Michael Mina

A happy restaurant staff makes for happy guests. Places where the management treats the staff with disdain usually have a palpable tension running through the dining room.

At Michael Mina, general manager Jorge Pagani is both a father figure and a role model for his staff of international employees. Their affection for one another is quite real, evidenced by everyone’s relaxed demeanor at their nightly pre-shift staff meetings and their obvious willingness to work as a team. No one is too good to perform menial tasks here. If you need a water glass refilled, the captain will do it if the bus person is occupied.

Service experience begins at the front podium, where you will be welcomed with a smile and enthusiasm by Las Vegas native Stephanie Cuellar or one of the other hostesses, who are all good at setting the tone of a dinner. “I’m the first person to greet a guest, so making a good impression is my responsibility,” she says. “A genuine love of your fellow man helps do it right.”

Once seated, you’ll likely be greeted by Joe Phillips, one of only five master sommeliers in Las Vegas who works in a restaurant. (The others are Paolo Barbieri of Scarpetta, Kevin Vogt of Delmonico, William Sherer at Aureole and Robert Smith at Picasso.) A former Berklee College of Music student, Phillips originally set out to become a jazz musician, but he got sidetracked by his love of wine. “I see a connection between music and wine,” he says. “When I make a great match, it’s like playing a harmonious chord.” Having a guy like this around automatically elevates the experience. And you haven’t tasted music until you’ve tried his favorite pairing: Mina’s famous tuna tartare with a Dr. Thanisch ’09 Riesling.

Your server might be 37-year-old Brazilian Marcio Silva or the long, lean, self-assured Sabrina Benedetto, a former bartender.

Silva has excellent food knowledge, and his goal is “to make everyone feel as if they are having the best restaurant experience ever.” His dish descriptions will make you salivate, and he moves smoothly, with almost feline grace.

Benedetto, meanwhile, is a different breed of cat, with a more forceful personality. Still, she says a great server “has to be outgoing and intuitive, but to know when to be friendly and when to back off.” Most of all, her confidence and almost otherworldly intuition make her special. “She can anticipate a guest’s needs almost before she sits down,” Pagani says.

Pagani’s right-hand man is assistant GM Roberto Liendo, also from Brazil, who started out as a server and has worked here from the very beginning. “My challenge is to oversee the whole room and not ignore anyone,” Liendo says. “That’s a real task when we do more than 300 covers in one evening.” Liendo assists with staff training and conducts pre-shift meetings in Pagani’s absence.

Service has to excel from start to finish. Pagani recently told me of a couple who have been eating regularly at the restaurant during their visits to Vegas. Their daughter had just turned 21, so he had the staff prepare a wine pairing and large cake for her, without their even asking. You don’t have to ask why they keep coming back.

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The night was Sept. 7, 2001. The culinary community of Las Vegas and beyond came together in a ballroom at the Rio to support one of its own. Napa restaurant’s chef Jean-Louis Palladin had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and it wasn’t looking good. Upon his death just two months later, The New York Times honored Palladin as “a chef’s chef whose boundless creativity and relentless pursuit of the best and freshest ingredients set an example for countless other cooks.” His inspiration lives on today in the lives he personally touched as well as in the culinary scene at large.



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