Ming Tsai's parents were like many recent immigrants. They nursed high hopes that their youngest son would achieve professional success in his adopted homeland.
They gave him every advantage they could, sending him to Philips Andover, the exclusive Massachusetts boarding school, and then to Yale. Ming appeared set to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Chinese rocket scientist whose job with the U.S. government had taken him from Beijing to California and finally to Dayton, Ohio, where Ming grew up.
But something happened on the way to the science lab: Ming stopped to check out the kitchen. His mother was founder of Dayton's prize Chinese restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen.
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"I was 13, 14 years old, and that became my summertime job," said Ming. "And that was significant because it really hooked me into the business, because it was so simple. I realized if you make good food at a decent price, you can make people happy through food. And I thought, wow that's pretty cool, I might want to pursue this."
Pursue it he did. Ming took cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris on a college summer break. He earned a master's degree from the hotel school at Cornell University and worked as sous chef at Silk at the Mandarin Hotel in San Francisco.
Then, in 1998, he started the restaurant that would make his name: Blue Ginger, in Wellesley, Mass.
Based on the excellence of its innovative East-West cuisine, Blue Ginger was named "Best New Restaurant" by Boston Magazine and was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as "Best New Restaurant 1998." Esquire magazine named Ming "Chef of the Year 1998." The Beard Foundation crowned Ming "2002 Best Chef Northeast" and, since 2002, the Zagat Restaurant Guide has rated Blue Ginger the "Second Most Popular Boston Restaurant." In 2009, Ming and Blue Ginger won IFMA's Silver Plate Award in the Independent Restaurant category recognizing overall excellence in the country.
But long before any of it was possible, Ming had to break the news to his parents that he would not, after all, be pursuing a career in engineering.
"I sat my parents down and I said, 'Mom, Dad, look, thank you so much for sending me to Andover and Yale, I know it cost X amount of money' -- because it was a huge amount of money -- 'I want to be a cook,'" said Ming. "'I want to be a chef.'
"My parents ... they are doing everything possible to educate me to not become a blue-collar worker but to become a white-collar worker. So I'm doing everything just backwards.
"And my mom ... just big hugs and kisses: 'Son, I love you, follow your dream, your passion, just promise me you are going to give it 110 percent. Go for it!'
"Dad, I looked at Dad, and dad goes, 'Son, you weren't going to be a very good engineer anyway. Go cook!
"And I'm like, wow. But if you think about it, it's so right. If you're not passionate and in love with what you are doing, there is no way you are going to excel at it. And they knew, they knew that this was something that I was probably going to do decent at and nothing, nothing makes Chinese parents happier than eating for free at Blue Ginger, I can tell you that. So they're very happy how it worked out."
Ming's approach to professional cooking grew out of tastes and smells encountered in his early years, he said.