It’s the Real Ming*
After years spent cooking for suburbanites, one of Boston’s most iconic celebrity chefs is coming to town.
“I was the most nervous about Blue Ginger when I heard Julia Child was coming,” says Ming Tsai. It’s an August afternoon 14 years later, on what would have been Child’s 100th birthday. “I’m cooking my heart out,” he says, recalling Child’s visit to his new restaurant in Wellesley that was fast garnering early raves. “Foie gras shumai… and she loved it. She shakes every cook’s hand, like they do in France, then sits down.
“All of a sudden, I hear, ‘Julia wants to speak to you.’ My heart sinks. ‘Ming!’ she says. ‘You don’t have one woman line cook!’”
It simply isn’t easy being Ming.
A bundle of contradictions, Tsai refers to himself as Chinese, although he’s homegrown American, born in California, raised in Ohio, schooled in New England, the third generation in his family to go to Yale. He hates the term “fusion” cuisine, of which he’s the culinary avatar. His menus feature pairings like New Zealand rack of lamb with taro corncakes and adobo cream, or black-garlic lobster with lemongrass fried rice.
“Fusion is a forced event, like atoms,” says Tsai, the son of a rocket scientist. “You can put anything in a blender, but if you don’t understand your ingredients, it’s con-fusion cuisine.”
He loves squash and golf—arguably the fastest and the slowest sports. While tall, dark and handsome, he looks just like he does on TV, except slightly heftier in person, contradicting the conventional wisdom that the camera adds 10 pounds on anyone. A devotee of Chinese herbal medicine, he swears “energy doctors” can cure anything, like they did with his son’s dreadful allergies. “Except when I have a headache from drinking. Then it’s Advil.”
A smart-ass Ivy Leaguer, Tsai is a cutup. He could’ve done comedy. But he says he’d be awful. “As a chef, I’m a good comic.”
Hosting a demo-dinner for 48 people who’ve paid $198 each to watch him, he works the crowd with corny jokes. Adding black garlic to his dish, he quips, “Where do I find it? The black-garlic market!” Badda boom.
Is the patter pro forma? “Rehearsed? No,” he says, flatly, then with a wink and a nod, “but, look, I’ve done this before.” Two nights later was a demo for auto-czar Ernie Boch Jr. and his posse. “I’ve always been very sarcastic,” Tsai says. “I try to make fun of people as much as I can.” Not exactly Zen-like.
“My blood is 100 percent Chinese,” says Tsai. “My heritage, my way of thinking, my philosophy is East. Respect your elders, education, family, food.” East Meets West, both the title of Tsai’s first cooking show and his cuisine concept, is a blending, he says. He mixes Eastern and Western renditions around one key ingredient, showcasing the conceit that opposites attract. He uses intensely flavored sauces, rubs and added ingredients to alter the character of, say, bean sprouts in a stir fry, a summer roll or a salad with warm shiitakes, Chinese chives and ham vinaigrette. The idea may espouse simplicity, but it’s not simple.
His show Simply Ming focuses on melding Asian-Western cuisine with cutting-edge techniques, exotic ingredients and famous guest chefs. Next week, he’s filming a segment in the Azores. With all his emphasis on oneness, Tsai is a composite of all the places he’s lived, the people he’s admired and the food he’s experienced. The synthesis is, of course, complex.
At a time when food shows are cheap vaudeville, Tsai is something of an atavism. A one-man melting pot—or, perhaps better, a Le Creuset—he was in the manner of Mandarin cooking born, then schooled in Japanese and French culinary arts. He mingles feng shui with haute dude, pioneered classy TV cheffing in comfy suburban style, wrote books, traveled, got famous, became a household name.
“He’s the Yo-Yo Ma of food,” says a fan and friend of both.
By now, Tsai is comfortably settled in his 10-year-old Simply Ming PBS slot, stationed by the 1950s blue-haired rocker reunions. He won an Emmy for East Meets West on the Food Network (1998-2003), slapped down Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, published four cookbooks. A multimedia package titled Simply Ming in Your Kitchen appears next month. But he eschewed the trend to open outposts in his name. “I could’ve gone Vegas,” he says. “I’m one of the only ones who still has one restaurant. I stay here because of the quality of the product and the quality of life.”
“A restaurant can’t have a 14-year successful run in the suburbs without the focus, drive and confidence of a Ming,” says Jeremy Sewall, chef/co-owner of Boston’s Eastern Standard, the Hawthorne, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Lineage in Brookline. “I go to Blue Ginger regularly, and I see him there all the time. He’s a very focused guy. And funny.”
Sewall chuckles. “Definitely more West than East.”
At 48, Tsai is forgoing mise en place to shake up his pleasant, but arguably dull, empire. After all, Sandra Lee cooks “East meets West” these days. Tsai’s new restaurant, Blue Dragon, is scheduled to open by January in Boston’s thrumming Seaport District. The idea is a relatively small (75 seat) “Asian gastropub.”
“That’s so Ming,” says friend of 20 years chef Ken Oringer, who owns six restaurants in Boston and Maine. “Classically trained in three cuisines, he wants to try something different.” A year younger than Tsai, Oringer was chef de cuisine at Silks in San Francisco in 1992 when Tsai arrived as a sous chef. “He’s an amazing guy. He loves food; his parents love food. He knows how to make great food. And he’s constantly trying to get better and better.”
Tsai tells how his father, Stephen, now 83 and a professor emeritus at Stanford, was the chief scientist at Wright-Patterson, one of the country’s largest air force bases, near Dayton, Ohio. He’s a world expert in, of all things, composites (like graphite). Ming’s grandfather had traveled from Hunan Province to Yale to get a degree in economics in 1917, then sent his son there 30 years later, where he met Ming’s mother, Iris. Her parents taught Chinese at the school.
When Tsai and his brother were young, their father would “save money on trips by going to these rinky dink hotels,” recalls Tsai, “but spend quadruple on dinner.” Iris, now 80, often appears on Simply Ming and operated a Chinese restaurant where, as a boy, Ming helped out.
By his father’s design, the future chef went to Phillips Academy in Andover, where he was a star squash player. Ditto Yale, where he met the coach’s sister, Polly Talbott, a WASP from, coincidentally, Dayton, who was studying Chinese at Colorado University. “She didn’t want anything to do with this cocky squash player,” he recalls. “But I slowly whittled at it.” They married in 1995 and have two boys, David (Jai-Lung), 12, and Henry (Jia-Ming), 10. “My kids,” says Tsai, “are 50-50 East and West.”
Always the complex (and compound), Ming parlayed preppy charm and athletic ability to acceptance to Yale despite lackluster grades. But there he digressed. After spending summers living and cooking with a French family while studying at the Alliance Française and Le Cordon Bleu, he turned away from his father’s engineering path. “There were three rules of life in my family: You can be anything, as long as it’s a doctor, lawyer or engineer. You can get any grades, as long as they’re straight As. You can marry anyone. We prefer Chinese.”
He laughs. “I’m 0-for-3.”
Still, the man’s got a mechanical engineering degree from Yale (although he says, “I wouldn’t want to fly in a plane I built”), a master’s from Cornell University’s prestigious hotel-management school, is fluent in three languages (English, French and Mandarin), has the Cordon Bleu stamp and trained under master chef Kobayashi in Osaka, Japan.
When he told his parents he wanted to be a chef, he says his mother hugged him and urged, “Go follow your dream.” His father noted, “You weren’t going to be much of an engineer anyway. Go cook.” So in 1998, Tsai opened Blue Ginger in Wellesley, a town he and his wife pinpointed as a desirable demographic. The Tsais, however, live in next-door Natick. “We couldn’t afford Wellesley,” he says.
By that fall, Esquire magazine had named Tsai the best new chef of the year.
Many other awards followed, with attendant public appearances, a loving profile in The New Yorker and TV shows (a third, Ming’s Quest, aired in 2000-01 on the Food Network) winning him a worldwide following. He’s a member of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation’s Culinary Council, a panel of 33 industry experts who advise the culinary equivalent of the Olympics. These days, he’s also a gadabout. In mid-August, for example, he and Polly sampled gastropubs in Dublin. “That’s total Ming,” chuckles Oringer. “You’ve got the French and Chinese thing down, so learn about pubs in Ireland. Believe me, there’s nothing simple about a guy who’d study and study to be an engineer, then wonder whether he should open a restaurant or be a professional squash player.”
From Dublin, Ming hopped to L.A. for its food and wine festival and red-eyed to Boston. Starting Monday, the week included two demo-dinners at Blue Ginger; picking up the kids from summer camp; golf; confab with Mayor Menino; photo op with the giant sea turtle at the New England Aquarium (that Tsai jokes that he put on a diet); and, lo, some actual restaurant work.
As befits Complexly Ming, the poster boy for celeb-chef good behavior is friends with Mr. Nasty, Anthony Bourdain (“so cynical, but a genius”). Yet Tsai still bristles when he recalls getting bested by Marc Forgione and Marco Canora in the 2010 The Next Iron Chef competition. “Forgione oversalted the halibut,” Tsai pronounces. “They were looking for someone to replace (Mario) Batali. Think they wanted an Italian guy from New York?”
And the man likes to have fun. The flamboyant Duff Goldman (Ace of Cakes) will be a guest on an early episode of Simply this season. “It’s hilarious,” says Tsai. Putting on his modesty chapeau, he says regarding his Emmy win in 1998 for East Meets West, beating Martha Stewart, Bob Vila and Julia Child in the process, “It was great just to be nominated. Maybe they needed to fill the Asian quota.”
Tsai slipped from the local public’s quicksilver consciousness during the ’00s while quietly becoming an international household name. During that time, his pal, developer Sean Gildea, had bought this great building, home of the former A Street Deli, in the booming Seaport District. It took a year and a half, says Tsai, to come up with a simple, contrarian concept. “The Remys, the Legals, the 14,000-foot Empire—they’re monsters,” says Tsai. “And I didn’t want to be dependent on good weather.”
It was an attractive business model. A gastropub of approachable size and price, open in the heart of boomtown for lunch, takeout, cocktails, dinner and late-night (“industry people could be a quarter of our business if we get our 2 am license”). And it’ll bring Ming Tsai cuisine to Boston. He couldn’t pass it up.
Like Blue Ginger, Blue Dragon’s name was mostly Polly Tsai’s whimsy. “‘Blue is my favorite color, ginger is the best spice, this is the year of the dragon,’” he recounts of his wife’s thought process. “The key to a restaurant name is: Can you pronounce it? Can you spell it? If not, f*** it, it’s over.”
When it opens in the year of the snake, Blue Dragon will serve dishes like “our version of fish ’n’ chips, hacked Peking duck, our oysters with sauce like wasabi mignonette, Indonesian curry shepherd’s pie.”
Just nobody mention fusion.
Grooming: Maryelle O’Rourke/Team Artist Representative