Mike Minor


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Sustainability Award: Chef Mike Minor

Border Grill | Las Vegas


Mike Minor likes to say that he learned how to cook “on the streets.”  Minor started learning to cook as a child at the side of his Syrian grandmother, who, at 80, could still make a meal for the entire family without breaking a sweat. Minor worked his way up through kitchens, including those of Wolfgang Puck’s, Hard Rock Café’s, and then Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s, picking up techniques and education along the way from his own as well as other peoples’ achievements and mistakes. Minor is never one to rest on his laurels; he always goes out of his way to discover something new – including the regional cuisines of Oaxaca and Michuacan, Mexico, which he has spent years studying.

Minor’s introduction to environmental issues began when he was working for Peter Morton, co-founder of the Hard Rock Café empire, who instilled in Minor the virtues of caring for the planet. The sparks really began to fly when Minor was hired to run the kitchen of Border Grill by Milliken and Feniger – not only did their cuisine lean heavily in the Latin direction, but they also provided Minor with the platform to take his keenness for environmental concerns to the next level. Milliken and Feniger charged Minor with creating a sustainable menu at the Las Vegas branch of Border Grill; Minor took it to heart. Since that time he has created a menu that is majority organic or natural and 100 percent sustainable for the sizeable seafood items.

Along the way, Minor found an invaluable asset on the subject of sustainable seafood in Rick Moonen of RM Seafood, another Mandalay Bay flagship restaurant and nationally recognized chef. Together the two have been pushing the sustainable seafood issue at the local Nevada chapter of Le Cordon Bleu, educating groups of 70 to 80 students at time to the issues surrounding our oceans’ fishstock. Additionally, Minor regularly takes students into his kitchen for hands-on experience; he makes an overt effort to educate his guests about his eco-conscious menu by visiting tables during service; he has spent the last several Thanksgivings cooking for the homeless.

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Antoinette F. Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Mike Minor: My grandmother. She is Sicilian and she would cook for the whole entire family. I wondered how this woman could cook so much, and I started asking her if I could help, and then I realized I loved it. It’s what I've been doing my entire life.

AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
MM: I started at a very young age and I worked in kitchens with Wolfgang Puck. I learned on the streets. Getting in there and learning from mistakes, hands-on—it worked for me.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? 
MM: No—I’ve seen so many [chefs] come out of school and they owe so much money. I cook from the heart, not for technical stuff. If I don't know how to do something, I read about it and teach myself.

AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
MM: Susan Feniger and Mary Sue [Milliken] taught me how to present myself in the kitchen. I think I’m already very down to earth, but they taught me how to treat my staff, especially Susan. I took those tips and put them in my own tool box. When I worked for Wolfgang, it was his passion and love for the food. It blew me away and I thought, “I want that too.” And his techniques and flavors - cold salad with hot food, wood burning oven, that kind of stuff. I’ve never worked for Rick [Moonen] but since I've met him, we've talked about sustainability. He has such a passion for it and I thought, “how do I get this and how do I make it work?”

AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
MM: I’m a huge music guy, so I first ask what music they’re listening to at the moment. Then I ask them what their absolute favorite dish to make is. These questions help me out a lot; they tell me what they’re all about.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
MM: Put your nose to the grindstone, ask lots of questions, and be open-minded. Watch and learn. Learn from others' mistakes, too.

AB: What’s your most indispensible kitchen tool?
MM: My 8-inch chef’s knife. It can do any job; I use it for everything.

AB: At StarChefs we publish technique features for chefs to learn. Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way?
MM: The way we do our ceviches is unique and cool. Using taro root, shrimp, and stuffing avocado inside coconut halves make my ceviches a fusion of Mexican, Asian, Hawaiian [ingredients]. I try to think outside of the box – like putting black quinoa in a ceviche.

AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
MM: Boy Meets Grill by Bobby Flay.

AB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
MM: Napa Valley because it’s close to me, the French Laundry is there, and it has very unique characteristics like Mexico. In Baja, California it's the exact opposite to Napa Valley, but they have great wines. I can identify with Napa because of this connection with Mexico. Seafood, cheese, and wine. I'm a big wine guy.

AB: What are your favorite restaurants, off the beaten path, in your city? 
MM: Sushi Loca. The chefs are really outgoing and fun and the rolls have crazy names. It’s a fun place.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining? 
MM: I think that food shouldn't be intimidating to the guest, it should be inviting. I come out and interact with the customers. Food and dining is about celebration for me. I think it should be fun, plain and simple. It should be something you love to do. When I was the Executive Chef at Hard Rock and Peter Morton taught me to save the planet. It's been a part of my life the whole time. And then coming here and working with Susan and Mary Sue, it just fits. It's natural for us. I've been here for four years and it's always been that way. We took the ball and ran with it. It's 100 percent corporate philosophy.

In Las Vegas, nobody cares. They are here to drink, party, and have fun. We can show them and we can educate them. We hand out the sustainable seafood cards to everybody. I walk out to gusts and introduce myself, “Hey, guys, I'm Mike and did you know that the whole menu is sustainable?!” We feel that we have a great following in Santa Monica and they come out here, and we need to live up to it.

AB: How you are involved in your local culinary community?
MM: Right now, I am teaching a class. Rick Moonen and I just taught a class at Le Cordon Bleu on sustainability. I have the students come in here and work for credit and learn what we do with sustainability. Each class is about 70 to 80 students, so we can reach a lot of students. We're working on it. It's a struggle to let those guys let us get in there, because they aren't sustainable. I am working on it with the instructors to try to get them to lean that way. I would love to be a part of making that school sustainable. Even at the Epicurious event, I was there talking about sustainability and sustainable seafood. We made paella. And that's all I was talking about.

AB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve? Who would you most like to cook for you?
MM: Emeril Lagasse — I love all the different ingredients he uses. He puts his heart and soul into his food.

AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
MM: I would be a rock star. A motorcycle rider or something. I play the drums so yeah, a rock star. If I have a bad day at work, I come home and play the drums.

AB: What’s next for you?
MM:  I'm a young guy and I feel like I can talk to the younger guys and tell them about this [sustainable] stuff. You know, I have earrings and tattoos, and I can make some headway with that and try to get people to get away from the old stuff — the Orange Roughy and Chilean Seabass.   


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   Published: October 2008