Chef Queries

10 Questions for Michael Mina

The RN74 chef talks happy hour, tough locations, and why he needs to go visit his mom.

By Allecia Vermillion June 15, 2012

The Ellensburg native turned nationally known chef is back in town for RN74’s first birthday.

Seattle doesn’t generally cotton to big name chefs from other cities colonizing on our turf (see: English, Todd and Brennan, Terrance). But chef Michael Mina is quick to remind you that he grew up in Ellensburg, even though he made his name in San Francisco.

This week his Seattle outpost of RN74, celebrated its first birthday, and by all appearances has turned a curious corner of downtown into both a rockin’ happy hour destination and a high-end dining spot with a level of service de rigueur in other cities, but uncommon in fancy-averse seattle.

Last year Mina spent the summer on a friend’s houseboat as he got the restaurant up and running; this time around he’s in town to mark the occasion with interviews, quality time with chef Seisuke Kamimura, and prepare a six-course tasting menu with wine pairings by Mina Group wine direcor Rajat Parr (a second dinner was added for tonight, information on the $245 affair is available here).

Here, a few questions for Michael Mina.

How often are you able to get back to Seattle?

I just had to answer this question to the one person you have to be 100 percent honest with. My mom said, “you’ve only been up here twice; how many times have you been up to Seattle?” I had to sit and count; I’ve been here eight times, and only been over to visit her twice, so she wasn’t happy.

Did you expect RN74 to be such a happy hour destination?

This is something that completely took me by surprise. We were telling our cooks, we want you to be set up for dinner by 5 o’clock. But then they’re cooking the whole time in between lunch and dinner. Not only are people drinking, people are eating. We ended up reconfiguring the whole kitchen and built a station that’s just to cook during happy hour.

Are you okay with the restaurant taking that direction?

Absolutely. I love happy hour; it’s saying that 85 or 90 percent of the people are local, so what more could you ask for? It’s one thing to take over a space that’s been a restaurant for 30 years and remodel it. This was a drugstore. Taking over a place like that, the reality is it still takes a long time for people to know you’re here. Happy hour helps so much.

Do you worry about balancing that lively bar scene with the finer dining aspect?

No, because it actually makes the finer dining thrive. People just like to be in a restaurant that has a buzz. The buzz from happy hour, it actually helps to fill in that early seating. The party environment starts early; usually it takes restaurants until about 7 or 8, when people start getting a few glasses of wine in them, and the volume starts coming up. This place gets it started early.

Any other ways RN74 Seattle has evolved to be different from the original [in San Francisco]?

I don’t know if we ever set out to be the original RN74. So much of it is driven around the product. I think the only dish that overlaps is the tempura mushrooms, which is great: In a city that’s as rich in product as this, I don’t want to see a lot of overlap between the menus. You don’t need it.

Can you talk about the chef transition?

Michelle, who was with me for many years, she had a baby. Evan, her significant other, is still my executive sous chef. They came here together; he’s still in the kitchen so we get a lot of Michelle around here.

Seis is a gentleman who I’ve wanted to work with for many years. He was in San Francisco, with Wolfgang. I actually didn’t know he was in Seattle. I had offered Michelle the job, then I ran into him one night and he said, “you know I’m in Seattle.” I didn’t know that. Michelle and me went back and forth on whether she was going to take LA or come here. It worked out well; as soon as Michelle told me she was pregnant and was looking for a change, I called Seis. I’ve known him for a long time. I know his food, I know his style of cooking, it’ very similar to what we like to do. He came to San Francisco and spent some time at RN there. Where he was working was just—to me it’s fine, but it wasn’t showcasing what I know he can do. This guy can cook and it wasn’t that environment. It’s always great when you know a person’s got real talent and you can actually let them showcase it.

How has he put his spin on the menu?

The way I do every menu with the chefs, it’s very much a collaboration. So there aren’t dishes where I say, this is 100p ercent him, and this one is 100 percent me. We try not to do that.

Aside from the chef, what has changed since you opened?

We learned a lot at lunchtime, here it was more salads and sandwiches that people were looking for, not as much the composed dishes.

Would you ever consider opening another place here?

In Seattle? Oh, I love Seattle. I’d love to, but it’s a long ways away from right now. I believe you need to take the restaurant you have and maximize its potential first. I think we still have plenty to do here.

Many people were skeptical about this location.

It’s a hard location. But what I’ve said over and over is Seattle has so many amazing neighborhood restaurants. The list is so extensive, I wanted to bring a bit of a different dynamic. This is what most of my restaurants are, they’re a little more urban, they’re downtown. I felt that RN74 fit in a downtown location. I knew we were going to have to work hard to get people to come here. That’s what I’m most grateful for. People came in and they give us a chance.

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