Take Five with Ming Tsai, on His Experiences on the “Next Iron Chef”

Ming Tsai (photo courtesy of the chef)

He’s only 46 years old, but Chef Ming Tsai of the 12-year-old Blue Ginger restaurant in Massachusetts was an early pioneer of modern-day cooking shows with his innovative East-meets-West flavors that are more relevant today than ever.

Indeed, he’s now doing Season 8 of his “Simply Ming’’ show on public television. And he just missed winning this season’s “Next Iron Chef’’ competition on the Food Network, coming in third.

Yesterday, I had a chance to talk to him by phone about how the landscape of food television has changed, as well as his timely new cookbook, “Simply Ming One-Pot Meals” (Kyle Books).

Q: When the lineup for ‘Next Iron Chef’ was first announced, a lot of folks were surprised to see your name. In fact, my friends thought that the Food Network should have just made you an Iron Chef, that you’d already earned it after all these years.

A: I wish your friends worked at the Food Network. (laughs) It would have saved me a lot of work and time.

Q: Why did you want to compete on the show?

A: For fun. I enjoy competition and cooking. It’s the only format out there that’s legit. I think the judges were fair, though, I didn’t always agree with what was said. But Michael Symon was spot-on for the most part.

I wasn’t out to prove to the world that I could still cook. But I was out to prove to the rest of the world that I still had game. This seemed like the perfect format. I had enough staff at the restaurant to cover for me since we were shooting for five-plus weeks. It was a huge time commitment. But it was a blast.

It was as hard as I thought it would be. You have 30 minutes to do one dish or 60 minutes to do several dishes. You just have to put your head down and go for it. The hardest challenge was the Vegas buffet. It was brutal. People were getting delirious.

I’m certainly glad I did it. I made some great friends for life. Marc Forgione and Bryan Caswell are solid guys. Those are guys I probably would have never hung with. They’re 10-15 years younger than me. I tend to hang out with Jean Georges (Vongerichten) and Daniel (Boulud) — guys like that.

Q: I heard that some of the other chefs such as Duskie Estes were calling you, ‘Uncle Ming’?

A: Some of them did say that. (Marco) Canora called me that and he’s 43! I was the oldest there. But I was not in the worst shape of any of them. I loved the fact that they were thinking about me so much for the first couple of shows that they weren’t even concentrating on their own food.

Q: Did you like the way you were portrayed, i.e. the comments about your plating being stuck in the 1980s and the scene with the messy sous vide machine?

A: That was just one judge’s comment. I didn’t agree with Jose Garces when he said that. I used the appropriate dish.

I think the editing was fine. My sous vide bag exploded. It happens. It made for good drama with Canora running around and saying that I destroyed the machine. To their credit, the Food Network put in the part where I cleaned the machine. As a chef, you always clean up after yourself, even in competition.

In the second show, I was almost eliminated. The camera showed me frowning. But that frown was from four days before. They take things and store them. Like when they need a ‘pissed-off Ming,’ then they’ll have it. I almost screwed them up a few times, though. My wife made me headbands to wear while I cooked. They were all different colors. But sometimes they couldn’t combine shots when I was wearing one headband one day and a different colored one the next.

Q: Were you happy with how you did?

A: I wanted to win, of course. Getting third place was great. I was one away from the finale. I’m proud of my food. That lardo dish?  I was proud of that. Symon thought it was sublime. Two judges didn’t love it, though. What are you going to do? Not everyone has taste. But they were all fair. It’s better to lose that way than by over-salting things like a certain chef did three times, but didn’t get eliminated and whose name I won’t mention.

Q: I think I know who that is –- as does everyone else who watched the show. (hah)

What do you think about cooking shows these days being so much about competition?

A: I much prefer the old shows like Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, and Mario Batali’s first series. So many cooking shows now are not about teaching cooking. They teach you how to open cans of stuff to make something. They’re not cooking shows, they’re sustenance shows. I’m not saying they’re bad. They have their niche.

Today it’s all about entertainment. It’s just changing with the times. I still prefer watching the old cooking shows. But I have a different motive. I’m looking for new techniques. I don’t look at it for entertainment.

Q: Will we see you on ‘Top Chef Masters’?

A: No. That was my one shot. No more. It was a good ride. If I did compete on ‘Top Chef Masters,’ I would have done it the first season. Those were my buds on that first season. But I was too busy then to do it.

Q: You graduated from Yale with a degree in engineering? Sounds very Asian. I’m guessing you never wish you had become an engineer instead?

A: As soon as I graduated, I moved to Paris and never looked back. My parents were the ones that got me into it. I had worked at my Mom’s Chinese restaurant. So, when I graduated, I knew exactly what I wanted to do –- I wanted to own my own restaurant some day.

Q: In this day and age of chefs owning empires of restaurants, why do you have only the one?

A: For quality of life. I have two kids. I get to see them. I get to travel and do the things I want to do. I don’t make as much money as those other guys; but how much money do you need?

Plus, I don’t want to hear people say that Blue Ginger used to be a great restaurant. I want to hear them say every day that Blue Ginger is a great restaurant.

Orange-ginger lamb shanks with barley from "Simply Ming One-Pot Meals.'' (Photo by Antonis Achilleos)

Q: You just came out with your third cookbook, ‘Simply Ming One-Pot Meals.’ Is this the way you typically cook at home?

A: Yes, I do a lot of the cooking at home. I go home for dinner, and then I’ll go back to the restaurant to work. My family absolutely does one-pot cooking. It’s chow mein, chicken and rice, and stir-fries. If you just start with garlic and onions, the kids will eat it.

One-pot cooking is very simple, it’s easy to cook, and it’s easy to clean up. It’s tasty, healthy food. It’s also really affordable food. With the recipes in this book, you can feed a family of four for under $20.

Q: The term ‘fusion’ has gone from trendy to pejorative. Yet you’ve been able to straddle the East-meets-West line successfully. How have you managed to do that?

A: I’ve never used the ‘fusion’ term, myself. Fusion is what you do with atoms. My food is blending. And really, nowadays, every chef does East-West. They don’t claim to do that. But they’re all using sesame oil, lemon grass and soy sauce.

You need to respect tradition and you need to respect how you use an Asian product. You need to learn the techniques and how it’s used traditionally. You need to learn all that first to do it justice.

Q: You’ve become a spokesperson for food allergy issues. Why is this cause so important to you?

A: There are two reasons. There are so many food allergies out there. You need to know what’s in your food and to accommodate your customers. Second, my first son was born with severe allergies to peanuts and seafood. So, I know how difficult it can be to live with allergies like that.

Q: So, what’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

A: Hmm. I do ballet. (laughs) No, I don’t. I do yoga, but that’s not that interesting.

Hmm. I guess I would say that I’m much more sarcastic in person than what comes out on TV.

Tomorrow: A Festive Chicken and Rice Dish from Ming Tsai

More: My Q&A with “Next Iron Chef” Competitor Duskie Estes

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  • Great interview! I love the idea of one pot cooking. Now if only I can learn to cook like I bake!

  • I was surprised to see he didn’t make it to the finals of “Next Iron Chef America” but I do have to say I’m a fan of Chef Forgione. I like how Chef Tsai just focuses on the one restaurant, and I’m sure he’s making some nice side money from his PBS show, cookbooks, and branded products. 😉 Having seen him talk in public, I can attest that he is one sarcastic guy (and pretty funny).

  • His comment, “What are you going to do? Not everyone has taste.” cracked me up. Great interview. I always liked him.

  • Fantastic interview! He’s a fantastic chef and it sounds like he’s a real family man too. Love it.

  • Great article, and I think a lot of people thought he cooked well enough for the finale. Being half Asian his style of cooking and show are very popular in our household. It was nice to know that he is such a good family man. It’s true that you don’t need to open 10+ restaurants to be successful.

    Go Ming!

  • An interesting interview!..



  • Great interview, really enjoyed reading this on my lunch break! Having watched Ming Tsai cook when I was just a kid I was really excited to see him on the show and was pulling for him to win the whole time. His show was actually one of the reasons I wanted to start cooking as a hobby and I still today credit his show for opening up my eyes to Asian style cooking and food. Sad he didn’t win the competition but it sounds like he has a great life and is a very blessed man.

  • stuart blankenship

    Ming is one of the very few Chefs that i my self have ever had the want to work for.When I 1st started in the industry he made a quote on his show that was almost word for word on my own beliefs of cooking and have been a huge fan ever since.

  • Excellent interview! It was a pleasure seeing Ming on the Next Iron Chef series these past few weeks. I have always enjoyed his style of cooking and have enjoyed making several recipes from Blue Ginger and Simply Ming cookbooks.
    I would agree that today’s cooking shows are more about competition more often than not and less about cooking. Maybe the pendulum will swing the other way someday back to the classic cooking shows many of us grew up with!

    Ming, You are a class act no matter what! Never change.

  • Fusion is for atoms! hahah-what an engineering answer! So fusion should be something like Molecular gastronomy? lol

    Great interview. I enjoy watching him at public TV’s Simply Ming too.

  • Thanks for the article. Ming Tsai was always one of my favorites on the Food Network.

  • Great quote about him wanting people to say “Blue Ginger *is* a great restaurant” as a response to why he doesn’t have more restaurants.

    Success isn’t measured in how much money you rake in.

  • Great interview Carolyn! When someone has a show called “Simply Ming” I think they join the ranks for the first name only club! 😀

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  • great interview! I admit I’ve always had mixed feelings about him when I watched him on tv..the first time I saw him on tv was when he was a judge on one of the early seasons for top chef.

  • Great interview! I’m envious that you had the opportunity to speak with Ming over the phone… I have a bit of a crush on him :). I live in Wellesley, MA, and am a huge fan of Blue Ginger. I hope to catch sight of Ming there at some point!

  • Oooh, I was hoping that you’d do an interview with Ming Tsai once the Iron Chef fiasco was over.
    Neato, I’ll have to check out his latest cookbook. One pot sounds good – that’s my level of cooking!

  • Great interview! I don’t keep up with a lot of shows but caught the marathon of this season and watched it beginning to end. Ming did a great job and added an interesting dynamic.

  • Fun read, I’ve always wanted to see more of the contestants reactions after the show and now you’ve given some great insights. Thank you!

  • Nice piece Carolyn. He’s an interesting guy, and you make him even more interesting yet approachable. One Pot Meals is now on my Jewish Xmas list!

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this interview but I fell in love – again, with Ming when he said this: A: For quality of life. I have two kids. I get to see them. I get to travel and do the things I want to do. I don’t make as much money as those other guys; but how much money do you need?

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