Apparently, the most famous chefs in America—the ones from Food Network’s first wave, who became global culinary brands—give each other shit just like the rest of us.
“Batali and Flay are always telling me, ‘You blew it!’, for not building a restaurant empire,” said Ming Tsai, who only recently expanded to two restaurants after more than 15 years at his flagship, Blue Ginger, outside of Boston. “But I don’t need toys, and I just tell them I’m going skiing with my family in a week.”
The definition of empire is relative here, because Tsai-branded or -endorsed products are as readily available at Target as Batali’s and Flay’s, but he is a different sort of figure in the food scene.
Tsai has a mechanical-engineering degree from Yale and a master’s degree in hospitality from Cornell, and his father was the chief scientist behind the supersonic B-1 Bomber. He played on the professional squash circuit in Europe and speaks four languages. He helped create the pioneering system of restaurant-industry safeguards and legislation that protect people with food allergies, and raised millions of dollars to help low-income families access cancer care. In 2003, he decamped Food Network for public television, where his stripped-down show, Simply Ming, has been running ever since.
“That’s just Ming Tsai,” said Ken Oringer, a James Beard Award-winning Boston chef, of his close friend. “He’s grounded in a way that is pretty rare for chefs, let alone humans.”
Some of the other details of Tsai’s background are a bit more down the line for chefs, however. There were the weekly dinners at his grandparents’ Dayton, Ohio house, where his grandmother made the noodles and his grandfather ran the dumpling assembly line (and the mah jongg racket). At his mother’s Chinese restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen, family division of labor often left Tsai in the role of dumpling-cart boy.
“In the early days at Food Network, we all felt like we were doing true cooking shows. It’s morphed into reality television now, which I have nothing against, but I’m at WGBH because I still get to teach.”
“On driving trips, it wasn’t unusual for my dad to take us hundreds of miles out of the way to do things like pick up a truckload of dim sum in Toronto’s Chinatown,” say Tsai.
Not surprisingly, Tsai barreled head-on into a culinary career. He trained under legendary pastry chef Pierre Hermé in Paris, and then apprenticed with sushi master Kobayashi in Osaka. He worked his way through front and back of the house positions around the U.S. before opening Blue Ginger in 1998 at the age of 33. Boston Globe awarded him three stars in his first year, and he later captured a James Beard Award.
But Tsai’s chance opportunity to fill in as guest host on Sara Moulton’s first-generation Food Network show, Cooking Live, in 1998 ultimately shifted his course. He soon had his own Emmy-winning show, East Meets West. Television has since been a platform for Tsai to build a lucrative brand, but it has also served as an outlet for his professorial alter ego, which he leverages to help expand America’s appetite for Asian food.
“In the early days at Food Network, we all felt like we were doing true cooking shows,” he said. “It’s morphed into reality television now, which I have nothing against, but I’m at WGBH because I still get to teach.”
Simply Ming’s travel and cooking segments covering the vastness of Asian cuisine have turned Tsai into a spirit guide for the slurpy hordes seeking out obscure regional delicacies, which are popping up more and more in restaurants across the country. But he has also become the godfather of East-meets-West fusion cuisine. In an episode set in Los Angeles, he and Animal chef Jon Shook use Thai fish sauce and chilies to twist up Mexican tostadas with hamachi.
“Ming’s influence on America’s view of Asian food is unparalleled,” said Flay, his longtime friend. “His approach is just so authentic and genuine.”
From an impromptu fried-rice meal, to braised pork butt with his grandfather, here are the 10 dishes that shaped Ming Tsai’s career.
This is the first dish I ever made by myself. I’ll never forget it—I was ten-years-old, home alone, and a couple, whom I called auntie and uncle, showed up at the door. In my family you never greeted someone with “how are you?”; it was always “chr le ma?” which means “have you eaten?” Every opportunity is an opportunity to eat, and food was seen as the centerpiece of all gatherings. I decided to make them fried rice (since we always had left over rice in the fridge), but it was my first time preparing it by myself. Because I sharpened cleavers with my grandfather, I basically knew how to use a knife. So, I went through the steps: chopped garlic, ginger, and scallions, fried the eggs, added the rice, applied the soy sauce. Honestly, it was a 6/10. Too much soy sauce and too much oil, but they loved it, and were amazed that someone my age could make it. That was my first epiphany about cooking—you could make people happy through food.
This dish is a combination of my love of raw fish, my training in Japan—where I learned proper sushi rice skills—and fond memories of Hawaii. Poke, which means “cut fish, salted,” is a Hawaiian staple. At the average grocery store, we would find 20-plus different styles, and it went beyond tuna: squid, snapper, and beef were common, with flavor profiles ranging from spicy, to salty, to sweet. I’d always try a variety with rice while sitting on the beach.
Foie gras shumai
This dish epitomizes East-West cuisine. To many people back then living outside of France, foie gras was seen as a luxury item out of their league, both in terms of price and taste. So I combined a classic Chinese technique of making shumai with one of the most classic French ingredients—foie gras—to make something that seemed relatable. The classic pairing of Sauternes and foie gras is highlighted with the Sauternes-shallot broth that the shumai are served in.
Sake- and miso–marinated butterfish with soba-noodle nushi
Nobu popularized sake miso with black cod, and the first time I ate it there 25 years ago, I knew I had to do my own version. By adding Chinese ginger, some spices, and a few other personal touches, I had the birth of my first, and still most popular, dish. Butterfish is the most succulent, fatty, and delicious fish, and it’s sustainable. It’s served with soba noodle sushi and wakame salad. On the plate you’ll also find soy-lime syrup, which has this great umami-sweetness, and some wasabi oil to provide some kick.
It was tradition to have noodles on your birthday and Chinese New Year to symbolize longevity and a long, prosperous life. My dad’s ordering formula at a Chinese restaurant is always one dish per person plus noodles; this ensures no one ever leaves the table hungry. His favorite is a crispy noodle cake topped with seafood or chicken. It is now one of my kids’ most favorite things to eat.
Jasmine Tea Soufflé
The reason I decided to train in France was because in Chinese cuisine, the focus isn’t really on desserts. I was fortunate enough to land a position at Fauchon where Pierre Hermé, the most talented pastry chef, was at the helm. Besides learning to make the perfect baguette, another challenge laid before us was constructing the perfect soufflé. To me, the Jasmine Tea Soufflé is another classic East-West dish that I created for one of my first V.I.P. dinners when I was sous chef at Silks at the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco. I made this for my mentor Ken Hom and truffle expert Jacques Pébeyre. (Photo: hotelraspailmontparnasse.com)
Red roast pork
I call this the Chinese foie gras. My grandfather taught me how to make this slow, four-hour braised pork butt. It is an unctuous dish; when you eat the braised fat cap, it is as luscious and delicious as foie gras. The pork butt is braised in a liquid of Shaoxing, a sherry-like wine made from rice, in addition to soy sauce, star anise, Thai bird chiles, and cinnamon sticks—it’s just full of flavor. As a kid, when it was cooked at home, we would wait impatiently for hours until it was ready to eat.
Hot water dough
My mom is the master of the hot water dough. It’s a process that requires a combination of boiling water, all-purpose flour, and a lot of muscle. This dough is most commonly used to make both potstickers and scallion pancakes. To this day, my 81-year-old mom can still outroll me when it comes to dumpling wrappers—she is faster and her dumplings are more uniform.
John Madden put the Turducken on the map. His agent, Sandy Montag, also happens to be mine, and this connection piqued my interest. I knew that I wanted to do my own version, but with a traditional Peking duck on the outside. That’s how the PekingDucken idea came about: a deboned squab, stuffed into a deboned chicken, placed into the cavity of a deboned Peking duck.
Egg rolls/spring rolls
Even though my dad was one of the foremost Aerospace engineers, my mom, my brother, and I would do catering gigs on the side for cold, hard cash (statute of limitations is eight years so I think we’re okay now). We would roll these egg rolls with my grandparents, thousands of them, off our ping-pong table in the basement. Fast forward to Blue Ginger, where we now use super crispy Menlo wrappers (thinner and more crisp than egg roll wrappers) and call them spring rolls. But the memories and recipe are still the same.