Simply Ming: An interview with Ming Tsai

“You know, that guy has a restaurant in Boston,” my dad would announce whenever he saw Ming Tsai on Food Network. East meets West was always one of his favorite programs. Invariably, every time it came on television, he’d spout off the same fact of geographic proximity to our home.

Of course, he was off at that time by about 15 miles (Blue Ginger is actually in Wellesley). But, little did dad know that he was a seer of future things, as Ming is indeed making his way to Boston. While no official date is set, Ming will be opening Blue Dragon in the Fort Point neighborhood. I for one can’t wait to see what the new place will bring!

I was lucky enough to snag a little of Chef Ming’s time. I wanted to find out a bit about Ming’s start in the business, his thoughts on the impact of television on the culinary world, and also an inside look at a personal food memory that he holds dear.

Ming Tsai – Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Foodie Journal: When did you discover that food was something you were passionate about?
Ming Tsai:
From Day 1. Eating well was always important to my parents.  I grew up cooking with my mother at home and in her restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen, in Dayton, Ohio.  The fact that I had a big appetite also helped.  Really, what’s not to love about a stir fry permeated by the flavors and aromas of ginger, garlic and scallions?

FJ: How did you get your start in the industry?
MT: I started working at my mom’s restaurant in high school.  As a junior in college studying mechanical engineering, I decided to pursue my love for the culinary arts so went to Paris that summer to attend Le Cordon Bleu.  By then I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer.  After graduating from Yale, I traveled to gain more experience cooking abroad in Paris and Osaka.

I always dreamt of owning my own restaurant.  Before putting my own reputation on the line, I needed to learn firsthand what opening a business entailed.  Witnessing the mistakes other people made taught me about some of the common pit falls and how to avoid them.

FJ: I’m native to the area, having lived a little north of Boston my entire life. I know you went to Phillips in Andover so you’ve been around this area for a while, but what is it about the northeast that really made you want to open a restaurant here?
MT: I knew some chefs who had opened restaurants in the Boston area.  They were doing quite well.  Through some research, I discovered that the residents of Wellesley and neighboring communities were well-traveled.  This was very encouraging because people who travel appreciate good food and wine.

FJ: Restaurants aside, you’ve had success in the television world with your culinary programs. I think it’s notable that in recent years there really has been this boom of food “entertainment” television. How do you feel that impacts both restaurants and diners? Does it really change anything?
MT: In general, the more people watch culinary programs, the more they talk about food, chefs and restaurants.  The industry has definitely benefitted from this.  Business is up but so are diners’ expectations.  Especially now that social media dovetails with television programming, restaurants can’t let their guard down.

FJ: Now, it’s obviously difficult to not talk about The Food Network when you talk about food on TV. To me there seems to be a little bit of a divide amongst people in the industry. There are interviews and articles written by some who look at The Food Network in a negative light, while others really see some of the great things the Network does. Do you think there is a divide? If so, why do you think it exists?
MT: I owe a lot of my success to The Food Network because my first show on the network, East Meets West with Ming Tsai,  helped put me on the culinary map and exposed people beyond the Boston area to my cuisine.  It also helped Emeril, Bobby, Mario and others build the foundation for their careers.  Television does not make running a restaurant any easier.  You still have to produce great food and provide exemplary value and service.  Some people come in with a chip on their shoulder because they think you are THE expert and expect the best meal of their life.  To which I reply, “I hope you eat at McDonald’s a lot.”

I feel that PBS is the best station for cooking shows, which is one of the reasons I left The Food Network.  I feel blessed to have a great team working with me on Simply MingWe are celebrating our 10th anniversary this year.  My co-executive producers and senior culinary producers have been with me the entire decade.

FJ: It’s pretty clear that lovers of food have great memories from there past dealing with food, usually something that maybe even led to them deciding to go in to the industry. Do you have a particular food memory that really stands out that speaks to you as a food lover?
MT: Yes, I will never forget the evening I ate the signature truffle dish at Les Crayeres in Reims, France.  Chef Boyer served his signature golf ball-size truffle wrapped in foie gras mousse and baked in puff pastry.  $100 a plate. (This was the ’80s so that was pretty big money back then.) It was amazing.  I never knew food could be so good.  I was with my wife (girlfriend at the time), Polly.  It was so rich she could only  finish a third of hers.  You can’t let something like that go to waste so I ended up eating 1.67 balls of love.  It was so good that I had to excuse myself from the table to have a moment alone.  On my way to the bathroom, I saw the chef.  I really wanted to thank him but wasn’t sure I should bother him.  And his staff treated me like an accomplished chef when I was actually still low man on the totem pole.  Distracted by sight of the chef and all the ornate marble and cherry woodwork around me, I walked right into a full-length mirror.  Boyer rushed over to see if I was OK.  What do you do in a situation like that?  I bust out laughing.  When I returned to the table, Polly asked what just happened.  At first she didn’t believe me but then took a picture of the grease spot my forehead left on the mirror.  I never got that kitchen visit I was hoping for but did learn an important lesson: “Always remain humble and never walk into mirrors.”  As we left the restaurant, the maitre ‘d told me, “That happens all the time.”

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