Another big-name chef has opened a restaurant in Dubai.
Egyptian-born American-based chef Michael Mina has just launched Mina Brasserie in DIFC on the site of what was the Firebird Diner. He tells us why he chose Dubai for his first overseas restaurant, why Middle Eastern food is the next big trend globally and how he came to cook for three American presidents.
What’s the attraction of Dubai for a chef like yourself?
I’ve been attracted to Dubai and the Middle East for many years. I was born in Egypt and grew up in the United States and have lived there all my life, but I really wanted our first venture outside of the United States to be in the Middle East. For the style of what it is we do, I thought that Dubai would be a good match.
How is Dubai, in culinary terms, viewed in America?
It’s viewed very much the same as Las Vegas was viewed in American about ten years ago. It’s something that has peaked everybody’s interest and chefs have really started to come here, doing good things and people are looking at it as a market that’s really international as far as the clientele goes. As chefs, you always want to cook for people who appreciate fine food because it gives us the ability to use better product and better cooking techniques, to have ore cooks in the kitchen and more front of house staff and complete the full package and Dubai is a place that chefs and restauranteurs can now do that.
How does it compare to Vegas?
I started in 1997 in Vegas when there was only a few chef there and I got to see them arrive. Here I’m a little later, but you can see when chefs and restauranteurs start coming to the city what ends up happening is the product follows. So places where before you may have thought, “I’m not sure where they are going to get the product” and it’s not like there’s a lot of product grown here as a lot of things are flown in, so you end up creating a better food ecosystem by having more chefs and more restaurants because people will start to get better product to that area. It’s what happened with Las Vegas. Everyone’s concern in Las Vegas when I went there was where the product was going to come from. And here now you can see that the product in Dubai is getting really good and that’s one of the keys to a good restaurant.
What’s 2018 like in general for the restaurant industry?
I think it’s a good time. Each year for the last 10 to 12 years has really seen our industry growing and people are now five times as educated about what they are eating compared to a decade ago. And that’s around the globe. People are really starting to take what they eat seriously and that’s really help chefs to cook at a higher level and forcing up to constantly think about what it is we are cooking.
What kinds of trends are we seeing this year?
People are looking more globally. And right now in the United States the biggest trend right now is Middle Eastern food. We do a lot of studies as a company and it’s amazing right now how many people are really gravitating towards Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food.
Are you going to be doing more Middle Eastern dishes in future?
I’ve done some bits and pieces in the United States, but at my flagship restaurant over there in San Francisco I’ve been taking the cooking in that direction and by the end of this year I’d say that restaurant is going to be almost exclusively Middle Eastern and Mediterranean.
That restaurant has two Michelin stars, but you also have a pub at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, is it challenging trying to balance the different levels of food and different types of restaurant?
One of the more fulfilling parts of my job at this point is I get to partner with a lot of great chefs and so it’s not challenging, it’s fulfilling to find the right chefs to fit in each place.
Chefs here have said that one of the biggest changes in the current dining scene is the rise of social media and how that can affect coverage of a restaurant, because everyone now has a camera and a platform to publish an opinion.
There’s two ways to look at it – sure you can say it’s a concern, but it’s also a huge plus because ten years ago you cooked something and you were dying for somebody to come in and write about it. Now, what any of us as chefs are doing it out there in the world so quickly, and sure it’s more competitive because you’re dealing with being able to see what everybody else is doing, but that’s good. And anything that it ultimately elevates cuisine is a good thing.
Dubai’s restaurant scene is getting crowded and competitive, so who do you think your contemporaries are in the city? Where do you fit in here?
La Petit Maison. This restaurant fits in to the Dubai market and just being in DIFC… we wanted to bring something here that was unique to us, with my food and my style of cooking in a space that matches that. It’s a brasserie and I love that because it has all the glamour of a fine dining restaurant but also has a relaxed air about it. And we’re very much an American brasserie whereas La Petit Maison is more French.
Which of the dishes encapsulate what you’re trying to do with an American brasserie?
American is interesting because it’s a melting pot and more global so you can go in different directions but the spirit of it is through the product – brining in Alaskan king crab, Maine lobsters, bringing in Creekstone Beef which is the best corn-fed beef in the United States. The techniques are always going to be European because that’s classically how I was trained and the techniques in a brasserie should always stay that way.
And you’ve cooked for three different Presidents…
President Clinton, President Bush Jr and President Obama. Clinton came to my restaurant in Vegas right out of office with his whole family and had a tasting menu and couldn’t have been more interested in the food even down to wanting to know how the bread was cooked. Bush was at a fundraiser for 400 people. And President Obama I’ve cooked for many times, the first was in San Francisco at a smaller 20-person dinner where we showcased all the product from the area, then multiple times at my restaurant in Washington DC.