James Beard Award and Michelin star-winning American Chef Michael Mina’s Mina Brasserie at Four Seasons DIFC launches a new menu with an infusion of notes from his Egyptian heritage. Having cooked for the likes of Barack Obama, opened 30 restaurants and published cookbooks (with one on the way) since his journey began in 1987 at the Culinary Institute of America, he sits down with Katrina Kufer from Harper’s BAZAAR Interiors to share his culinary philosophy.
Harper’s BAZAAR Arabia: What motivated the menu update one-year post opening?
Michael Mina: Part of it is seasonal, and even though there aren’t many “seasons” here, we’re still getting product from places that do, so Brussel sprouts are better in the winter. The other part is Rami Nasser, our Head Chef who just started with us not too long ago. We wanted to do a menu with him so he was involved in everything. It’s always nice to change, and after a certain amount of time we just elevate things. You can take it to another level when you’ve had people working together for a long time, and we’ve been fortunate to have that, so we wanted to wait until after Ramadan to make this big change push the envelope.
HBA: We’re seeing more Middle Eastern ingredients—moutabbal, Egyptian mango, pomegranate…
MM: There’s a little bit more Middle Eastern influence because that’s what I’ve been cooking in San Francisco [at two Michelin star flagship restaurant Michael Mina] for the last year. And just getting feedback from people here. But my next cookbook is going to be Egyptian and Middle Eastern so it’s definitely in the forefront of my mind right now! I really enjoy the flavours and spices.
HBA: How do people outside of the region respond to those flavours?
MM: It’s been magical. Sometimes I take very classical dishes like moloukhiyye that my mom made, but my style is not to make the classics, it’s to make the classic base of it and turn it into my own dish. I’ve had so much fun with it, and honestly, if you don’t tell people, they don’t even really notice because in America so much of the food is globally influenced, they will just look at it as a tasting menu in a Michelin star restaurant.
HBA: Was there a lot of cooking at home growing up in Washington?
MM: My mom cooked every meal every day, always Arabic, no eating out, no bringing home McDonalds!
HBA: How does she feel about your interpretations?
MM: Loves it. I have so much fun with her—she came to the restaurant for dinner and she had the falafel, and she said they’re good, but “not as good as mine!”
HBA: Tell us about your signature tuna tartar dish.
MM: I developed it years ago before anyone was serving tuna tartar and you couldn’t give it away. When I built Aqua [renamed Michael Mina] the concept was a fish restaurant, but we handled fish like meat. The tuna tartar was a play on steak tartar with olive oil, capers, red onion, parsley… but we used flavours that would go with tuna like sesame, pear, scotch bonnet peppers. The whole idea of acid, sweet, spice and fat coming together to make a boldly flavoured dish. Now it’s ridiculous how much of it we sell, 40 orders every night in every restaurant. My dishes are bold. Not a lot of chefs grew up in a Middle Eastern household in the US and that style of food is acid, sweet, spice and fat, and there’s always a lot of flavour. It’s about how do you balance it, and there’s always a thought process: if there’s fat there’s an acid to cut through it, if there’s sweetness there’s spice that goes with it. That’s always been the way I cook. I don’t taste a dish for its ingredient—I won’t say, “It needs more lemon” because it needs more acid, so I find ingredients that give it that.
HBA: What’s been challenging?
MM: I’ve been a chef for a long time now and you’d think it gets easier, but it doesn’t. As a restaurant you’re going to be better or worse than the day before, and if you’re not pushing to get better creativity, innovation, execution and technique, you’re getting worse. There’s always so much to learn, you can live 20 lifetimes and you still won’t learn everything there is about cooking. At the beginning most chefs are control freaks, then you realise it’s about building people, not control. The more you understand that, the more you can do in your restaurant.
HBA: And your soft spot?
MM: Michael Mina in San Francisco will always be the soft spot, it’s the baby, I opened it in 91 and it was called Aqua at the time, and now I’m doing a tribute to my mother there. But they are like children, every restaurant has its own personality and character.
Four Seasons DIFC
Image Coutesy: Mina Brasseri