level about him. This is a younger staff, which is good a lot of times. I like a younger staff, it’s a nice mix to have people that have that high energy and are maybe a little green, but they are sponges and they want to learn. Seis has a really nice ability to teach, and he’s completely committed to doing things the right way.”
Q: Where do you like to eat out when you’re in Seattle?
A: “It depends what I’m in the mood for, obviously. I love Lark, I love the Bookbindery. Revel — I go there a lot. I love what Jason (Franey)’s doing at Canlis right now, there’s a really, really talented guy. Where’s Jason Wilson, at Crush? He’s really good.”
Q: Do you know why Seattleites still have an inferiority complex about our restaurant scene? Why do so many residents feel we don’t live up to the bigger cities?
A: “In all honesty, a lot of people were very skeptical of me coming to Seattle…but the reality is, I felt like Seattle has a lot of the great pieces. The foundation is great neighborhood restaurants…then I think guys like Tom Douglas and Thierry (Rautureau) start to build other restaurants, a little more like city restaurants, that are true, that are really run like restaurants, that aren’t just a big chain.
“That’s what I think the fear was (from Seattle residents) — oh, RN74, isn’t there another one? Yeah, there’s another one in San Francisco with a chef there that was the executive sous chef at the French Laundry for seven years. They’re not chains.”
Q: Would you open another restaurant in Seattle?
A: “I’d love to. Not for a little while. I think we still have more to establish here.”
Photo courtesy of The Mina Group