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Ming Tsai: A Chef First - The James Beard award-winning chef talks about the development of his television career, the renovations and additions to his Wellesley restaurant Blue Ginger, food allergies, and Feng Shui.

by Matt DeLucia

August 2008

    photo of: Ming Tsai

Sometimes when I view someone’s portrait I find myself attempting to interpret the exact thoughts of the subject at the moment the shutter closes its insouciant eye. A clever portrait is worth more than a mere thousand words, for upon closer inspection the expressions of sadness or hope or beauty can portray an entire story by themselves. Possessing the talent to create these stories with ease without any special effort or persuasion, with a single smile or reflective thought, is as rare as the gift of song or the art of oration. But video is even more complex, consisting of countless distinct slices of time strung together every few seconds, each one of them having the potential to display your clumsiness or rob your self-respect. You can be prince-handsome, but walk awkwardly or display an annoying tic and you may fool the photographer, but not the 60 frames a second that are moving pictures. Television people with an eye for this talent scour the globe in search of people that are easy on the eye through a movie camera, yet also possess some additional “bonus” talent: a comedian who can sing, an actor who can dance, an athlete who interviews well, or perhaps a very good chef who can cook while telling a joke on camera, the better to keep an audience interested in his soufflé.

We have seen many chefs try to be actors, and many do a damn good job at it. But most television chefs these days aren’t really chefs at all, they are entertainers first and chefs second, if at all. But unless you’re a purist, this is not a bad thing. Cooking show personalities whose talent for cooking is secondary to their worth as entertainers are still deserving of our admiration for their ability to look at a camera and be entertaining for 30 minutes – an eternity - or longer. It’s not easy, but neither is becoming a chef at the top of a genre. To become both at the same time is rare, and counting this elite group would arguably require a single hand. The chances are that before you’re done counting, Ming Tsai will have been named, and quite possibly been named first.

Back in the mid 1990’s, Nina Griscom and Alan Richman had a show called “Dining Around” where they would visit restaurants across the country and meet different chefs. Three chefs were featured each half hour. On one of the shows, they visited Sante Fe New Mexico, where Chef Ming Tsai was working at a restaurant called Santacafe.

“The first thing they said is that I had presence - I don’t know if that means I was big - but as you can tell I joke around and I’m confident about my food and what I do. When the camera turns on I don’t change and that was not always the case with everyone. Apparently I smiled more than most of the other chefs, and I’m a little bit sarcastic. Actually the first thing I ever said on TV to the camera in my life, they said you should introduce yourself and I said ‘Hey this is Ming Tsai, I was born Chinese, and I’m still Chinese,’ and then I moved on. They just thought that that was so funny that I would I say something like that.”

    photo of: Ming Tsai

The producer of Dining Around got him a gig on another show called “Chef Du Jour,” which Food Network was basically using as an audition show. The show had no audience, which Ming found somewhat challenging.

“Chef Du Jour was a five-part miniseries, just me and four cameras, no audience, dead silence. A hundred lights and a stove. Every time I cracked a joke, no one reacted, so I’d say ‘Well, okay….then you take the asparagus…’ It was just like standing naked on a pedestal and the wind is blowing, and then they say “Go!”

Ming’s next television appearances were on a Food Network show called “Ready, Set, Cook,” which was a five-episode series filmed in one day. Along with “Ready, Set, Cook,” that show helped to launch the television careers of Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and many others. Ming’s competition on that show was Toronto cooking legend Susur Lee.

“In the first show, Susur finished with four minutes left. He was just standing around, and I was sweating just trying to get my tuna out. He kicked my ass, something like 50 to 10. The producer Mel took Susur aside and said ‘Susur, you have got to either work slower or act like you’re running out of time. This just does not look good that you are doing nothing for five minutes.’ He really wanted to win. But I just knew that this was an opportunity for me to shine not only as a chef but also as a personality, so I was throwing in a couple of things at the audience and having banter and whatnot.” Ming did well, winning two out of the five episodes and tying Lee in the fifth.

    photo of: Ming Tsai

After appearing on that show and guest-hosting on Sara Moulton’s Food Network show, one of the producers asked him to fill in for Sara for a week while she was away on vacation. He suggested that Ming receive some media training before he did that, which was a costly personal expenditure for someone who was saving up to open his first restaurant. But it was implied that he might get his own show if he did well, so he was referred to Lou Ekus, a Western Massachusetts media trainer who has trained hundreds of television chef personalities. His clients include Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Rocco DeSpirito, Todd English, Charlie Palmer, Eric Ripert, Rachel Ray, Charlie Trotter, and many others.

“This sounded like so many other calls I get in the office on so many other days,” remembers Lou. “Another chef wants to do another show and be the next big celebrity chef. Only the difference here is that Ming went on to do exactly that.”

Lou taught Ming some on-the-air tricks, and how to “be sexy to the camera. I was like, ‘what the hell does that mean?’ He describes it, and it makes sense,” says Ming.

“I always get asked if it’s a learned skill or natural talent that makes a star,” Lou said. “The natural talent part is very helpful and you could certainly see that Ming had something from day one, but it’s only people who work that hard at their craft of media that go on to be as successful as Ming.”

    photo of: Ming Tsai

After guest-hosting on Sara’s “Cooking Live” show, Ming was finally approached about creating his own show, which was called “East Meets West with Ming Tsai” and started airing in September 1998. But before television stardom arrived, he had some other important business - opening his first restaurant. Blue Ginger in Wellesley Massachusetts just outside of Boston, opened in February of 1998. Why Wellesley?

“My one and only brother lived in Wellesley, and he said ‘dude, open up in Wellesley, there is nothing there, a lot of pizza and pasta, you really should look at this. I did a quick demographic search and found that within a five mile radius of this restaurant there were a quarter million-plus people who had a median income well over six digits, and an average housing price of $500.000. I don’t care if you’re rich or not, but I do care if you’re well traveled which connotes that you enjoy good food.”

Other chefs who looked at an available space on Washington Street, which was a grocery store at the time, was too big to be a restaurant. But Ming saw its potential with its 4 basement walk-in coolers, natural restaurant layout, and prime location. But there was one problem. Ming’s family had always used a Feng Shui master to check their residences or businesses, and this location had a funeral home right across the street – not exactly a positive source of chi. “A lot of people died fine and those are good spirits,” said Ming, explaining their Feng Shui challenge. “But a lot of people do not die fine. Those are evil spirits and you want to keep them away.” To counter the bad spirits, they placed a magical foo dog mask with a nasty sword in its teeth, sourced form Taipei, high atop a wall facing the funeral home. Within months of opening, the restaurant received three stars from the Boston Globe, and other awards began rolling in. Esquire’s “Chef of the Year,” Boston Magazine’s “Best New Restaurant,” and a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant were the most special, all in his first year. The foo dog mask apparently worked wonders.

Ming is proud of the original success of Blue Ginger, which occurred without the benefit of a hit television show. But beginning that fall, when “East Meets West” began to air on Food Network, he saw a huge bump in business from his newfound celebrity.

“What TV did do is it brought people here to try us for the first time,” said Ming. “That is what TV does for Mario and Emeril and all of us, but it’s only the first time. It actually sets you up for disaster because when they come in they assume I am the best of the best because I have a TV show, which is not true. There are 300 or 400 chefs who can cook me under the table. In the ‘East/West genre’ because it is a smaller pool I may rise up a little bit, but I am still not the best. Sometimes people come in and they say to my face, “this better be the best meal I’ve ever had in my life.” I say, ‘nice to meet you too.’”

    photo of: Ming Tsai

Ming was raised in Dayton Ohio to Taiwanese parents whose expectations were very clear cut. Although he began working in his parent’s Dayton restaurant called the Mandarin Kitchen as soon as he became a teen, his future was to attend Yale, where his grandfather, father, and brother had all previously graduated, and become an engineer.

“We had three rules growing up. You can get any grade you want as long as they were straight A’s, you can be anything you want as long it’s a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, and you can marry anyone you want as long as they’re Chinese. So I am zero for three.”

While Ming attended Yale he became a serious squash player, ascending to the number two man on the team and eventually being named “all-Ivy league.” Yet he modestly claims that at Yale, he did just enough to graduate. “D was for ‘diploma’ my senior year,” he explains with a smile, then recounts a story that marked a turning point from future engineer to future chef.

“I was taking a dynamics final and there was a very simple question on it, which was that you have a phonograph going at 33 RPMs in a circle and there is a stick going around in a circle and there is a disk on that stick going counterclockwise around the circle and there is a spot 2 cm from the center and the question is what is the acceleration of that spot? There were only eight of us in the class, and it was a three question test. I knew I did okay on the first two so I’m thinking, ‘D is for diploma.’ I knew I was going to pass the test and pass the course and graduate so I said, ‘I do not freaking care.’ I wrote on the test ‘I DO NOT CARE.’ I really didn’t and I still don’t care what the acceleration of that stupid spot was. It was very cocky to hand that in for a final at Yale but the professor couldn’t fail me because I got the first two questions right, so I got a C. I did pretty well overall and I graduated. That was my epiphany that I really don’t care about the acceleration of any other spot ever again in my entire life.”

Ming’s parents were a little disappointed, but certainly not surprised. Although Ming did graduate with a Mechanical Engineering degree, his parents had helped send him to Paris every summer to work in restaurants and attend Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, so they were aware of his dreams.

“My mother said ‘as long as it makes you happy, as long as you give 120%, we love you, just go for it.’” His father, a professor emeritus in Aeronautics at Stanford University, was also supportive albeit in a different way, telling him “well, you were not going to be a very good engineer anyway.” Ming also says that his parents became very proud of his restaurant ownership for slightly more cultural reasons. “They can bring all their friends and eat for free at Blue Ginger. There is nothing that makes Chinese parents happier than free food.”

Ming may have started out zero for three, but everyone lived happily every after. Just after his restaurant received the three stars from the Globe, his show won an Emmy award in 1999 in the “Outstanding Service Show Host” category, expanding his reputation well beyond the Boston area. In an interview around that time, Ming claimed that he would like to remain in charge of one restaurant only, and not expand Blue Ginger as a result of the success of his show. Over 10 years later, he has remained true to his word.

"One of my theories of life, and the jury will be out when I go to my grave if it was the right strategy, is I am all about quality of life. I have not expanded to a second, third restaurant, fourth and fifth, tenth. All my friends have at least five to 10 now. Most of them think I am stupid and crazy, saying 'you could just be printing money if you open up Vegas, Mohegan Sun, or New York.' I kept it at one restaurant and now I’m really stuck here because it’s doubled in size so I am really, really banking on Wellesley. But I am also in the restaurant; even in Boston, I cannot really get to Boston quickly but if someone says 'hey, Tom Jones is in the restaurant,' I can’t just shoot down to Boston to see Tom. So here, I can still shoot back and forth, because we live in Natick."

Traveling outside his home town is no longer necessary either now that Ming is writing and producing Simply Ming, his show that is now in its sixth year. Simply Ming began as a Food Network show but is now shown nationwide on PBS. Taping for Season Six began on May 30th, and Ming compares the time constraints necessary to put together a season of the show to writing a new cookbook every year.

"I have to raise the money and I have to write 80 recipes for the 26 shows go through them and then we write the breakdowns. Then one of my producers goes over the anecdotes for the stories. The shoot itself takes two and a half weeks, plus I go to two cities every year for four days each to shoot segments with other chefs." Last year’s guests included Jacques Torres, Donatella Arpaia, Michael Psilakis, Todd English, Hubert Keller, Ken Oringer, and an episode each for his mom and dad. This season’s guests include Tom Colicchio, Michel Richard, Alfred Portale, and golfer Annika Sorenstam among others, and will include the rule that each chef cook with one vessel and with eight ingredients or less. “Because that’s how people cook at home,” says Ming. “People do not have six pans going on to make dinner for the husband and kids - that just doesn’t happen. They want the chicken with the veggies with the starch in the oven, done in an hour.”

Staying in Wellesley with his one restaurant was in keeping with Ming’s long-term plans, but he had also wanted to expand the restaurant for quite some time, and finally the retail store next to Blue Ginger became available, allowing him to literally double the size of the restaurant. Added were three private dining rooms that can accommodate parties of 10 to 90 people, and a 50-seat lounge for walk-ins. That was important to Ming, considering how difficult it can be to get a reservation in the dining room. But also key to the expansion was a new kitchen, both in its layout and equipment.

“I did not want to make the rookie mistake to expand seating and not expand the infrastructure in the kitchen and end up with a mess. The kitchen which I designed 10 years ago was meant for a 120 seat restaurant.” Ming worked with Wolf Ranges to design what he called the “Holy Griddle,” which is a stove with nine holes bored into the top that can retain water for cooking his “Bings,” a popular item for the dining room but even more so for the new bar area. “To cook the Bings you sear one side, you flip it, you add water, then you cover it and you sauté it in a wok,” explains Ming. “If you do that on a grill, the water goes everywhere, and I didn’t have enough room in the kitchen to have nine burners to do nine Bings at once. So, by boring nine holes in a griddle, we can cook a lot of Bings quickly.” Along with the new private party space, they are now serving up to two times as many plates per night as they were when the restaurant had only the 120-seat main dining area. Besides the kitchen, Blue Ginger’s interior design was handled by David Rockwell’s group, along with Ming’s wife Polly. But they still had to bring in Natalia Kaylin, their Feng Shui consultant, to check the newly revamped space thoroughly. Before the new space could be opened for business, two “acceptable” reopening dates were allowable.

“Natalia wants to know the minute I was born, the minute Polly was born. She gave us the two days we can open which were May 8 or May 16, which was a week earlier than my general contractor said we could open. We physically did open on the 8th - our friend came in, we gave him a Bing then he gave us a dollar - so we were open for business. Then we closed the doors to finish everything.” The Rockwell Group had to design within the confines of a healthy “chi” room as well. You don’t want a front door and a back door in one line, for instance, because that connotes money in and money out. “You want the Chi to come in, meander, hang out, have a very nice time and then eventually leave,” says Ming.

The funeral home was still a problem because it was now directly in line with the new hallway that led to the new private dining rooms, but that was remedied with a new location for the foo dog mask, along with some strategically placed blinds. They also designed curving hallways to slow the Chi down, and added more metallic materials to the bar area because of the balancing mixture of elements metal, water, earth, fire.

The continued success of Ming’s restaurant, now that the expansion is complete, rests primarily with the creativity and passion of Ming, but as most successful restaurateurs will admit, the quality of your staff is critical – especially when the chef/owner is often away because of his celebrity.

“It is the people you surround yourself with that can make or break you, and here it starts with chef de cuisine Jonathan Taylor. He happens to be married to my general manager, Paula Pearson Taylor. They are a great couple. They literally are my top two. Please stay married,” Ming says with a laugh.

Retaining his key people can be challenging in a single-restaurant company. Many of his waiters have been with him almost since Blue Ginger opened, for instance, resulting in a slow but steady escalation of salaries to accompany that valuable experience.

“We peaked with the revenues we can do at Blue Ginger. Because all my key people have stayed, you have got to keep taking care of them. They are staying because they love it, but they are paying more for gas and electricity and their cost of living is going up. The only way to sustain us at a level that is comfortable is to generate more revenue with the same key people. But to expand and put chunks of money into it during a recession, you could be looked at as moronic, of course. But I was saved by a guy name Warren Buffet who says that during a recession, make sure you expand.”

As is the case with most successful chefs, Ming is passionate about many things that relate to the food world, but one of those passions had a direct connection between his family life and his career in restaurants. His eldest son David was born with life-threatening food allergies, something that the FDA estimates kills 200 people a year, along with 30,000 trips to the hospital emergency room. Anyone who has a child or knows one with severe food allergies is familiar with the fear of going out to eat and taking your chances with the safety of the restaurant’s food preparation techniques. Ming’s son, who was born with seven of the eight most common allergies but has now outgrown all but two, had a major anaphylactic reaction once, and soon after that experience Ming became a spokesman for the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. “He had milk by mistake once,” said Ming, “and we immediately had to give him the EpiPen, which is the hardest thing in the world to do to your kid.”

Years before Ming even had his own children, his restaurant instituted a system he calls the “food bible” in which every ingredient is listed in a binder that chefs update and all servers have access to, so customer concerns on the safety of certain dishes do not come down to guesswork. He is also working with state Senator Cynthia Creem to require restaurants over 50 seats to institute a similar system, so customers can ask for and receive specific ingredient information before they order. The bill passed in the state senate by a 36-3 margin last month, but a similar bill that was passed last year was voted down in the state House, mainly because of opposition from the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, who claim to be worried about legal issues.

“The system in place is not what kills people; its human negligence that kills. When they use the same tongs in the fryer that had shrimp than they fried french fries in so it’s contaminated, for instance. But with a system in place like the “food reference” as we call it now, human negligence is reduced by 90%.”

The issue is becoming eerily similar to the smoking and handicapped seating issues, which most restaurant associations fought, yet wound up being good for the industry – not to mention even better for people’s health. Anything that a restaurant can do that shows that they care about the safety of their customers is eventually good for business. If a restaurant’s food preparation procedures are obscure enough so a customer with severe food allergies becomes too much of a liability to serve, perhaps its time to take another look at their food preparation procedures. Especially when the number of afflicted people, currently 12 million, is growing so quickly. One experience Ming had illustrates the problem quite well.

“I have been discriminated against by bringing my son when he was three to a restaurant. I informed them that my son has allergies that are life threatening just to make them aware, and the manager said ‘we would rather not serve you.’ You cannot say that in America. That used to happen if you had skin of color, that used to happen if you were in a wheelchair, but now because you have food allergies you cannot be served? That is so un-American, that is not why we live in America.”

As we wrapped up the interview and Ming brought out the dishes he prepared for the food photographs, he spoke of what he enjoyed doing the most, but he really didn’t need to. “Book sales and being on TV absolutely helps sales here. But if you mess up they will tell ten people who will tell ten people who will tell ten that you messed up. I am very happy how everything worked out with that of course, but being a chef is how I’ll go to my grave, not as a TV entertainer. Although I enjoy that, I’m a chef first.

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