We found out this afternoon. The chef responsible for the cuisine at the new Four Seasons restaurants shared his first impressions of Baltimore, what other city restaurants he’s visited, and what he’s making for his family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
For months, the Four Seasons in Harbor East was drumming up anticipation for the opening of some of Baltimore’s newest restaurants—Wit & Wisdom, LAMILL, and Pabu, scheduled to open in February.
The phrase, “by Michael Mina,” was often used in the promotions. The chef, though, is not exactly a household name in these parts. He’s not on the Food Network, doesn’t have a crazy kitchen shtick, and hasn’t written a gazillion cookbooks.
But, if you’re not familiar with him, he’s a serious chef, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, is a James Beard Award winner, has earned Michelin stars, and came into the national spotlight at hotspot Aqua in San Francisco before starting his own restaurants and then forming the Mina Group. He’s now opened a string of restaurants around the country. Wit & Wisdom is restaurant number 19.
Not bad for a kid who started washing dishes and prepping food at a restaurant when he was 15. By the time he was 17, he was heading to culinary school.
As we sat on comfy chairs in the Wit & Wisdom bar on a rainy afternoon, the chef shared some of his thoughts.
What do you think of Baltimore? Chef: “I did not think it would be this beautiful or feel like this. Other cities have harbors but not like this. It’s just beautiful.”
Why partner with the Four Seasons? Chef: “I believe in their philosophy. They’ve done a great job, have high standards, and are forward moving.” (Mina opened one of his signature Bourbon Steak restaurants at the Four Seasons in D.C.)
Why Wit & Wisdom and not Bourbon Steak? Chef: "I wanted to do something I haven’t done before. I wanted it connected to a kitchen wood fire. You have great product here, seafood, pork, it screamed wood fire. I embraced the wood.” (Wit & Wisdom has an open kitchen, allowing diners to watch the chefs at work.)
Will you be going home for Thanksgiving? (Mina lives in San Francisco with his wife and two sons.) Chef: “I leave tomorrow and I’ll be back the following Wednesday. We always have turkey. My wife is very traditional. I’ll slip in a pork loin and maybe some lobster pumpkin ravioli.” (Mina is expecting 36 guests for the holiday.)
Are you still planning to open Pabu? Chef: "Yes, in February. It’s exciting. It’s a chance to partner with Ken Tominaga, a Japanese chef in San Francisco [at Hana Japanese Restaurant]. He’s just dynamite."
Why Japanese cuisine? Chef: “It’s simple but complex. I’ve played with it. I’m attracted to eating and learning about it.”
You’ve written one cookbook (Michael Mina: The Cookbook, 2006). Are you working on any others? Chef: “I’m working on it mentally. The next one won’t be a cookbook. I want to give back information to the industry.”
Which chefs do you admire? Chef: "There are many great people in the industry, but Thomas Keller [of The French Laundry, Per Se] does an amazing job of teaching his technique to people in his kitchen. When they leave, they are educated. They go out and open their own restaurants and teach the technique.”
Have you been to any Baltimore restaurants? Chef: "Woodberry Kitchen. I loved it. It has a great vibe. And Black Olive. I loved it, too.”
Tell me about LAMILL? Chef: "It’s really different. It’s coffee drinks (based on LAMILL in Los Angeles] paired with beignets and pot pies that are like Pop-Tarts [and other menu items]. It’s done high level at affordable prices. It’s a real treat.”
As we ended the conversation, the chef said he will stay involved in the Baltimore restaurants after the initial opening phase. “I’ll be here every other month,” he said.
Photos by me. Chef Michael Mina, top, left, with Patrick Yumul, president of the Mina Group. Above, Wit & Wisdom dining room.