If after reading this interview, you remember one thing, remember this: Chef Ming Tsai does not cook Asian fusion. “Fusion just leads to confusion,” insists Tsai and there’s nothing confusing about his cooking at Boston’s acclaimed Blue Ginger.
Tsai’s cooking style? East Meets West, which makes sense when you consider his childhood. A Chinese American, Ming Tsai, grew up in Ohio, where he worked at his parents’ Chinese restaurant. It was there he learned his way around a restaurant before attending Yale University.
Over the years, Tsai’s earned himself a highly regarded reputation, but few know that he not only developed the Food Allergy Reference Book, but also helped pass a law requiring local restaurants to adhere to food allergy safety codes.
A few of his other accomplishments include a PBS show, traveling cooking show – Ming’s Quest – and a handful of cookbooks.
On the menu at Blue Ginger is a foie gras-shiitake shumai in sauternes-shallot broth and sesame caesar salad with Chinese cruller croutons.
Few chefs have a degree in chemical engineering from Yale University. Does anything you learned in chemistry class and the lab given you an edge in the kitchen? Every day. My dad told me I had to finish school and get my college degree. And in engineering, there are five variables and the sixth solution to the equation – it’s very similar to a restaurant in that there are all these factors and one must find the solution to them. Having a degree also developed my analytical skills. Then we have my frozen food line – it has a science to it. Being precise with numbers helps, so when I tell food scientists something needs 7% more salt as opposed to just “more salt,” they understand me. Finally, I have an eye for design, and as a chef I’m also a craftsman. I never pre-conceive a dish. Instead, I allow the flavors to come first and then design the plate around that.
Before opening your own restaurant, you worked at your parents’ restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen in Boston? The customer is always right – you always have to have that inherent feeling. Sometimes it’s not always a great customer, but it doesn’t matter. My parents were very good at that. You blend the cuisines of the East and the West in your cooking. Do you feel closer to one over the other? Good question. Being Chinese, I have to say I live and eat more Asian. I’m sort of Daoist in my approach to life. However, when it comes to cooking I’d say I’m in the middle. I’m probably stronger in cooking Asian food, and I’m always striving for that savory umami flavor. In the end I love bold flavors and contrasting temperatures and textures.
What’s your vision of Chinese cooking? What I do is much lighter than typical Chinese restaurants. Oil, garlic, ginger and scallions are my mirepoix, and chilies would be next in line if I wanted a spicy dish. Chinese food is light, efficient, and always has vegetables and some form of protein. Then of course there are fried rice and noodles.
How has the popularity of Chinese food changed since you opened Blue Ginger eleven years ago? Chinese food has definitely improved. Where I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, Chinese food was all about “chop suey,” which isn’t even a real Chinese dish. Nowadays, it’s much more targeted with all different cuisines. I hate those “Japanese Thai Chinese” restaurants – they’re so widespread that they’re mediocre in everything. I would never do a Korean or Thai restaurant because neither are my specialty. I believe one needs to learn the traditional way to prepare an ethnic cuisine before having the right to make it themselves.
You not only developed the Food Allergy Reference Book, but also serve as the national spokesman for Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and helped write a law requiring local restaurants to practice food allergy awareness. You are clearly passionate about spreading knowledge on the issue – are you allergic to any foods? If you own a restaurant you have to know what’s in your food, otherwise you shouldn’t be in the business. We follow a very simple “Bible system,” that lists the 8 common allergies. It highlights which dishes contain what, and breaks down every single component. For instance, soy sauce has wheat in it. So make the dish without the soy marinade. My son David is nine years old and has 7 of the 8 common allergies. I took him to a restaurant when he was three years old, and we wouldn’t be served. That was the catalyst for what I consider to be my calling. Now, we have people coming into the restaurant all the time who are so happy to finally bring their food-allergic children along. Every restaurant should do this.
What was your most memorable experience from your television show, Ming’s Quest? When I was in Beijing, I went to a restaurant called Da Dong, which specialized in Peking duck. In a small room there were 20 people eviscerating, dipping, and hanging just hundreds of ducks. It was very cool to see. Then, I went to a restaurant actually called “Made in China,” where the potstickers were covered in a lattice dough pretty much made out of pork juice and cornstarch. It was a beauty to see.
How do you manage to find time to work on a television show, cookbooks, and manage a restaurant? I surround myself with great people who know how I think. I allow them to make decisions for me and give them empowerment – most people want to be owners of restaurants anything. Of course, you have to make sure you give back to your employees as well.I’ve also learned to say “no,” because I can only do so many travels for charities and the like. It’s all about prioritizing, and success isn’t about owning a private jet. It’s about having more time to spend with my family.
Where would you go to have a great and affordable Chinese in New York? Shanghai Cuisine has the best soup dumplings. Wu Liang Ye has the best Szechuan in the city.
Blue Ginger Address: 583 Washington St., Wellesley, MA Phone: (781)283-5790