Platelist: Blue Ginger's Star Chef Ming Tsai

Star chef dishes about early influences, evolution of his trademark cuisine.

November 12, 2009, 1:32 PM

Nov. 18, 2009 — -- 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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For Ming Tsai's favorite recipes, click HERE.

"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.

'Follow Your Dream'

"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.

"Chinatown was when we had the other three Chinese families over for dinner, our house was Chinatown," Ming said of his Ohio years. "So, fortunately, my mom opened up the Mandarin Kitchen when I was young.

"My brother and I were the only two Chinese in our school. ... But Ohio, back then, doors were unlocked, doors were open, it was really just a wonderful place to grow up. As I always say, it's a great place to come from."

He described his mother's influence on how he saw food.

"[Mandarin Kitchen] was really my mom's restaurant," said Ming. "She taught cooking classes locally, and all of her friends said, 'You've got to open a restaurant, Iris, your food is so good.' ... It really, for me, was pivotal because not only was it a place that I could make really decent money because my parents paid me decently, but it's also where I learned everything. It's where you learn to be a janitor or rice maker or dishwasher."

It was in his mother's character, he said, to play hostess.

"I distinctly remember crossing the Canadian border with you know, 50 pink boxes of dim sum," he said. "And the customs guys are like, 'What's back there?' You know, this is way before al Qaeda and everything, but still, 'What's back there?' It's the whole station wagon! 'Oh, it's roasted pork buns' ... 'Oh, we don't believe you' ... so they open it up.

"My mom, who is the most ebullient person, goes, 'Please, have some!' She starts feeding the border patrol roasted pork buns. I'm like 'Mom, come on, that's ours, don't feed them all.'

"But that's what we did."

'Why I'm a Chef'

Of all the tastes he encountered as a child, one in particular stood out.

"My first word actually was Chinese, which was 'nu-ni,' I don't remember that, but that's what I have been told," said Ming. "And 'nu-ni' means milk, so as a baby, 'nu-ni,' 'nu-ni,' and yeah ... I always say this.

"Always was, still am, and will always be hungry, which is why I'm a chef.

"First food memory, that's a tough one. I think it was in Taiwan. I use to go to Taipai often. My grandparents fled to Taipai during the revolution. And [we ate] this fried, fried dough called 'yoo-ti-ow.' It's a breakfast item, it's a fried dough wrapped in a baked sesame dough and you dip it in soy milk. And I remember as a kid I used to dip it, I'd leave it too long and it would get all soft and gooey and always all over my face."

It was the influence of the French, he said, that pointed his way to the mixed cuisine he would pioneer at Blue Ginger.

"Look, I'm born Chinese," Ming said. "First generation. Parents were born in Beijing. I had a couple of rules growing up. 'Son, be anything you want, as long it is a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.' Right. 'Get any grades you want, as long as they are straight As. Marry anyone you want, if they are Asian, that would be even better.'

"I'm 0-for-3, not even close. And so you could imagine, so I got to high school, and now I'm at Yale, I'm studying engineering, mechanical engineering because that's what I always wanted to be, a rocket scientist like Dad or, you know, a test pilot or something in that realm. ... But then I started going to Paris in the summers. ... And then I started doing apprenticeships. Then that one summer between junior and senior year I went to Cordon Bleu and I'm like damn, the French can cook too. Because up until that point it was all about Chinese, Chinese.

"And I immediately thought why can't I take French and Chinese cuisine and blend them. I actually called it 'Frenese cuisine,' French Chinese to begin with.

"I did what was called advanced cuisine in pastry, it was only a three-month program. That fascinated me because once I saw, because the Chinese, we don't have pastry. We have the glutinous rice and that's about it. So once you see a creamaunt glaze, and a meringue, and a puff pastry and all that, you're like, 'Oh my God,' and you start thinking, this is a whole realm of food and a technique I've never learned."

With no clear idea of what direction to take his cooking career after his master's degree, Ming tried a few different jobs, in Atlanta, Chicago and Santa Fe, N.M. Then he landed in San Francisco.

"I needed to cook again," Ming said. "I was just missing breaking down fish and chopping garlic. So I ended up as sous chef at Silk at the Mandarin Hotel in San Francisco -- again, a wonderful hotel company, a great name, a great man named Ken Hom was consulting chef, which is why I took the job, because he was really the father of East-West cuisine. Not really known that well in this country but in England and in France he is very well known. He is one of the first to do sundried tomato chicken spring rolls and take foie gras or make peeking duck and Westernize it. He kind of took me under his wing."

Ming credited Hom with helping him to conceive of the cuisine that would become his signature.

"He was like look, stick to this style of food. This is not a trendy food. This food is here to stay, the world is becoming smaller, people really getting into Asian technique and ingredients, and it's not just Chinese. There's the lemon grass and the lime leaf and the fish sauce and everything from southwest Asia and everything from Korea, from Japan, and so this was perfect for me."

'This Food Is Here to Stay'

"I also ended up getting a three month stint in Japan from my friend Hassa Tannagaki -- who, incidentally as it happens, owns 3,000 restaurants in Japan, which really helped, but I went with one mission. How do you make sushi rice?" said Ming.

"Because everything else, I mean breaking fish down you can basically do it in any cuisine. But the sushi rice is the key, that's the paramount of Japanese cuisine or sushi, and literally for three months, I just watched, watched, made, made...."

"As a side note we went to this cult Japanese restaurant that was pig only -- but everything pig, so large intestine, small intestine, stomach, kidney, then it got delicious. Then it got to pork heart sashimi. Raw. Brain sashimi. Raw. And the only way and the only place in the world to eat pig brain sashimi would be Japan because they are so cleaned and disciplined, the way they raise their pigs, the curubotto pork, I would never do it in this country or any other country because it's just not worth it. I mean, and it's not swine flu, it's just raw pork brain. It was delicious.

"It tasted kind of like, it looked like sweetbread, you know, it looked like brain would look like in a movie, you know, that pink color, very soft, melted in your mouth, it was delicious.

"Yeah, like raw, like seared raw foie gras. Exactly. And I think I'm smarter because I got a little extra pig brain in me now. So it's good. Everyone needs some pig brain, I'm telling you."

For all his mother's influence on his work, Ming credits his father with teaching him the basics of long days and unwavering commitment.

"It's definitely more parents, it's probably even more father than mother," Ming said. "Mom was great but Dad was the really disciplined man. I've never seen someone work so hard. I mean, he, this is my Dad. He's a chief scientist. He's writing his first book. He somehow convinces the U.S. government to give him a sabbatical to go to Paris. This is an engineering book. But he is like, look, it helped Hemingway write his first book book, it's going to give me my inspiration. So he gets to Paris for a year to write his first engineering book."

Now one of the biggest challenges in his career, said Ming, is to define the scope of his operation.

"We have been here at Blue Ginger for 11 years," he said. "This is my only restaurant still. I've been tempted, I'm tempted every other day to go to New York or Beijing. We almost did Blue Ginger Beijing for the Olympics and Australia and California, whatever. I think it's a combination of the deals have just been not right enough for me to pull myself away from here, it would, it just needs to be the right deal.

"But at the end of the day it's just about quality of life. And I think that's where my parents and grandparents instilled, you have to enjoy the ride because you don't work, work, work, and then at 65 retire and start enjoying life. You blew it. You've got to enjoy today.

"At 45 I'm enjoying today -- and tomorrow and, obviously, once you have children," Ming said. "You have children to have children and to be with children and it's, I wouldn't trade, I wouldn't trade this for anything.

"It's a great balance, I would never go to sleep hungry, ever, but I also get to create and make people happy every day. Which is really a blessing."

For Ming Tsai's favorite recipes, click HERE.

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