Full Exclusive interview with Ming Tsai
Foodies followed Ming Tsai when he moved from Food Network to PBS, where he riffs to KLCS about a plethora of topics, like “Simply Ming,” his viewers’ favorite guest (hint: she gave birth to him), putting his Yale mechanical engineering degree to use, and why people should put the phone down when enjoying precious moments in life.
In the current season we’re watching, you travel to places like the Rhine, what’s the show theme for each season?
We’re in Season 17, we’re one of the longest running cooking shows on TV today, which I’m very proud of. The theme has pretty much stayed consistent over the years, which is, and one of the reasons I left Food Network was because I really want to teach, a true cooking show that people hopefully will look at and of course be entertainment, but to really learn and hopefully try the dishes. For the most part, we try to keep it eight ingredients or less, sometimes Ken Oringer will bring 15 but he’s one of the best chefs in the country, but Daniel, he came on and he did it in seven ingredients. Home cooks don’t want a 15 ingredient dish on a Tuesday. A lot of the dishes are one-pot meals. More often than not, the majority of dishes, we’re making live and one-pot meals. Most people at home would rather clean up one pot. If it’s a pain in the butt to cook something, they’re probably not going to cook it. We tape live to tape. We keep it as live as possible because if they watch something like, “Wow, I could do that?” Then they’re going to do it and that’s the ultimate goal. We want people to continue coming to our restaurants, but we really do want people to get in there and cook. We always say, “You’re welcome to follow the chef’s recipes,” but you’re really starting to cook like a chef when you take one of my recipes and then you start adding your own culture to it, you had cilantro and chilies because you love cooking Latino food, or you add garam masala because you’re Indian. Once you start adding your own things that you love, you’re really cooking. You’re basically a chef. If you get paid for it, you truly are a chef. That’s all a chef means, a chef’s not a great cook, a chef is a cook that gets paid. (laughs) The theme is never predetermined where we’re going to go, we tend not to repeat similar countries within a couple years. I haven’t been to Asia in a couple years, so I see us going back. This year usually if it’s international, then the following year it’s usually domestic. Currently scheduled is California and Portland, Oregon. I’m here to help other chefs, I love showing off other chefs on the show. But it’s great to see these chefs out of their element, which is a commercial kitchen into a home kitchen, because I really do tell all guests, “Cook like you’re cooking in home.” Which is the reason I think people watch, because they’re, “Oh, I can do that.” Which is also why we start with a cocktail, or a glass of wine, because that’s how we cook at home, that’s part of the joy of cooking, isn’t it?
Do you have a favorite dish in this current season or on the show?
My two children are my two best dishes. I’ve done over 1,000 shows, but one dish in current memory that I just was so humbled, I did a king crab stir-fry dish. Beautiful fresh king crab, it had crispy rice cakes and lemongrass and it was delicious and I do this dish, the guest chef following that show, I do three shows a day, was Jacques Pepin. He caught the very end of the show and after the show wrapped, he starts eating the king crab and he could not stop eating it. To have someone of Jacques Pepin’s stature, say, “This is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had.” That made my career. I was just with Jacques in New York for his foundation. There was about 20 of us chefs. We’d all do anything for his foundation. I’ve always done anything Jacques’s asked for. I’ve been to his place in Connecticut, I love that whole family, and at the end of a Yale club event for four hours, Jacques’ bowtie is untied, and Claudine says, “Papa, donne moi.” He hands Claudine his bowtie to give to me. “He wants you to have this.” I’m like, “You’re kidding me.” “Do you know how to tie it?” “No, but I’m going to frickin’ learn how to tie it, (laughs) now that I have a Jacques Pepin bowtie.” And everyone has up and downs and we always help each other out, that’s what chefs do. That’s another great thing about being a chef. I know if I have whatever needs, I can always call one of my chef buds. Another chef will jump in for me and I will do the same for them. And it’s such a small world.
What made you want to cook on TV and teach people to cook Asian inspired dishes on TV? What got me in TV was luck. I never as a kid or when I was cooking at 14 and 15, said “I want to be Julia Child or Frugal Gourmet.” I watched them all, but not once did I say, “I want to do that on TV.” In late ’95, early ‘96, Food Network came to Santa Fe, I was an executive chef at a restaurant there and they asked if I wanted to do “Dining Around.” This was my first exec chef job; I just did my first James Beard dinner, so now I’m getting on the PR train, especially back then, I knew being on TV wouldn’t hurt. So I agreed to do “Dining Around,” which was a great show, they’d travel the country, do three chefs from a region. It turns out this was their talent search show. Back then, they didn’t have enough chefs that were decent on TV. We were all pretty bad in the beginning, because we’re chefs and not used to looking at the camera. I’m kind of a smart ass, I am very confident and I like to have fun, and say sarcastic stuff because life’s too short, especially if it’s a bad situation, make light of it. The first thing I ever said on TV and I’ll remember it to my grave, I looked right into camera, “Hey I’m Ming Tsai, I was born Chinese, I am still Chinese and today I’m cooking lamb.” It was the right thing to say because the producer there was like, “You know what? This guy has it.” He was like, “He has presence, let’s bring him back.” So I got brought back for “Ready, Set, Cook.” It was this five part series against another chef, Susur Lee, who’s still one of my best chef buddies, was against me and we did five shows. He won the first two, I’m like, “Oh, this isn’t going well.” I won the third one, we split the fourth one, there’s never been a tie before and I won the last one. It was awesome, because neither of us wanted to lose face, but we both wanted to win. I knew that was an opportunity. I had fun with the audience, I would throw tomatoes out there and engage them, just to have fun and that’s probably going to be good entertainment. They asked me back to do “Cooking Live” and I became the inside Asian expert, they’d always call me in. I’d always go on my own dime, I’m realizing this could be a great augmentation to my career as a chef. The same producer said, “I think you have what we need. We need to get you media trained. There’s a guy in western Mass. and then we can then do your own show.” That happened after I took over Sara (Mouton)’s show for one week. People remembered me and the boards lit up, there were emails and that sparked the executives’ interest. At moment there was only Martin Yan for anything Asian, there’s still not a lot of Asians on TV. It did cost thousands of dollars for a two-day seminar, he taught me the tricks of the trade.” He’s trained us all. The old adage, “Make love to the camera” it’s that. You’re talking to one person in a dark room, that’s the only person you’re talking to. And that’s how I started “East Meets West.” Ironically, we did 80 shows, five shows a day over two weeks. We did that twice a year and I did that for five years. The first show I did, not only did my producer say, “You need a tag line to end the show.”, right before taping, I had to think while I was cooking through my first show, to think of a tagline, and of course my producer says, “By the way, Julia Child has ‘bon appetite’ taken.” It was a turkey shumai show. At the very end, I’m at my table with my glass of wine, and I looked at camera, “Peace and good eating.” Out of nowhere and that became my mantra. What was so funny and ironic, was, that first show, unbeknownst to me, they submitted to the Emmys. Then that show won the Food Network’s first Emmy, so that catapulted me to the next level, which was so fun.
So far everyone’s had a Julia Child story, especially for those in Boston, do you?
I have so many. The first one was the first time I met her. It was at her house. She was shooting “Julia and Jacques,” it was also the first time I met Jacques Pepin, so it was a momentous day for me. I was not on TV at the time and I was interested in seeing how a TV show was done. This was six months before I opened Blue Ginger. I knew I was opening my restaurant, I had no idea if it was going to be a success or not, so I was up and coming, for sure.
So we show up to her house, it was fascinating it was four cameras, a real kitchen in Cambridge. It was a sandwich show. Julia had an ice cream sandwich and Jacques had a baguette with pieces of dark chocolate in between the bread. Julia was like (doing her voice), “When I was an itsy bitsy girl, I loved ice cream sandwiches,” she’d take a bite, and then Jacques, “When I was in the south of France,” and he would take a bite. They would say cut, and they’d come and grab Jacques’ sandwich, they tried to grab Julia’s sandwich, and she would eat the whole thing. I saw her eat three ice cream sandwiches in three takes. I’m like, “Oh my God, she’s my hero” because then we went out to Jody Adams’ restaurant and had an eight course meal after that, where I saw her just devour the entire ramekin of butter, I’m like, “Julia, you are my hero.” Fast forward, I now opened Blue Ginger in ‘98, three months into, that she makes the reservation. I was a freakin’ nervous wreck. It’s Julia Child for God sakes. She finally sits down. I’m cooking the best possible meal I could cook, I didn’t care about anyone else in the restaurant (laughs), I was all over that table. We started with tuna two ways, I had an upside down martini glass, on top of it was a tuna caviar parfait that was raw, below it you couldn’t see, I did a hot tuna poke with crispy rice, but it was all fogged up in the glass. I kept serving her dishes, the foie gras shumai, it epitomizes East West cuisine for me. The waiter comes over and says, “Chef, Julia wants to speak with you.” I changed my apron, and thinking to myself, “What’s she going to say?” I think she wants to see me to talk about the shumai dish. “Yes, Julia?” I have an open itchen at Blue Ginger. She goes, “Chef, you don’t have one woman line cook!” I was like, “Oh God,” like just stabbing myself in the chest with a sword. And she was right. I didn’t. Back then and still now, not enough women cook. Back in the day, it was one percent and I was just crushed, because I’m thinking she’s enjoying the meal and we’re going to talk about the meal. The good news is at the end she had a lovely meal and she took pictures with the whole crew and the one thing I love, and I love I do this, is at the end of the meal, she walked to the line and she personally shook the hand and thanked everyone that she could shake their hands with, to thank them for the great meal. I’m like, “Wow, she doesn’t have to do that.” She thanked everyone. There’s a life lesson right there, and I do the same thing now. The French taught me in a French kitchen, when you work in a kitchen, you say, “Bon jour” to everyone, you shake their hands and you say, “Au revoir” and you shake their hands, that’s customary. It’s a great tradition I continue.
For a few years now, the penthouse is the new set. Was there any reason behind leaving the old set?
The previous kitchen I had at Clark was a beautiful, gorgeous two counter kitchen, with all this equipment, but not like someone’s normal home. I wanted to make it more edgy. You only needed two cameras to make an edgy cooking show. We had four cameras, it costs a fortune too. Stylistically, I wanted more hand held and more casual, so by doing it in this penthouse, it’s not a gargantuan, huge professional kitchen. I have a five burner stove now, so I don’t have an advantage to anyone else that’s watching the show. It was stylistic, I wanted to make it a little bit more edgy, more camera moves in and out, and we also at the same time started pushing this even more simple than before, because back in the day I had great chefs on and they were great and they would do amazing stuff, molecular gastronomy, incredibly entertaining, but no one’s doing that at home. It was more stylistic, keep it edgier and keep it more casual, because you don’t want to be formal with food. It’s just food at the end of the day.
My favorite episodes are always with your parents, are there plans for more with them each season? Do people ask you about that?
Every single person has always said their favorite show, they simply would say “Mom.” And dad’s awesome obviously. But mom makes fun of me, mom says, “Those dumplings don’t look very good.” (laughs) And she’s right, they don’t look as good as hers. I think people love seeing me getting dissed by my mom and we have a good time with it. I love my parents, I owe my whole career to them, they taught me how to cook and more importantly, taught me how to enjoy food. This year we didn’t, mom just couldn’t. She doesn’t like to travel that much, she just bounces between Palo Alto and Honolulu and she couldn’t get to the studio this time. But my plan is: this coming season, that’s one of the reasons we chose California. They will be in Palo Alto when we go shoot and hopefully get in at least one show. Having said that, I’m going to probably bring my two boys who are 16 and 18 on a show. They are good cooks, my son loves friend rice and my other son loves to bake. They’re funny, smart-assy kids, my fault unfortunately. Thank God they’re a little more sensitive than me, they have my wife’s DNA, so I think that will be a fun show. I think it’s great for people to see a 16 and 18 year-old can actually cook too.
Another favorite episode is with your celeb chef friends and probably the one you did with Todd English and you guys made pizza on the grill, since you can tell you guys are real friends, it made me want to see a show with the two of you on.
We’ve been around the world together and 98 percent of all my guests are all my friends. Daniel Boulud is one of my best friends, these are all great friends, Michael Schlow’s been the most frequent guest. And all the chefs are friends for the most part, life’s too short. We help each other. If someone’s out of fish, they call me and I give them half of my fish. There’s a fraternity of us, we literally travel and see each other either at South Beach Food and Wine, Pebble Beach Food and Wine Fest, a lot of us are part of Bocuse d’Or, I’m very proud of being part of the advisory team that is coaching Team USA.
I have a couple other great causes, one is food allergies. My son used to be allergic to soy, wheat, dairy, shellfish, peanuts, eggs. He’s been cured. Eastern and Western medicine can cure food allergies. He’s been to China twice now and you do not go to China with a peanut allergy. My other huge cause, you can make a difference through food. There was a Forbes article 15 years ago, the food industry gives back more proportionally than any industry in the world. Wall Street gives more dollars to charity, but there’s no group of people that give more time percentage-wise than chefs, because we have an opportunity. Any fundraiser involves a dinner, they all need food. I am a proud board director and president of the advisor board called Family Reach. I have raised over $7 million for Family Reach through my Cooking Live events. My next one is at the Ritz Carlton, Boston, May 13. Familyreach.org, we financially help families that have cancer. The number one cause of personal bankruptcy today is cancer. You could be living in Wellesley and you’ve made it, but then your kid gets cancer. A lot of people don’t have one and two million in their bank account and the poor end up broke. One thing I try to teach my sous chefs and cooks, is I take them on my charity things I do. You have to make sure part of your mission is stuff like this, you have to give back. One of the proudest thing I’ve ever done in Boston, was the day of our marathon bombing, so Ken Oringer my best chef friend, he came over to Blue Dragon and we looked at we each other, “What are we doing?” I said, “We’ve got to go big or go home.” We both know the owners of the Red Sox, I said, “I’m going to call them and get a date that we can take over Fenway when there’s not a game. We’ll invite 100 chefs to cook and charge $500 per person.” We pulled it off, we raised a million bucks. It was exactly 31 days after the bombing, we got this thing together. That was one of the proudest moments of my chef career. All of us chefs were so proud. Everyone brought their own food, everyone said, “I’m in.” My wife’s, a genius came up with the name “Boston Fights Back.” That’s the power of food, and that’s why it’s so great to be a chef, because you can always give back.
KLCS has an afternoon block on Saturdays devoted to these shows, it’s such a guilty pleasure in this noisy world. Do you get a lot of similar viewer feedback in terms of these shows now for people?
I get feedback, which I’m so humbled by, that “It’s my escape. When I watch your shows, all the troubles of the world just fall aside.” That is just so humbling for me to hear that. I also love the comment, “I tried the dish.” When someone says, “I tried cooking that, but I added cardamom to it,” and those I always respond to, “You’re really cooking now. I’m flattered that you’re using my recipe as a base, but by adding your own personality, you’re cooking.” And that’s the goal of a cooking show, isn’t it? I want people to cook.
What’s the most popular question you get?
(laughs) I get often, “Can I come on your show?” “Are you a chef?” would be my response. The most popular comment is, “I love your mom and dad.” And also, “You should give your mom your show.” When I first did “East Meets West,” I had my parents on the show, and people loved her. So I called her, “Mom, the ratings are great. The execs even called me. They loved having you on.” I said, jokingly, “They want to give you your own show.” She said, “Son, don’t worry, I’ll have you on a guest.” (laughs) She’s turning 88. My dad turns 90 this year and he still works full time. He’s a genius rocket scientist. He has a new patent, a new way of making a fuselage, he’s got NASA and Airbus doing testing now, it could literally revolutionize how fuselages, which is every airplane and every missile, are built from now on. It’s ridiculous, and he’s 90. And he still makes a good chow mein.
You can tell that you enjoy your job. Do ever just pinch yourself you get to do this for a living and follow in those footsteps, educating people, cooking on TV?
I have two beautiful children and a fantastic wife. Almost every one of my Tweets, I always end with #AttitudeorGratitude. I meditate, right now there’s an awesome Deepak Chopra, Oprah 21-day meditation about grace through gratitude. I’ve been so grateful. My parents were awesome so me. My wife makes fun of me. I literally have never had anything bad happen to me. You hear about horrible abuse that kids have, or [some] racist thing. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, no one made fun of my brother and I. We were smart, but we were good athletes, we weren’t really different. I know how blessed I am, my parents paid for my college. That’s not commonplace. I didn’t have this pressure of a debt over my head when I graduated from college. I know what an advantage that is, so I could go do anything. That gave me the freedom to be what I wanted. And I wanted to be a chef. I was cooking in my mom’s restaurant since I was 14. I was janitor, rice cooker, dishwasher, egg roll boy. I would take the egg roll cart to the middle of the square every lunch. I had a blast with it. Once I got to Yale, I studied engineering, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. But once I started cooking, I started going to Paris every summer, I came back from Cordon Bleu junior year, I mastered French freshman year. Once I learned how the French cook from Cordon Blue, “Damn, the French can cook too! I want to start blending.” In my opinion, the two best cuisines in the world are French and Chinese. I came back from Cordon Blue that summer, I sat my parents down, “I’m going to finish my degree and I know how important it is to get a bachelor’s in engineering and then I want to move to Paris and I want to be a chef.” My mom stood up and gave me the biggest hug and said, “You are so lucky son, at such a young age you already know your passion. Just promise you give 110 percent.” My dad is much more pensive, he goes, “Son, you weren’t going to be a great engineer anyway, go cook!” (laughs) He was right, I didn’t have a passion for it. If you don’t have a passion for it, you’re never going to be great at it. Fast forward, I’ve been on HSN for the last five years, I’m now designing kitchen equipment, so I’m using all my thermodynamics and all my centrifugal force training. So, I get to use my mechanical engineering degree, which gives me a leg up at HSN, how many times they say that in every show, “Mechanical engineer major from Yale turned chef.” So I thank my dad for forcing me to become an engineer, that really helps me solidify my place in designing kitchen equipment. It’s so cool. So I do pinch myself. I get to make people happy through food. That’s a great job.
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to dine or food shop at?
K-town’s always awesome. I’ve yet to get to Ricardo Zarate’s new place, his Peruvian food. I love Charcoal and AOC, Suzanne (Goin) can do now wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever been to L.A. and not had one meal at Matsuhisa, Nobu’s original restaurant is perfect Japanes food, and his hot food is like, “Wow.” The cool thing about Matsuhisa, if you’ve been there, the host is on the left and coat hangers to the right, a dead-end hallway, but there’s shoji screen and a private eight-seat sushi bar, and if you call in advance, that is where Nobu, if he’s in town, that’s where he’ll cook. I’ve had a couple meals cooked by him and that’s just incredibly special. He catapulted Japanese cuisine to the level of what’s going on in this country today. And just to show that if you just make pristine, delicious food, you don’t have to be on TV. Matsuhisa is hands down, fantastic. Newport Seafood in San Gabriel, splurge on the live king crab, it will change your life!
Is you anything you add that we haven’t asked you?
If you ever want to re-watch shows, go to Ming.com. As soon as the show airs, that show is then shown on Ming.com. I want people to have access to all the recipes. You don’t have to write the recipes down as you’re watching the show. I think you should watch the show, because you want to see the techniques. It doesn’t matter if it’s a half a cup or a cup of chicken, you’ll get that later. There’s a great article I read this morning about taking pictures with your iPhone. It’s about how your brain works, you actually will remember the most special moments if you don’t take a picture of it. You’ll remember the moment better if you see it and enjoy it. Don’t be looking through a camera, watch it in real life. That’s an amazing concept that I’ve never thought of. You figure, “I’m going to remember it forever, it’s on the phone.” No, you’re going to remember it if you see it, not use the technology. I don’t know how that works out if you still want the photo too (laughs). It’s so apropos for this day and age, that we do have a real problem because everyone, media in general, there is a this false sense that everyone is beautiful and happy in this world now. That’s so far from the truth, but if you follow people’s Instagram and Twitter, everyone’s happy, everyone looks perfect, and everyone’s smiling in sunny places. That’s not reality, and what it does do, is it makes everyone that’s not in that place, feel even worse about themselves. There is a huge chasm, a huge delta between the reality and non-reality now because of the instantaneousness of social media.