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Riding Shotgun With Superstars: Slow Food and Fast Cars With Michael Mina

Andrew Dalton | December 9, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

RIDING SHOTGUN WITH SUPERSTARS:
Part One: Brian Boitano
Part Two: Heklina
Part Three: Michael Mina
Part Four: Jane Kim

Michael Mina’s morning commute from his home in the Marin hamlet of Nicasio to his newest Bay Area restaurant, Bourbon Steak & Pub in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium, takes two and a half hours. “It’s a serious commute,” he says. “Not for the weak.” On a really good day, with no traffic on 580, he can wrap up the drive in an hour and a half. His choice of automobile makes it easier: “A Mercedes E550,” he volunteers proudly. “It’s really fast.”

The creator of 24 restaurants, Mina makes regular trips to check on the rest of his restaurant empire, which stretches from Seattle to Miami. For the past few months, though, the chef has been preoccupied with his new venture at Levi’s Stadium. At around 8:15 a.m., after dropping the youngest of his two kids at school, he’s off to Santa Clara to put the finishing touches on what he hopes will become the first restaurant in a football stadium to earn a Michelin star. A 23-year 49ers season-ticket holder and devoted Candlestick parking lot griller, he is also overseeing a self-branded, members-only tailgate concept called, simply enough, Tailgate. For $5,000 per season, members receive entry to a private game-day area featuring endless drinks and the opportunity to eat food designed by Mina with a rotating lineup of star chefs. “This week we have Thomas Keller, actually,” he says.

As he does for all of his openings, Mina is managing the kitchen himself during its first six weeks to work out the kinks. With the new eatery still finding its rhythm, he spends the day acting more like its quarterback than its owner. When you’re running service, he says, “the whole system is flowing through you. It’s like riding a bike.” Once things are going smoothly, his lieutenants will carry on without him.

Despite its relatively remote location and the absence of a Wednesday-night football game, the pub has drawn an evening crowd— the stools are filled with baseball fans watching the Giants play a wild-card game against the Pirates. Downstairs, the Tailgate section’s kitchen has morphed into a four-star factory for a big-ticket dinner benefiting the cancer nonprofit the Family Reach Foundation and featuring chefs Ming Tsai, Charles Phan, Dominique Crenn, and Bill Corbett. Out front, the event’s marquee sponsors, Marc and Lynne Benioff, are seated at a table next to wunderkind Niners owner Jed York.

If running a restaurant and a pricey charity dinner simultaneously is a stressful undertaking, you wouldn’t know it from Mina’s laid-back demeanor. Taking the podium to welcome the guests who paid $10,000 a table to be in the presence of this constellation of Michelin stars, he is warm and genial, seemingly only slightly nervous. Still, one gets the impression that he is more comfortable letting his food do the talking.

After the event, which lasts well beyond the Giants’ 8–0 win over the Pirates, Mina heads north on a mercifully quicker return trip to Marin. The drive is Mina’s time to catch up with his chefs around the country as they wrap up their nightly service. Not until he hits San Rafael, after dinner service is over, do the phone calls stop. Then the E550 becomes Mina’s meditation space, tracing the winding roads back to Nicasio.

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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