WOLFGANG PUCK, Roy Yamaguchi, Jeremiah Tower, Todd English. Big-name chefs from “there” who’ve lent their names and star power to high-end restaurants here. They’ve come — and they’ve gone.
Michael Mina, the name behind 18 restaurants nationwide — including his eponymous four-star flagship in San Francisco and the wine-soaked RN74 in Seattle — has no wish to join them. While he resides near the City by the Bay, he’s got a deep affection for the City on the Sound.
“I felt, going into Seattle, it was a long-term commitment,” Mina says of the contemporary French restaurant at Fourth and Pike that made its splashy downtown debut in 2011.
A recent menu makeover with a focus on fanciful bistro fare and the installation of Mina Group corporate chef David Varley as executive chef here is part of that commitment.
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Even before he leased space in the historic Joshua Green Building for RN74 — and built the local version of the San Francisco original — Mina “heard all the talk” about how Seattle quickly turned its back on out-of-town chef celebs.
“But I didn’t feel like I was from out of town,” he said recently. “And I still don’t. Seattle is really important to me.”
Mina was a toddler when his parents emigrated from Egypt to Ellensburg. “My mother had eight brothers and sisters,” and six of those siblings moved to Washington, settling in Seattle, Everett and Renton. Today his folks live in Yakima, his sister in Walla Walla, and extended family keep him emotionally rooted in the Pacific Northwest.
For Mina, the farm-to-table, snout-to-tail movement that’s swept the country and informs his menus was a way of life in Ellensburg. One friend’s family owned a meat-processing plant where he’d help make sausage and beef jerky. Another’s owned a dairy farm, where he’d help milk the cows. “It wasn’t ‘farm-to-table’ — it was chores!”
But it was his childhood chum Kevin McCullough — now culinary operations manager for the San Francisco-based Mina Group — whose family put the chef on a path to professional success. At 16, Mina took a job at their small French-accented restaurant.
“That’s where cooking got into my blood. Every day, you’d come to work and learn something new,” he recalls. “We were a real family at that restaurant. We fought and screamed and hung out, but when service came on, we helped each other. I took that with me throughout my whole career.”
In 1986, hoping to gain admission to the Culinary Institute of America, Mina went in search of a job with a bit more cachet than McCullough’s of Kittitas County. He figured he’d start at the top: “I thought, what’s more perfect than the Space Needle?”
He dropped his (slim) resume at the iconic restaurant “along with probably 100 other people,” then pulled a fast one: “I went up to the Space Needle for lunch and asked to talk to the chef.”
His ploy worked. “We talked about the CIA and pheasant hunting in Ellensburg,” among the chef’s passions, and “we really hit it off.” Soon he snagged the job, making eggs Benedict for tourists by day and working at Anthony’s HomePort in Kirkland at night.
The Needle, Mina remembers, “was my first time in a structured kitchen — with garde manger, butchers, a complete brigade system.”
He kept that job for more than a year. Without it, he says, “I may have never gone to culinary school and gone on to do what I do.” Which includes coming home again to Seattle.
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Greg Gilbert is a Times staff photographer.