May 14, 2012

Chef Ming Tsai...Talking Food, Food Philosophy and Priorities...

I recently caught up with Chef Ming Tsai at the Mandarin Hotel in NYC. It was just hours before he and his team would be cooking for 100s of hungry attendees of this year's LuckyRice feast. In town for the feast and the Beard Awards Monday night, he was communicating with staff via text, while sitting down to have tea with me. In the quiet hush of a secluded nook located on the 35th floor lounge, we sat for a bit and he let out a sigh and offered a smile. He looked good, fit, if a bit tired. "This is my 7th event in the last 12 days." he explained as we sat down and got settled in. He flipped through his calendar from charity event after charity event on his schedule and laughed, "It's not usually this crazy; it just so happened that I had all these gigs in a row." Very few chefs talk about their charity endeavors, but as Ming pointed out, "The hospitality industry, specifically food and wine, are the most charitable industries of any when it comes to raising money for good causes." And he's right. Some of the biggest charity events in the US and, across the globe, are usually centered around gourmet food and drink. That also describes Chef Tsai. Always around good food and usually involved in the next charity gig coming up.

Ming, Stephen, Iris & Ming-Hsi
Ming was raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he spent hours cooking alongside his mother, Iris and father, Stephen, at their family-owned restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen. His love of cooking (and eating!) great food was forged in these early years, while also gaining valuable experience in front and back of the house. Ming headed east to attend school at Phillips Academy Andover. From there, Ming continued to Yale University, earning his degree in Mechanical Engineering, but his world remained centered around food and family. We talked about his days in Ohio, "You don't understand, Lou. My mom and dad talked about food, while we were eating food." We laughed, "At dinner, they would discuss what was for lunch tomorrow. We'd be out a restaurant, my mom and dad would be talking about the next restaurant we'd be going to. I remember, the first time I went to Paris, I was very young." He recalled, "I remember subsequent times as well, we would stay at the most rinky dink hotels in order to go to the finer restaurants. The priority was always food over lodging."

Photo by Leanna Creel
"I completely understand." I responded, "I have done the same in order to make sure my food budget was intact. I love to eat at great restaurants It's my art, with the plate as canvas."  He shook his head, "Yes, but I think food is unlike art in that; A painting is pleasing to your sight. Music, pleasing to your ears. Even sculpture, you can touch or see a sculpture. Food touches every sense. You smell it, you taste it, you see it, you feel it, it's texture. How it feels in your mouth. Nothing else does that all at once. And it stays with you. But you're right, I agree, I'd much rather spend the money say, going to Masa for a great meal than on someplace to stay."

Ming with Mom & Dad
His father, Dr. Stephen W. Tsai, born in Beijing and an alumnus of Yale University (B.E. 1952; D. Eng 1961; Mechanical Engineering), is a Professor Research Emeritus, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University. I asked him about giving up a career in engineering, even though he'd earned his degree from Yale. He recalled his father telling him, "'It's okay son, you weren't going to be a great engineer anyway. This is a better choice.' He laughs, "My mom and dad, they both knew, they were sending me to Paris. They knew I was getting passionate about food, going to Cordon Bleu. I told them, 'I want to be a chef.' They both agreed with my decision and they were glad," he paused, "I remember mom gave me a huge hug. They were happy that at such a young age, I was passionate about something, that I knew what I wanted to do in life. And, they were right. I was right, as things have turned out. I finished out the degree, but I knew I wanted to be a chef. My father always told me 'if you can't be 110% passionate about something, you can't be good at it,' so he understood. I was definitely not passionate about engineering. I was passionate about food." The tea arrived and it steeped as we continued talking.

After Yale, Ming worked in kitchens around the globe. He trained under renowned Pastry Chef Pierre Herme in Paris and in Osaka with Sushi Master Kobayashi. I asked him about his time overseas."I did two and a half years in Paris and it was a great life. I cooked with Pierre, doing pastries. I sous-cheffed at Natacha, playing professional squash on the weekends, living a nice life," he smiles, "but I had been accepted to Cornell when I graduated Yale. I was just too young to go." So, after his two years abroad, he returned to the United States, finally enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University and earned a Master’s degree in Hotel Administration and Hospitality Marketing. "When I got there, (to Cornell), he recalled, "even then, at 24, I was still the youngest in my program." Ming now speaks four languages: English, Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese.

After graduating, Tsai then took on a few hotel jobs, helping open the Intercontinental in Chicago, but his entrepreneurial spirit and his desire to be back in the kitchen dictated his next moves. I asked him if he had an eye on owning a restaurant even then and if that was the reason he pursued his education in hospitality. He explained, "When I went to Cornell, yes, I knew I wanted to own a restaurant or some type of business at some point." But, the kitchen called him. A job came open at Silks at the Mandarin Hotel, San Fransisco and Tsai took it. "I missed cooking," he said plainly, "I needed to get back to the kitchen again." It was here that he met Ken Hom, then a consulting chef for The Mandarin. "He truly is one of the fathers of east meets west cuisine and I had been doing that in France, experimenting with Frenese (French/Chinese) for my two years at Natacha." I interjected, You've always been loathe to call it fusion, even back then as well?" He replied quickly, "I hate the word fusion. Confusion is more like it. To me fusion is what you do with a atom. It's very forced. A very violent act. Frenese is more, a blending, but then all food is." I asked him to explain his east meets west style, "Is it more technique with ingredients, or flavors with flavors?"

Photo by Emily Sterne
He thought for a second, drinking a sip of the Lychee~Green Tea. "Here's how it works for me; good east~west cuisine can be either, as you say; east technique/western ingredients, or west technique/eastern ingredients. But, it can never be east with east. The flavors are way too complex, too bold. Japanese/Thai or Chinese/Thai, in my opinion, you don't need that." He continued, "When you think about it, all the top chefs are doing a version of east meet west. They just don't call it that. Look at Jean-Georges, Daniel, Thomas Keller, they call it New American, New French, whatever, but they're all using sesame oil, ginger and soy sauce. When it comes down to at the end of the day, we are all chefs and you use the best ingredients available. Chinese, Indonesian Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, I love that. "It was what I was already cooking, I was just doing what I knew." He further explained, "Chinese, with the Osaka, Paris influence, so it was a natural fit for me."

Photo by Emily Sterne
In 1998, Ming opened Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA and immediately impressed diners from Boston and beyond with the restaurant's innovative East-West cuisine. Designed by Ming in conjunction with a Feng Shui Master. Cutting to the chase, I asked him, "Why Wellesley, Massachusetts?" He grinned at me and said, "Well, there's a funny story that goes with that, you'll laugh. I was in Santa Fe at the time, '95-'97, my first exec chef job.' He poured himself more tea. "My wife and I had a discussion and both decided we were not going to raise our kids in Santa Fe and we were looking to move. We discussed lots of places, but the one place we knew we were not going was Vegas. I was not moving from a desert to a desert. That made no sense to us". He smiles, "Not two weeks after this conversation, it was a Friday night, we'd just done 500 covers (individual diners) and they told me this gentleman wanted a word with me. This guy comes into the kitchen, glasses on, and says, 'I'd like to open a restaurant with you in Vegas.' Now my father taught me, 'listen to everything.' TV had just started with the foodnetwork, I'd done a few shows for Cooking Live. People started to know me. So I said to be polite, 'Ok what do you have in mind sir?' Ming paused to sip some tea before he continued, "This guys starts reeling off these ridiculous numbers, points, profits square footage, etc. My take home would be incredible amounts and I stopped him and said "Sir I've never heard these kind of numbers before, but even so, I have to turn this down. My family and I have decided, no Vegas, so I just can't take a job in Vegas. He was disappointed, but he hands me his card and says, 'Okay sorry to hear that. My name is Steve Wynne and I'm building The Bellagio. If you change your mind, let me know,'" Tsai laughs, "Todd (English) has that space now, Olives. That was the space."

Photo By Emily Sterne
I asked him, "Do you regret it? He replied evenly,"No, I needed to be my own boss. Back to that entrepreneurial thing. I wanted to own my own restaurant. I definitely wanted to control it. Yea, the money was nice and tempting, but I would rather have something that was mine.  "I'm happy and I'm in the kitchen. I mean, I'm not breaking down a salmon, but, I'm there. And, I eat with my kids." When I'm not traveling, I go home before service and cook a few days a week. I like to eat with the kids."

Photo by Emily Sterne
In it's first year, Blue Ginger received 3 stars from the Boston Globe, was named "Best New Restaurant" by Boston Magazine, was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as "Best New Restaurant 1998," and Esquire Magazine honored Ming as "Chef of the Year 1998." The James Beard Foundation crowned Ming "2002 Best Chef Northeast" and, since 2002, the Zagat Restaurant Guide has rated Blue Ginger the "2nd Most Popular Boston Restaurant." In 2007, Blue Ginger received the Ivy Award from Restaurants & Institutions, for its consistent achievement in meeting the highest standards for food, hospitality and service and, in 2009, Ming and Blue Ginger won IFMA's Silver Plate Award in the Independent Restaurant Category recognizing overall excellence in the industry.

Photo by Emily Sterne
Most of us met Chef Ming Tsai from the foodnetwork series Cooking Live, where he, Emeril and a number of other chefs rotated shows in 1997. Ming really began gaining notoriety and acclaim as the 1998 Emmy Award-Winning host of East Meets West with Ming Tsai and later, his popular cooking adventure series, Ming's Quest. "I really loved that show," he says of Quest, "It was awesome, traveling the world. But, the problem was, 80 days a year on the road and I had small kids. Then 9/11 happened, so traveling was out." He continued, "Just as all this was going on, I was approached by WGBH.. They said they were Boston based, they had not done a cooking show since Julia Child and they wanted me to follow her as their second show. I thought, 'Wow, how cool is that' and I took it. That's how I ended up Boston based. We are in pre-production of our 10th season. It's great to do and I am cooking,' he smiled, "so I am happy. I am toying with possibly opening up a smaller place, definitely Boston based as well. The kids are getting a bit older now," he smiles, "it's the year of the dragon this year, I'm a dragon so good things are gonna happen."

Photo by Anthony Tieuli
Ming is the host and executive producer of the show, SIMPLY MING. which received two Emmy nominations in 2009 for 'Outstanding Culinary Program' and 'Outstanding Lifestyle/Culinary Host,' and received two Bronze Telly Awards in the categories of 'Lighting' and 'Art Direction. In addition to television, Ming is the author of four cookbooks: Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cookingwith Ming Tsai, Simply Ming, Ming's Master Recipes, and Simply Ming One-Pot Meals. You can learn more about Ming's cookbooks here.

Ming also traveled to the Beijing Olympics with NBC’s Today show to provide viewers with insight into food customs and traditions that define his Chinese heritage. When I asked after his family, he became animated, smiling, "Yea, the kids are great, almost 10 and 12 now. We just came off a three generational trip to Beijing and it was awesome on multiple levels. To be there with my parents and my kids. The city will never ever again be like that as well. It was the cleanest air, no smog, no traffic, which is unheard of in Beijing." I asked him, "Each time you go back, do you learn something new about your heritage and, do you look for that type of experience or does it just happen?" He replied for the most part it just happens. Off the topic of food, he remembered, "What was real cool was my dad got to show my kids where he grew up. Same house, same sidewalk. It was pretty cool."

Ming with Mom, Iris & Dad, Stephen
Tsai became animated, a trait we've become accustomed to from his TV shows, when he's talking about food he loves. "We went off the beaten track. We went to this place which is known for Peking Duck, but it was a little dive," he laughs, "Like one cherry-wood stove, old guys with stained in white shirts, smoking cigarettes hanging from their mouths. My mom was like 'Really, we're eating here?' We laughed, "Lou, it was so good. It was amazing. And, they cut it differently. Usually you know, you take the skin off and it's cut length wise, usually your eating it more for the skin than the meat. They did it more French style, so you got a juicy piece of meat with the skin, It was so much better." He added, "The best part was it was half the price of a meal gotten elsewhere at a 'name' restaurant. It was the best experience."

We laughed about the fact that just a food memory and its description could still get us all excited when just talking about it. Thinking back to our earlier discussion, I understood what Ming was getting at when speaking about food touching all the senses, but it also can touch our hearts. I guess that is the true beauty of the celebration of good food. In the end, we are ultimately foodies.

Rejoining the reference in the beginning of this piece, about; chefs, culinary and charities, Chef Ming Tsai is proud to be a national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. As the father of a child with food allergies and the chef-owner of his own restaurant, Blue Ginger, Ming is aware of the seriousness of food allergies from a variety of perspectives. "When David was born, he had seven food allergies," he stated." "Chefs son." I quipped. He replied, "Yea, practical joke from upstairs," smiling, he pointed a thumb up, "but on the other hand, it was ok. He was a chef's son. I could control what he ate and believe me, he still eats better than 99% of most folks out there."

Through his work with FAAN and at Blue Ginger, Ming has brought about change in Massachusetts in the form of a new food allergy safety law. "What I am proud of is, I helped pass the first law in the Union to make restaurants safer. It has become my calling." He became serious,"Every customer has the right to know what's in his or her food." Ming's Food Allergy Reference Book, is a great resource. He states, "Ingrained from my childhood, was be good to people. Supporting some of these charities fits that bill."

One can understand why Chef Tsai, with his smooth style and easy going manner, has chosen to walk the path he has, in his own unique way. His priorities are set and in order, he's enjoying a life with his family and loving the actual journey he's on, letting the destination take care of itself. It seems to me that he has undertaken that same Feng Shui attitude applied to his restaurant and cuisine and let it permeate his lifestyle as well. A few new ventures on the horizon, one involving a balanced, healthy look at life, eating food in the right proportions and leading a balanced lifestyle, is something he is enthusiastic about. But, like the chef that he is, as the approaching dinner for 700 drew closer, his mind started to wander to the service coming up in a few hours. His balanced philosophy and Zen-like look at life, family and food, is a theme throughout everything he does and he is content to ride the current wave he's on, as long as he's steering the direction of the boat.

Bon Appetit,

Lou

Photos courtesy of ming.com, Ming Tsai Ming East-West, LLC, Emily Sterne

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