Noted chef, TV personality and cookbook author Ming Tsai started simply enough, working at his family’s restaurant in Dayton, Ohio, called Mandarin Kitchen. From there, he racked up accolades and degrees, including a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Yale and a M.A. in Hotel Administration and Hospitality Marketing from Cornell. In 1998, he debuted Blue Ginger in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, which is where he first built his reputation for combining Eastern and Western ingredients and techniques. From that point, Tsai added “East Meets West with Ming Tsai” to the burgeoning Food Network and “Simply Ming” to public television. He also has five cookbooks in his bibliography, and is finally working on a long awaited sequel to Blue Ginger, an Asian gastropub in downtown Boston called Blue Dragon, named for a rare Chinese Astrology phenomenon that arrives every 60 years. We met Tsai at Hawaii Food & Wine, where he dazzled guests with foie gras fried rice during a multi-chef tasting and entertained alongside friend Masaharu Morimoto during a cooking demo.
Was it a given that you would become a chef for a living?
No. Hell no. It was a given that I loved food. It was a given that I was, am and will always be a food lover. You’ve got to keep in mind. I’m 48. When I’m 12 years old, it wasn’t that hip and cool and revered to be a chef. I’m Chinese, so it’s doctor/lawyer/engineer for me. Don’t get me wrong. In China, in France, all over Europe, it’s a very serious profession, but in our country, it hadn’t hit a point of, “oh, this is actually acceptable” – for lack of a better word – “profession.” Believe you me, I didn’t become a chef to be accepted. I became a chef because I love to cook. The timing, my timing, which was very random, was very lucky. Food started getting very popular because of TV. There’s no secret. PBS has been around for a long time, but Food Network, when we all started, it was Emeril, Bobby, myself and Sarah. Once “Emeril Live” hit, that was the catalyst. I say it all the time, that we all got to ride on Emeril’s train. He made food fun. He made food accessible. He explained what caviar was, and what foie gras was. People in Ohio didn’t start buying it, but at least they knew what it was. Also, he knew how to make a good grilled cheese, how to make a good mac and cheese, how to make a good meatloaf. If you don’t cook, you can make a really bad meatloaf. I’ve had them. I’ve had one that could break your tooth.
What do you think your career would have been like if you’d never been on TV?
Interesting question. I’d be doing the same thing, because I opened Blue Ginger in ’98. I was chef-owner of Blue Ginger before I was on TV, and TV just helped really put it on the map. It put me on the map, and it put Blue Ginger on the map. So anyone that was visiting Boston would drive out to Wellesley. Without TV, we certainly would not have done as well. There’s no question that books and endorsement deals, all that is because of TV. It’s hard to sell cookbooks because there are so many of them, and TV really puts you in the forefront. Once again, I was lucky that I did an Asian style of food that no one else was really doing. Martin Yan, who’s a great buddy, has been doing his style of food, but it was never modern, it was more traditional Chinese. So he certainly paved it with Julia [Child] and everyone else. I’m lucky I do the food that’s so popular. East-West, or you can call it Hawaiian-Asian. You can call it Pan Pacific. Call it whatever you want, but it’s Eastern ingredients with Western ingredients and Eastern and Western techniques.
What’s the biggest challenge for you as a chef and restaurateur?
Every business has the same challenge, you’ve got to keep your people motivated, keep them caring, keep them wanting to be there and then the economics of it is always a challenge. Raise revenue, lower costs. And that’s in any business, Fortune 500 down to restaurants. That never changes. What does change of late is people want more for less. That’s a challenge, because our costs are not going down. Our costs are going up. Other people, you can blame on the largest grocery retailer in the world – Walmart – so people can see what you can buy for 20 bucks now, when you get two apps for one, and two entrees for $19.99 at a Chili’s. That’s in their heads, so when they come into my restaurant and see one entrée is 40, they’re like, “I can feed four people for 40 bucks at Chili’s.” There’s always that struggle, but I tend not to focus on that. I tend to focus on making sure that dish is fantastic, and make sure service is spot-on, and it will be fine.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?
One thing: character. I can’t train character. I can train anything else. 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, which I mentioned earlier, or you don’t. Respect and loyalty, you don’t learn that. You can earn it. You have to have that DNA to want to have respect and be loyal.
What’s the longest you’ve ever waited to eat at a restaurant, and was it worth it?
To be honest, I can’t imagine it would be over half an hour. I’m not that patient. I’m sensible enough – this is before I was on TV – if I was going to a really good restaurant and it was packed, I would just come back at 5 p.m., when it first opened. Or I would go there for lunch. Probably half an hour. So is that worth it? Of course.
Do you have balance in your life?
I have great balance in my life. I’m enjoying every second. I have one restaurant, still. I am toying around with doing one next year, but I’ve always had one. I have two beautiful boys – 12 and 10 – a great wife. I get to do stuff like this and stuff with them. We had a great summer, traveled a bunch. I have a great team at Blue Ginger and am very blessed. They run the show. Obviously I’m not there right now. But I make time to have balance. I play golf. I do yoga. I do things that are good for me and fun for me because this is not a dress rehearsal.
Is there a person you’ve never cooked with before who you would most like to cook with?
Anywhere. Living, of course.
I would love to cook with Joel Robuchon. I’ve had his food many times but I’ve never cooked side by side. He is the definition of perfection. [Thomas] Keller ’s right there with him, and I’ve cooked with him many times before, but never with Robuchon, and it really was one of the best meals ever.