Chef Ming Tsai: Cooking outside the wok

Cynthia Rekdal September 8, 2017 0

Ming Tsai. • Photo courtesy of Breville USA

On November 4, Ming Tsai, a longtime advocate for access to education, will be the celebrity chef host for this year’s Saint Martin’s Gala in Lacey, Washington. The event, a black-tie affair features a five-course gourmet meal, live cooking demonstrations and more. For information, visit www.stmartin.edu/Ming.


A revolution has transformed the Asian fine dining restaurant and food fare experience across the nation.  One of the leaders in this extraordinary plated metamorphosis transforming consumer expectations has been celebrated Chef and restaurant owner Ming Tsai, one of the foremost interpreters of East-West cuisine in America today.

If you’ve never heard of Ming Tsai then you aren’t a real Asian foodie.  Maybe not even a foodie.  The chef-owner of award winning (James Beard, Boston Magazine, Silver Plate, Culinary Hall of Fame) restaurants (Blue Ginger, Blue Dragon and soon to open ChowStirs), Tsai has garnered his share of glowing accolades.  Awards have become a lifestyle norm (Esquire Magazine Chef of the Year, James Beard Foundation Best Chef Northeast, Restaurants and Institutions’ Ivy, Daytime Emmy, Telly, Massachusetts Restaurant Association Restauranteur of the Year).  A television personality (Food Network’s East Meets West, Fine Living Network’s Ming’s Quest and PBS Create TV’s Simply Ming), Tsai has also appeared on People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list.

Born in Newport Beach, California in 1964, Ming-Hao Tsai is a first-generation Chinese American who was raised in Dayton, Ohio along with his older brother, Ming-Hsi Tsai.  His father Stephen is an engineer.  His mother Iris owned and operated the family restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen, which Tsai recalls provided his first experience in a true kitchen where he assisted with the cooking while growing up.  Fried rice was a favorite early dish he whipped up then, and does so now for his two sons, David (17) and Henry (15), and wife Polly.  Food was an integral part of his life from an early age.  His first question on returning home from school was, “What’s for dinner?”  According to Tsai, the sound of food cooking was ‘music’ to his ears.  Following a childhood of what must have been rhapsodic food episodes, at the pudgy age of ten, he placed himself on a restricted diet.

Great Leaps Forward

At age 15, Tsai headed east, joining his brother to board at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.  A now co-ed university-prep school 25 miles north of Boston, its classes have been littered with notable alumni, including: George H., George W. and Jeb Bush, JFK, Jr., Jack Lemmon, Humphrey Bogart and Frank Stella.

After graduating, he attended Yale, the private Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut where his maternal grandparents taught Chinese, and where his paternal grandfather, as well as his father, had graduated.  During the first world war, his grandfather came to America in 1918 as part of Yale’s Christian Ministries in China program.  After securing his degree in economics, where he shoveled coal into the school’s furnace at 5 a.m. to earn money, he returned to China and worked as a comptroller at one of its top schools, Yenching University (now Peking University).  Thirty years later, Tsai’s father Stephen immigrated to the U.S. to earn an engineering degree at Yale.  He remained in gum shan (Gold Mountain: the Chinese name for the U.S. where the precious metal was discovered in 1848).

Tsai, a member of the Phi chapter of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (Deke) fraternity at Yale (past members included founders of Time Magazine, FedEx, Xerox, Procter and Gamble, Southwest Airlines, Chase Manhattan Bank) seemed destined to follow the engineering path of his father and brother.  However, on a summer break in Paris, before his senior year, he picked up the fork in the road and changed directions.

Et Voilá!

The summer quarter, spent at the Cordon Bleu and working at a French bakery, was a mind-altering experience.  He decided to “bag engineering and become a cook.”  At Yale, he completed his final year and graduated with a mechanical engineering degree; after which he returned to Paris, where his high school French came in handy.  He trained under renowned pastry chef Pierre Hermé at acclaimed gourmet food and delicatessen establishment Fauchon, and worked as a sous-chef (second in command in a kitchen, following the head chef) at Natacha, a bistro in Montparnasse serving fine French cuisine.  He later worked in Osaka with sushi master, Kobayashi.  “I knew that being around food would make me happy, and when I went to Paris, I realized I could actually do it as a career.  I became a chef because I love to cook.  It’s the coolest job I can think of.”

Returning to the United States, he enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University, earning an M.A. in hotel administration and hospitality marketing in 1989.  From there he held multiple positions in the front and back of the house at various establishments around the country, including sous-chef at Silks, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco (fine dining multicultural/Asian fusion dishes) and the Santacafé in Santa Fe (American cuisine with a southwestern twist).

Although he has been to China, “I never worked in China,” said Tsai, but “I spent a lot of time in kitchens in Taiwan.  At age 14, I started working in my mom’s restaurant, cooking traditional Chinese food, and watching my grandparents cook”—they had immigrated from Taiwan after fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution, then made their home in Dayton.  “My favorite meal was always Fridays at 5:00 p.m. with my brother, parents, Ye Ye and Nai Nai (my grandparents).”  Asia, according to Tsai, “still has the best food in the world.  Chinese (cuisine), of course, being the best!”

Squash: It’s Not What’s for Dinner

Tsai became a squash player while at Yale, where he took up the game and was named All-Ivy League player in 1986.  It was during his senior year when Tsai walked into the squash office and spotted a girl who captured his attention.  She turned out to be Polly Talbott—the younger sister of his Yale squash coach, David Talbott and squash legend Mark Talbott, former World Number One Hardball Squash Player.  The Talbott family is also from Dayton, but the Tsais and Talbotts had never connected there.  Polly was studying nursing and Chinese at the University of Colorado at Boulder at the time.  Impressed, Tsai determined that he was going to marry her.  It took about a decade before the two, both born a day apart in the year of the dragon, married in 1996.  Tsai claims it was “through her stomach” that he sealed the deal.

Squash also played an important part in his life when, after college graduation, he worked in Paris.  Because he had no working papers, he couldn’t be paid.  So, he supported himself in France by entering professional squash tournaments on the weekends, where he became a regular.  Training in the mornings and playing in French pro-tournaments on the weekends, he ended up as a Top Ten player in France.  According to Tsai, he was grateful that the French were better at cooking squash than playing it.

To this day, the game continues to be a sport he enjoys.  He is also active in the Boston SquashBusters program that teaches and mentors the game to urban youth.

Roses Are Red, Restaurants Are Blue

As a result of being fired twice as a restaurant chef, “It eventually led my wife to say, ‘You can’t keep becoming chef of other people and getting fired because of your ego and their ego’.”  Motivated by the desire to be a chef under his own control, to create the best food possible, he faced the reality of his situation.  Tsai raised a quarter of a million dollars from 10 investors, and in 1998 opened his first restaurant: Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Tsai focused on fusion cuisine: combining elements of contemporary European and Asian techniques and ingredients.  The upscale menu included finger lickin’ appetizers: Five-spice duck sausage pizza; Foie gras and morel shu mai, and inventive entreés: Saké-miso marinated sablefish with wasabi oil, soy-lime syrup and vegetarian soba noodle sushi; and Garlic-black pepper lobster with lemongrass fried rice and pea tendril salad with tamari-ginger vinaigrette.  Leap years ahead of ubiquitous chow mein, foo young and neon-red sweet-and-sours, Tsai’s creations inspired awe with a healthy dose of shock to its predecessors at the wok.

It was the “best thing I ever did.  Blue Ginger put me on the map,” he said.  “I was young, I had a good business plan with a solid, smart cash flow built into it.”  The year it opened, Tsai was named Chef of the Year by Esquire Magazine; Blue Ginger was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as Best New Restaurant. And the Zagat Review crowed: “Celeb chef Ming Tsai helms this fabulous Wellesley classic, turning out beautifully presented upscale Asian fusion from an open kitchen with Zen-like serenity.”  It ended with, “Don’t forget to bring a full wallet for the ‘high-end’ experience.”  In 2009 Tsai received an Ivy Award from trade publication Restaurants and Institutions, for consistent achievement in meeting the highest standards for food, hospitality and service.  Blue Ginger was inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame in 2012.

In 2013, Blue Dragon, a small plate, casual tapas-style gastropub opened in Boston’s seaport district. “Blue Dragon was an awesome, fantastic opportunity, a really good smart business deal for me,” stated Tsai.  “I and my business partner, a commercial realtor, knew it would be an incredible business opportunity because it’s in a great up-and-coming area—GE just moved into their new world headquarters a block away and Amazon was moving next door.”

Blue Dragon combined Pan-Asian and New England influences in its offerings that continued to deliver Tsai’s mesmerizing, mouth-watering creations on its haute cuisine pub menu: Soy pickled deviled egg with taro nest; Tamarind-glazed lamb lollipops with glass noodle salad; Banh mi baguette with roast pork, mortadella, spicy aïoli and house pâté.

Blue became a defining feature in the names of his restaurants.  “Blue is my favorite color,” Tsai enthused, “It’s the color of Andover and Yale, and it also denotes water—and seafood, which is my favorite thing to not only cook but also eat.”

In April 2017, Tsai announced that he was closing Blue Ginger, after 19 years. “Ending this chapter of my life is incredibly bittersweet,” he said.  “I closed because I wanted to; I wanted to end on top, not because we had to close.

What’s the Future?

The newest Ming Tsai restaurant will open between January and March, 2018.  Said Tsai, “I needed to clear my plate for ChowStirs.”  The name combines his college nickname, “Chow” (his favorite adjective and noun) and ‘stir-fry’ (you can’t cook Chinese meals without it).  A quick-serve place in downtown Boston, it emulates the trending focus on fast-casual dining.  ChowStirs will allow diners to customize their selections with fresh, healthy ingredients.  Cooked in a wok in front of customers, the dishes will run between $11–$15.  Plans also include expansion of the brand to become a national chain.

FoodyDirect, is yet another new venture in eating.  Already in operation, Tsai will ship a mail order selection of his signature dishes (e.g., assorted gastronomic potstickers and Pekingducken), and gourmet “iconic food items across the nation from the greatest restaurant, bakers, butchers, pitmasters, ice cream artisans and more”, joining the growing surge of online meal-ordering services, like Grubhub and UberEATS—but with an epicurean twist.  “It’s a way,” he says, “to discover the best foods from restaurants across the country without having to travel.”

Owning and running restaurants isn’t easy.  Over 50% of restaurants fail within the first three years.  One reason for the success of his restaurant enterprises, according to Tsai, is his focus on customer service. Character is a key quality he seeks when hiring.  “I can train how to wok-stir, I can train how to break down salmon.  I cannot train character.  Either you have good character and you were raised well, and you have balance in your life and you care … or you don’t.”

To date, his restaurants will all be located in Boston.  Stated the energetic Tsai, “I love Boston.  It’s a great city because it’s small enough, but still has a great Chinatown where I can get all the high quality Asian ingredients inexpensively.  You have incredibly intelligent young people with all the universities there and all the companies that are downtown.  It has all of the great things a big city has without most of the big city problems.”

An added benefit: the Tsais make their home in the small (12 square miles wide) town of Natick, a part of the greater Boston area—population of just over 32,000 (82% White; 8.3% Asian).  Asked how his bi-racial sons stay connected to their Asian heritage, Tsai replied, “Both the boys are learning to speak Chinese, which is great; except now my wife and I lost our “code.”   Now, when we want to say something (without them knowing), they remind us that they can speak Chinese.”

Lights, Cameras: Chǎo!

In 1997, the year before Blue Ginger opened, Tsai began his television career as a week-long fill-in for vacationing chef Sara Moulton. Tsai credits television for much of his achievements and for “putting him on the map,” creating a prominence that has led to successful businesses, cookbook and endorsement opportunities, and entrance to a broad network of world-wide connections.

At the opening of Blue Ginger, the Food Network’s Dining Around show featured Tsai’s restaurant.  The film crew included a scout for the cable channel who identified the six-foot tall chef, whom Moulton has described as ‘handsome with an appealing manner’, as a marketable addition to their TV lineup.  While Martin Yan, of the PBS Yan Can Cook series, televised traditional Chinese cooking shows, Tsai’s innovative Asian approach offered a fresh, innovative take on the genre.

Tsai was promptly hired to star in his own show.  During training to become a TV chef he was urged to “seduce the camera by imagining someone sexy.”  Tsai taped a snapshot of his mixed-breed puppy Jasmine to the camera, which he revealed helped him to relax and smile.

From 1998 to 2003, he became the Emmy Award winning host of Food Network’s East Meets West with Ming Tsai.  It was followed with an adventure-on-location show (Ming’s Quest) where he traveled across the globe cooking with chefs abroad.  He continues today to host and produce Create TV’s PBS cooking show, Simply Ming, now in its 15th season, where his sometime guests include his mother and father, who join him in cooking family favorites while sharing fond memories and personal anecdotes.

In 2009, Simply Ming received two Emmy Award Nominations for Outstanding Culinary Program and Outstanding Lifestyle/Culinary Host; the show also received two Bronze Telly Awards.

In 2014, Tsai was a subject on the PBS ancestry series, Finding Your Roots, created by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The program investigates the origins of well-known, interesting individuals using a team of genealogists and geneticists to locate and confirm descendants as far back as possible.  When Gates revealed on air that they had traced Tsai’s roots back more than 2,000 years, and that he was a descendent of Huang Di, the first emperor of China, Tsai was taken by surprise.

While the family had kept a genealogy dating back to 891 AD, its accuracy had not been ascertained.  At the family home town in Hunan, outside of Changsha, China, Gates’ investigators uncovered a stone tablet (stele) carved with the Tsai Ying (Tsai’s 36th great grandfather) family genealogy.  It not only confirmed the family history back to 891 AD, but far beyond.  Most astonishing was information uncovered in a Shanghai genealogical records library that stretched back to Ming’s 116th great grandfather: Yellow Emperor, Huang Di.  DNA testing established the authenticity of his family roots.  “(The revelation) was a shock,” Ming stated on air.  “I actually cried because I was so proud to be a Tsai,” he said.  During the interview, Gates queried as they surveyed his lengthy genealogical chart together, “Looking at all of your many ancestors, what questions come to mind?”  Tsai quickly replied, “I wonder what they ate?”

“It was a very big honor to understand that we are descendants of Huang Di,” said Tsai. “My parents were completely surprised, they had no idea.  I took my father, who was 87 years old, and an uncle, who was 90, back to the village where 80% of the villagers are Tsai.  It was amazing.”

As a toddler, Tsai’s son David was allergic to seven of the eight most common food allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish); an EpiPen saved his life after an accidental encounter with milk.  Eating out for the family was often difficult, since little was being done to accommodate allergy-prone diners.  Tsai determined to bring about change: he made it his mission to promote allergy awareness.  He developed the Food Allergy Reference Book, a pioneering system that creates safeguards to help food-allergic people dine safely.  For years, he worked with the Massachusetts Legislature to help write groundbreaking food safety legislation that required local restaurants to comply with specific food allergy awareness guidelines.  He has been a national spokesman for the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) and the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) organization, which recognized him with a lifetime achievement award for his advocacy work.

Tsai moves well beyond his role as enterprising chef, restauranteur and family man.  He is and has been indefatigably committed and engaged in other philanthropic, community support activities.

Tsai has been President of the National Advisory Board of Family Reach, where he helped raise $6 million dollars in the past 7 years.  A nonprofit, its mission is to provide financial relief and support to families fighting cancer.  A portion of proceeds from his new restaurant ChowStirs will be donated in support of the program.

After the Boston Marathon Bombings, Tsai helped spearhead a fundraising event to raise a million dollars for bombing victims.  Boston Bites Back featured a one-hundred star-studded lineup of chefs who served five thousand Bostonians paying to eat, drink and demonstrate Boston’s unrelenting spirit, to “bite back” against the terrorist attack.

Tsai is also a member of several other Boston-based charitable and public spirited organizations.  Along with Squashbusters, he is involved in the Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Round Table, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the Cam Neely Cancer Care Foundation.

In addition to these hefty endeavors, Tsai is the author of five cookbooks, a prolific designer and product developer producing Kyocera Advanced Ceramic cutting tools, cookware, kitchen tools and works closely with Wan Ja Shan assorted Asian sauces.

Jiàn (健康): To Your Health

Tsai is passionate about healthful eating. “If you eat the right groups of food you can always stay healthy for the rest of your life – no cancer, no diabetes, no obesity, no nothing.”  He has created recipes that promote health and wellness via tasty foods.  A seasoned traveler, he shared: “I take a lot of probiotics (a gluten-free supplement that supports good bacteria in the digestive system) so that I can eat all the street food that’s authentic to the region and not worry about getting sick.”

“I believe in feng shui, karma, energy and chi, absolutely.  Feng shui masters have always looked at my spaces and homes because energy is real.”  Blue Ginger was designed by Tsai in conjunction with a feng shui Master.  “We had an energy doctor that basically cured my son of all his allergies, soy, dairy, nuts, etc.”

“I wear jade for good luck.  I touch it when flying—during takeoff and landing—because that’s when most crashes happen (according to my father who is a mechanical engineer).  If I’m travelling with family or friends they’ll hold my hand to be connected to the jade.”

THE MING TSAI WRAP

One might conclude, with his good fortune and ability to overcome adversities, that Tsai and his family have lived a charmed and privileged life.  And one would be right.  But it would be wrong to ignore the generational long-term discipline, planning, perseverance and effort it took to achieve and maintain it.

Tsai’s wow-za life—grounded on the trifecta values of filial piety, concern for others, and respect for the proper way of doing things — is a remarkable Confucian morality play that would project well on the big or small screen: a G-Rated (maybe PG?) wide-screen, cinematic adventure tale.  His wife Polly might have perceived this early on: “My wife laughs.  She says I’ve never met someone except you who had a perfect childhood.  I slightly disagree, but I had amazing parents, I knew all four of my grandparents, I always had food on the table.  We weren’t rich, all our money went to food and travel.  My kids are doing great.  They are kind, care about the environment, other people, etc.  Our family saying was, ‘Good things happen to good people.’”

“I think I’m self-driven. Giving back drives me, making people happy drives me, and making myself happy drives me. You can’t make people around you (your family, friends and work people) happy if you aren’t happy yourself.  Take care of yourself: being healthy makes me happy, eating well, exercise—it all matters.

“It is my mission to leave the world a better place.  I want to make a difference in this world; it’s not just financial.  When people ask me what I want to be remembered for, I certainly want to be remembered more as a chef than a TV host.  I want people to remember me as someone who was a great father, husband, a great son, great grandson.

“I was a chef first and I will always be a chef first.  I was, am and will always be a food lover.

“Peace and Good Eating.”

Editor’s note (9/12/17 at 1:54 p.m.): This article has been edited from a previous version.

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