How much do I love Chef Ming Tsai? Just a little. The good looks? The great sense of humor? The love of all things in an Asian kitchen? I like it all. With his Simply Ming nominated for two Daytime Emmys this year (Outstanding Culinary Program and Outstanding Culinary Host) I’m obviously not the only one.
Thanks to his fabulous publicist, and the alignment of the stars, I had a chance to chat with Chef Tsai while we were both at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen this past weekend. After his very entertaining Asian Tapas demonstration on Saturday, I sat down with Ming to hear his thoughts on cooking, business, and being a celebrity chef. And then Chef Tom Colicchio showed up…
Q: Who are your culinary inspirations?
A: Certainly first and foremost, my parents, who not only taught me how to cook, they really took us around the world at an early age. My dad traveled a lot, so I went to Asia probably five times before I was ten. Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong. Europe, as well.
Besides family, a great man named Ken Hom, reputed to be the father of East-West cuisine. He was the consulting chef at Silks when I worked there as a sous chef, and he took me aside and said, “Look, keep doing East-West cuisine. This is not a trend, it’s not a fad. It’s where everyone’s going to start cooking.” Now, even with the new American and new French – it’s really East-West. They’re all using ginger, sesame oil, lemongrass.
Certainly [Joel] Robuchon. I’ve never worked with him, but I’ve eaten at his restaurants. His precision, his food – it’s mastery.
Thomas Keller – He’s amazing. He deserves every accolade and every dollar he’s ever made. He’s a perfectionist.
Susur Lee – Just a fantastic East-West chef. Born in Hong Kong, and trained in Europe.
Q: What do you feel are the big differences between being a chef and being a restaurateur?
A: The proof is in the pudding. There are a lot of fantastic chefs who go out of business in three years. But, the food and the service is so good – how could they go out of business? It’s because they’re not restaurateurs, they’re not business people. You have to be analyzing numbers – how much the linen costs, the forks, the knives, the detergent. All of it. And still make great food and have great service. That’s why it’s so hard. It’s so multi-faceted. That’s also why it’s the coolest. Even though my wall of fame says how great I was yesterday, today, I am no one. I am a brand new person with new customers trying to pull it off again. It’s showtime, guys. The business acumen is the side that some chefs don’t have and that’s why they’re not restaurateurs. You have to be both to succeed.
Q: Do industry or chef trends influence what you’re doing in your kitchen?
A: I absolutely read all the magazines, go online, watch the podcasts. I think if anything it’s the new ingredients that I’m always learning. That’s why I eat at local spots when I travel.
Q: You were really one of the original TV celebrity chefs. How do you feel about the ‘celebrity chef’ status?
A: I actually don’t like the label, because Brad Pitt isn’t a celebrity actor. Tiger Woods isn’t a celebrity golfer – he’s just a golfer. They add celebrity to separate us, I guess, but we’re not separate. Do I like celebrity-dom? I actually do, because when people stop us on the street, they want to talk about food or Riesling. They don’t want to talk about politics. It’s not War and Peace. And I can talk about food all day.
Now, is it difficult when I’m having a private dinner with my wife and someone interrupts because they want a photo or autograph? Yes.
Q: Can fans expect to find you in the kitchen at Blue Ginger?
A: Absolutely. It’s an open kitchen, and I’m certainly in the back, but I’m more of an expediter. Why? (Laughs.) Because my chefs think I’m too slow to be on the line.
But What About Eating?
Q: What’s your go-to restaurant for a great meal?
(Tom Colicchio, taking a rest in the press room, chimes in. “It’s Craft, right?!”)
A: Where? In-N-Out Burger, if I’m in LA. Pepe’s – white clam and garlic – if I’m in New Haven. New York? Gramercy Tavern, Jean-Georges, Masa, Per Se. Fantastic food. Momofuku. I haven’t ever had a bad meal at any of Mario’s places. Just like Tom’s places. [Tom and Mario] are the consummate restaurateur-chef combos that work.
Q: Do you still cook at home, even after being in the kitchen all day?
A: On my days off, absolutely. I love to cook. Especially when it’s spring or summer, and we fire up the grill and throw on a piece of fish or a lamb rack.
Q: What are your essential ingredients in the kitchen?
A: Ginger, chiles. I have fifty hot sauces. Love acid – lemons, limes, vinegars. Something sweet. And soy sauce.
Q: You helped to develop a restaurant food allergy bill that was recently signed into the Massachusetts legislature. What inspired you to become involved in food allergy awareness?
A: My son really kept my interest in food allergies going. We’ve followed the same allergy system for eleven years at Blue Ginger, and my son is nine, so we’ve always done it. But it’s so simple and such a responsibility for the restaurant owner and chef to know what’s in their food at all times. You can kill someone. It’s not giving someone a rash – you can kill someone. And there’s nothing more serious than death. If you don’t know what’s in your food, get out of the restaurant business.
*Photo credit: Anthony Tieuli for WGBH