For many Americans, Chef Ming Tsai’s East Meets West and Simply Ming cooking shows brought Asian fusion cuisine into home kitchens. The Emmy and James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurant owner (don’t miss his Wellesley, Mass., restaurants Blue Ginger and the recently opened Blue Dragon) talked with Creative Loafing about the evolution of fusion, food TV, and wooing ladies with free eggrolls. Tsai will host a cooking demo on Sat., Nov. 16, at the Enjoy Arts & Tastes festival in St. Petersburg.
Ming Tsai: Hello, is this Arielle?
CL: Yes, hello, Chef.
That’s an interesting name. Like The Little Mermaid? I bet you’ve never ever heard that before, right? [Laughs] Me, I have a dynasty. I do feel bad for the kid named Carrot or Apple. That’s just terrible.
What was food television like when you started East Meets West?
I started at the Food Network in 1998 when it was just a year old. They didn’t have a lot of chefs, so they showed East Meets West three times a day, seven days a week. Same with Emeril, Bobby [Flay], it was great …Emeril put the Food Network on the map and we got to ride the train.
Your current show, Simply Ming, enters its 11th season soon. How have things changed in food television?
When it comes to the TV world, East Meets West, by some miracle or Asian quota, won an Emmy. I loved the Food Network, but they’ve moved away from true cooking shows and are doing more entertainment and reality shows. I want to continue teaching, and public television is really great for that. We are taking half of the next season in the studio, with six shows in Vancouver and six shows in Japan. There’s amazing food in Japan and Vancouver. We are going to Richmond, Vancouver, where the population is 60 percent Chinese. They have an amazing night market there with hundreds of cooking stalls.
My goodness, I hope you’re hungry.
My favorite thing in the world is to eat. The best food is someone else’s. You’re eating their love, their soul, and their dish. It’s why I’m a chef. I was, still am, and always will be hungry.
Your mother had a restaurant in Ohio. Was that where you got hooked on food?
Yes, the Mandarin Kitchen in Dayton, Ohio. I used to sell eggrolls from a stainless steel cart in Dayton when I was 15, 16 years old. I’d try and pick up girls by giving them a free eggroll. It kind of worked, sort of. I’d go out with 100 eggrolls at $1 apiece, and come back with $80; my mom knew what was going on. But it gave me the restaurant bug because it was all about good food and good service.
You got your degree from Yale, a master’s in hospitality from Cornell, and then trained in France at Le Cordon Bleu?
Yes, living in Paris was awesome. I learned about French cuisine, which is the second best food in the world next to Chinese food. I said, let’s combine them and make this happen.
A lot of people have taken on fusion foods since then. And America’s palate for Asian cuisine has changed a lot.
Nowadays, you go to a major city and it’s not just Chinese restaurants but specific regions. Palates are more sophisticated, coupled with the fact that the majority of Asian foods are healthier. The veggie to protein to starch ratio is better. It’s not a ribeye steak on a plate. Things are flash-fried, steamed or braised.
How about the flavors being used in fusion cooking then compared to now?
They were using ginger, playing around with soy sauce, there are people who've come out and said I'm an east west chef. There's lemongrass too. Today, chefs have access to every ingredient in the world. But the worst food is bad fusion food. It's exponentially worse because some people force things together that shouldn't be together. I like the word blending better. You have to learn the techniques before you start to blend. Learn the traditional way first and then blend. You can't start blending out the door.
You’re in St. Petersburg because you’re promoting your new cookware line at HSN. What are the basics of a cook’s home kitchen?
Anyone can spend $500 and do a good job in the kitchen. But all you really need is a good knife, a good cutting board, a good pan, and a good heating source.
You'll be in St. Petersburg for the Enjoy Arts & Tastes festival. How familiar are you with our city?
You know, I used to come to St. Petersburg when my parents bought a condo here. We used to drive from Dayton to her and have vacations. I know St. Pete pretty well. But I hadn't been back for 20 years and it's changed a lot. The EAT festival seems like a very cool event. I think its one of the first food festivals that brings in the art element with the Dali museum. And proceeds support Florida ProStart, which is a great charity.
Tell me more about ProStart.
Basically it helps get high school students interested in the restaurant business, which is something we need. We need cooks, servers, managers, and chefs. They're our future right now. And there's a conflict getting young people interested in the industry.
What's the conflict?
I see this because I own restaurants. I train these kids from Johnson & Wales and they've got $80,000 in student loan debt to make $12 hour as a cook. They are working hard for a little and most of it goes to paying loans back. It's supposed to be an apprenticeship. I talk about this with Thomas Keller, Daniel [Boulud] all the time. There are really good colleges today for this but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to be a great chef. You need to be smart, have two hands and a passion. You can become a great chef through the school of hard knocks, working your way up.
You've become a major advocate of food allergy awareness because of you're son. Can you talk a little bit about you got involved with that?
My son was born with seven of the eight food allergies. We had a system in place at Blue Ginger, before he was born, so people know what is in their food. If you don't know what's in your food, you could kill someone. We passed the first law in the country to make restaurants safer. Food allergies are growing. Celiacs Disease is showing up in 40-year-old Italian men who've been eating pasta their hole lives. I tell fellow chefs, do this now because it is smart business. It's the responsibility of the chef, and if you don't want to do it go sell cars or something.
Okay Chef, summer is over and fall is arriving. What are some of the new flavors you'll be playing with at your restaurants?
I love ginger, organic soy sauces that are wheat-free, Szechuan peppercorn oil. At Blue Dragon, we're using braised pigs tails, bison burgers. I'm obsessed with black garlic, it's a fermented garlic and it's amazing. I'll definitely be using pumpkin seed oil more. Pumpkin wontons with spaghetti squash noodles. And a vegetarian miso pumpkin soup, you've got to cook for the seasons.
Stay tuned for Chef Ming Tsai and Arielle Stevenson's pho excursion through St. Petersburg.
This is a great article! Gary Mormino does a great job of illustrating the politics…
I will be honest, I've been keeping this place a secrect. So very happy for…
Best Thai food I have tasted, very accurate review, check this place out!
Unfortunately, Ha Long Bay is just plain inconsistent and has been for years. Great one…