Two High Rollers

When the permanent MGM Grand Detroit opens its doors this month, diners will be in luck. Aleene Jinn Hang talks to a couple of noted chefs as they lay their cards on the table.



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Q&A with Wolfgang Puck
Why Detroit?

The main reason really was MGM, which is our partner like in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. We are very successful with them, and people love us in their hotels. So they said, please come and do a restaurant with us in Detroit. And I said, “If you think it’s a good market, we will come with you.”
Had you been to Detroit before?
Many times, from the old times when Jimmy Schmidt was at the London Chophouse.
 

I have heard that 95 percent of restaurants fail in the first two years, and many people think it’s all about location. With the struggling economy in Michigan and Detroit, what gave you the confidence to open here?
I think that there are two things:
I really believe we will bring something interesting to the city. … I talked to one gentleman from Cadillac from the GM division and he already said, “God, we are excited to have something new.”
Will your signature dishes be available in your 24-hour in-room dining, too? [It’s the first time Puck has designed a room-service menu.]
Only the dishes that travel well. If I go somewhere, I want to have a good salad or maybe have a good pizza and have a good hamburger or maybe a steak, so it’s not too complicated.
You see yourself as a coach to your chefs. Whom will you coach in Detroit?
The chef over at Detroit is [Detroit native] Marc Djozilja. He was with us for many years already in Las Vegas. Also, he worked in Atlantic City. He is one of our well-seasoned chefs who knows what’s going on.
Do you approve each menu each day?
No. You know what happens is, my chefs work with me for so many years they really think like me. They learn a certain style; it’s just like in fashion design. If you work with Valentino or if you work with some of the designers, they have the head designer, then know exactly what they want and what they are looking for. It’s like if you have a basketball team, you have a coach and they instill a certain way of playing. It’s not the coach who is going to shoot the basketball.
With your empire, how do you find time to give each restaurant attention?
It’s just like having children. At the beginning when they are young, you have to teach them how to say words. You have to teach them how to hold a knife and fork. At the beginning, when the restaurant is new, I have to be there. I generally go once a month to visit the properties [the newer ones].
Detroit has several notable restaurants known for their service and attention to detail. How will you compete and not make it feel like a chain?
I don’t think any of my restaurants feel like a chain because they are all different. We use a lot of local ingredients. We always get involved in the community so the community gets involved with us.
You’re one of two celebrity chefs opening restaurants at the MGM Grand Detroit. Are you competitors? Are you friends with Michael Mina?
I am really good friends with Michael, so I don’t worry. We complement each other more than anything. We are not going to have fights.

Q&A with Michael Mina
Why Detroit?
I do a lot of work with MGM, obviously; I have four projects with [MGM Mirage] in Las Vegas. When I saw what the hotel was going to be all about and the level that the project was going to be, and knowing how well they chose their markets, I knew this would be a great site for the two concepts I wanted to do there.
I’ve heard that 95 percent of restaurants fail in the first two years, and many people think it’s all about location. With the struggling economy in Michigan and Detroit, what gave you the confidence to open here?
Whenever you open a restaurant, there is obviously a lot of stress behind it. Part of the reason I feel comfortable is because I am part of a bigger whole.
How was Don Yamauchi chosen to be executive chef for your two dining establishments? Had you dined at Tribute?
Yes, I dined at Tribute. We had done events together. One of my real close friends worked with him. Probably my best friend, who is a chef, worked with him and he couldn’t rave enough about him.
Will you be spending a lot of time in Detroit with him? Will you be in charge of menu changes?
Absolutely; [it’s] the way I do all my restaurants. I start them with the first set of menus. We conceptualize it, and it’s my job to make sure that the concept of the restaurant stays consistent with the menu. Once we get into the seasonal changes, after we have worked together for a while, then it will be collaboration.
With eight restaurants and the addition of two more, how do you give each one individual attention?
I have two corporate chefs; one that deals with new restaurants and the openings, and one that deals with the restaurants once they are up and operating. Once we go to actually change the menu, I will come out there for three days before and run all the dishes as specials and see what the feedback is. Once we really feel comfortable with the menu, then we make the change and I will spend a few days afterward to make sure it’s all off on the right foot.
Detroit has several notable restaurants known for their service and attention to detail. How will you compete?
It has to be a passion. You create a culture. When you dined there you feel like you dined at a Michael Mina restaurant. [It’s] 100 percent about the people that you hire. I started with a great core.
You’re one of two celebrity chefs opening restaurants at the MGM Grand Detroit. Are you competitors? Are you friends with Wolfgang Puck?
We are absolutely friends. To be able to call him my friend is a great thing. He is probably one of the people in my industry that I have looked up to since my first job. Competitive, I don’t think so. I am doing a fish restaurant and steakhouse and he’s doing his style of restaurant.
What do you like to see on menus when you dine out?
I eat a lot of Japanese food. I look for seasonal [foods] that I know are in season. You can always have a great burger, too — that’s the one thing that’s a weakness.
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