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A first-generation Chinese American but third-generation Yalie, Ming Tsai created his own East-West cuisine for Blue Ginger, his restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “No one in the country can match Mr. Tsai’s virtuosity in this idiom,” the New York Times said in 1999. Tsai has published two cookbooks, Simply Ming and Blue Ginger, and has three& cooking shows on television, Simply Ming on PBS and East meets West and Ming’s Quest on Food Network.
Y: How did a mechanical engineering major end up as a celebrity chef?
T: My dad, Stephen [’52BE, ’61DEng], was a chief scientist and aeronautical engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, so it was pretty natural for me to lean in that direction. But my family also owned a restaurant in Dayton. I grew up eating great Chinese food, watching my parents cook all the time, my grandparents cook all the time, and I worked in the restaurant. In the Chinese culture, when you see someone on the street, your first question is not “How are you doing?”; your first question is “Have you eaten yet?” It was just inherent in my blood that food is life.
And then, during Yale, I started going to France in the summers. After sophomore year I went to Le Cordon Bleu, the chef’s school. That’s when I came to the conclusions that, one, the French can really cook—because up to that point it was all Chinese food for me—and, two, I could blend the two types of cuisines and come up with my own cuisine with some unique flavors.
Y: Do you ever use that engineering degree?
T: Oh, absolutely. I recently dived into developing kitchen equipment, and my engineering background definitely was helpful. I mean, I can speak the language. And the whole major really is all about solving problems.
Y: Tell me about your cuisine.
T: In its simplest form, East-West cuisine is the blending and combination of Eastern and Western techniques and ingredients that produce a food that is bold in flavor—which is by far the most important thing. If it doesn’t taste good, start over.
Y: Do you have any signature cooking methods?
T: Every culture has a dry rub that you can put on fish, meat, chicken, or whatever when you grill, saute, or roast. I love using tea for smoking foods, so I came up with five different tea spice rubs that taste great. My favorite one is Lapsang souchong, a black tea from China with a very intense, very smoky flavor. I matched this with chipotle powder—a smoked jalapeno—and other hybrid chilies. When anything rubbed with this combination hits the pan, it starts to smoke, gets nice and crunchy, and has lots of flavor.
Y: Are there other chefs doing East-West?
T: It’s all East-West. They are all using ginger and lemongrass and Kaffir lime and soybean paste. They are all using these Asian ingredients and Western techniques. They don’t call it East-West, though.
Y: What food appeals to you personally?
T: I love contrasting textures and temperatures. Perhaps the world’s most perfect food is the hot fudge sundae. You have creamy, cold ice cream. You have hot, gooey fudge sauce on top. You have crunchy nuts. You have a textural cherry. It’s a perfect bite of food.
Y: But it’s not as healthy as the Asian cuisines.
T: In Asia, they actually don’t eat a lot of raw vegetables, because everything needs to be cooked. In this country, we eat a lot of raw vegetables, and that’s incredibly healthy. So I would never say one cuisine is healthier than the other. Now, if you are going to super-size it all the time, well, that’s probably not as healthy.
Y: You give a lot of advice on your show. Where does that come from?
T: For me, it’s just natural to talk about things that are good for you, because I’m very much in favor of living longer. Soybeans and maitake mushrooms and seafood, and eating less fat, and doing exercise. I read all the new research, because it’s my business: I do food. If it’s still tasty, and better for you, then power on!
Y: And what about your philosophy of balancing work and family—opening your restaurant in a suburb instead of Boston, having your studio right down the street from your house?
T: Wellesley is a charming community with lots of educated people who love good food and wine, and the moment I walked in the door of what would become Blue Ginger, I thought, “Definitely yes.” We had a feng shui expert check it out and our design worked. But this was also about quality of life for my wife Polly and me. Success to us is not money—success is family time and being around to see your kids grow up.
Y: Yet you also have your own television show and help to produce it, which must be a time commitment and a challenge.
T: I try to surround myself with the best people in the business. Fortunately I learned something at Yale, which is that there are other people who do things better than you, and that’s okay. Don’t be threatened by that. And make sure they are on your side.
Y: Don’t chefs have a reputation for big egos?
T: There’s a big difference between being arrogant and cocky and being confident. Everyone has the image of the French chef throwing knives and pans at his cooks. For the record, I’ve never thrown a pan. I’m too Chinese. I don’t want to break the pan.
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