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Why I Tailgate, by Professional Tailgater Michael Mina

The San Francisco chef's love for football and outdoor cooking has led to the country's most epic, members-only tailgate at Levi's Stadium.

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

There's nothing like tailgating," says chef and impassioned 49ers fan Michael Mina, owner of the restaurant group that includes RN74, Arcadia, Pabu, and his eponymous fine-dining flagship among many, many others. "Honestly, the 10 tailgate parties that we have before the 49ers games have become my 10 favorite days of the year." Here now, the chef tells Eater's Hillary Dixler the secrets behind the art of tailgating, from his infamous parking lot parties for friends to the killer, sanctioned events for 500 he currently throws at Levi's Stadium:

I'm adamant 49ers fan, I grew up as a 49ers fan in Washington state. But I always wanted to live in San Francisco. It was my dream.

My first NFL game was a Monday Night Football game. It was 1990 and I was 22. My best friend, who was a die-hard New York Giants fan, said to me, "I got two tickets." I was in Washington and I had about 11 hours to get to the game. I made it just in time.

It was the game when the 49ers and the Giants both had gone 10-0, and then they were going to have a Monday night game. Everybody thought they were both going to be undefeated, but they both lost the week before.

It was unbelievable. I grew up in a small town in Washington. I had never even been in a stadium like that — just walking in there and getting that feeling. I idolized the 49ers — Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice, and Joe Montana. This game was intense. It was that epic game where Ronnie Lott and the Giants' Phil Simms were jawing at each other in the middle of the field. It was all defense, there was barely any scoring. I was exhausted by the time it was over.

That was my first game.

We started tailgating 24 years ago. Even back then, our parties were epic. While we were building Aqua (now closed), I took a job as a pastry chef at the Four Seasons Clift Hotel. Kelly Mills, the executive chef, did this tailgate. I was begging him, asking, "How do I get to go to the game?"

Mills' tailgate was a group of 10 guys. I cooked two courses that day. I knew I had to cook really good courses so I would get invited back a lot. We served probably about 20 people or something, and that was my first one. I was hooked. Then I started heading up more of it. I got season tickets, and we ended up with six altogether: My whole family's into it. Then, all the chefs coming to San Francisco knew I had these great seats. If somebody's team was playing, they'd be like, "Oh, can I go to the game with you?" I was like, "Yeah, sure. You're cooking a course."

Wed invite fans from the other team just so that we could get the jawing going.

It was pretty intense. We always had a few burners, and we'd do a boil. Then we would have a big charcoal grill, a wood grill, and a rotisserie. Each chef would take a turn. You cook a course and pass it around, and then everybody eats. Then you cook another course. Then winemakers would start coming and bringing their wines. My wife started her epic bloody mary bar, now a big tradition.

We would get to the point where there were 200 people at our tailgates out in the parking lot. We'd invite fans from the other team just so that we could get the jawing going. I'd be like, "Come on. Come over here and have some lobster tortellini." We just embraced how everybody makes fun of us being from California and San Francisco, meaning that we drink cheese and wine. We always kept it within the spirit. We always kept the spirit of the tailgate, and we always themed a lot of the food off of who we were playing against.

That's how it all started.

Tailgating is really another way to show camaraderie. There's so much camaraderie with being at a game and everybody's cheering for their team. Well, tailgate's even more fun because the game hasn't started yet. Now you can trash talk and you can prep yourself for the game.

It was maybe '91 or '92 and I was so excited about the Philadelphia game: I was going to make the ultimate Philly cheesesteak. I went out and bought a black cast-iron to go over the grill so we could chop the steaks right on it. I flew in the bread from Philly, the whole nine yards.

We got everything laid out, got the grill going. It was super hot. All of a sudden it just started pouring like I've never seen it pour before. Everything was out, the rain just destroyed everything. We ended up sitting in the car waiting for the game to start with no food.

One time, were playing Green Bay. I did an eight-foot cheese fondue fountain. We're grilling fillets, sausages, potatoes, apples, bread, everything that you could put in a fondue. We started inviting Packers fans, like we always do, so we could get the rivalry going and start talking trash.

Because of the wind, the fondue was blowing. It just so happened that there was a Packers fan walking through the line. A little bit of cheese flew and hit him right on the back. A little bit. I apologized, but he's like, "Oh, don't worry about it." Then I started thinking, I'm going to throw cheese on every single one of them.

As the fans would leave, I'd just throw a ladle of cheese on their back. Then we wanted to see how many people we could get through the line. We got about 300 Packer fans. We went in the game and we saw 10, 15 different people with cheese on their back. It was fun. That's really what tailgate is meant to be.

Then we got the opportunity to be a part of the new Levi's Stadium. I sat down with the president of the 49ers, Paraag Marathe, and owner Jed York. They were amazing. They had known about my tailgate, and they knew how big of a 49ers fan I am, so they asked me to do the restaurant in the stadium. We had the the pub and the steakhouse planned, and there was kind of an odd extra space in the building. Every time we looked at the plans we couldn't decide what it was going to be. Finally I said to them, "Look, let me just move my tailgate inside on game day. This way we can hold 1,000 people in here. We can get 500 members and throw the most epic food and sport experience in the world." They were like, "Absolutely."

Then it became: How epic can we make it? I really wanted the heart and soul of what I had out there. I wanted to start with the equipment, but on steroids basically.

So I thought: We're going to do these two rotisseries. One is going to be the largest indoor rotisserie in the United States and I can roast a whole cow every game in it. The rotisserie holds a 1,200-pound animal. We can roast three pigs on it at the same time. Then I wanted to do another one, and because of the way that the space is laid out, we were able to build this 13-foot-tall rotisserie — this carnival ride where it goes up, over, and around. You can do 10 different animals on it at the same time and they're all dripping on each other — still really keeping the tailgate feeling. There are two giant wood fire grills with the big wheels that roll up and down — basically the large version of what we used out in the parking lot.

Boils were something that I always loved to do because I'd always boil a pot and throw a bunch of shrimp or crabs in it, and then just throw it down on newspaper. We wanted to do this on steroids, as well. We built this center island kitchen that we use on non-game days and it holds these three pots that hold 500 gallons of water each. Usually, if you drop a lot of lobsters in one at a time, the water temperature lowers and it doesn't cook the lobster properly. When you have that much water, you can cook 200 lobsters at the same time. We have a crane and we lower 200 lobsters. Then there's a window you just walk up to and they hand you half-cracked lobsters.

The whole festivity of it is 10 different walk-around stations. We'll usually do eight hot dishes and then four or five cold dishes. We have the ultimate Willy Wonka ice cream station with every kind of chocolate and candy. Then there's my wife's bloody mary bar, which has the longest line. She serves between 2,000 and 3,000 bloody marys every tailgate.

You get your tailgate tray and you come through the line. The food is all in little dishes and people load up their trays and go sit down and eat. Then there's room to stand up, walk around, mingle, hit the bars, hit the food stations. We serve food all the way through the third quarter. People come back; halftime is a big thing. Some people stay the whole time and it's great. It's a carnival.

The first couple weeks when we were doing it, I wasn't sure. I got home and asked my wife, "Did we just wreck the thing that we love?" My wife was into it. She told me, "I think as we get to know everybody, it's going to be even better," and that's exactly what happened.

Within two more weeks, we started knowing everybody and it became so much fun. I really wanted to keep the tailgate membership-based because the one thing that I said all along is if it gets to the point where people are exchanging money to get a drink or a hot dog, I don't want any part of it. That just doesn't feel like the spirit of what it should be.

I couldn't be any prouder of it and I couldn't be any happier with how it's come out. It's become exactly what I hoped it would be. It's like a family. I talk to the members off-season now. Players come too, and they know it's themed. They come up and ask me, "What'd you do for the Ravens?" [49ers safety] Eric Reid asked me if we'd get crab cakes from Baltimore. (Hell yeah, of course we did.) The team built a way for the players to get from the locker room to the restaurant. Joe Montana, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez. Everybody comes to this thing. Then you have all these really great chefs. It's a dream come true.

Michael Mina is the chef/owner of the Mina Group restaurants.
Hillary Dixler is Eater's senior reports editor.
Photos: Courtesy of Michael Mina

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