After interviewing celeb Chef Ming Tsai five years ago by phone, I finally had the chance last Thursday to spend time with him face to face, when I hosted him at his cooking demo at Macy’s Valley Fair in Santa Clara.
The 51-year-old James Beard Award-winning chef-owner of Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon in Massachusetts, star of “Simply Ming’’on PBS, and member of Macy’s Culinary Council, is also the ambassador for Family Reach, an organization that offers emotional and financial assistance to families with a child or parent afflicted with cancer.
More than 100 adoring fans turned out to watch Tsai cook salmon salad with citrus and pine nuts, shiitake and parmesan sliders, and almond-oatmeal cookie ice cream sandwiches.
Tsai is no stranger to the Bay Area, having been a sous chef at Silks at the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco way back when. His parents, Stephen and Iris, also live in Palo Alto. His father, a former rocket scientist in Dayton, OH, is a professor emeritus in aeronautics at Stanford University.
After lunching with their son that day at Lyfe Kitchen in downtown Palo Alto, Tsai’s parents drove down from Palo Alto to watch from the front row as their son cooked and captivated the audience with his quick wit.
Tsai joked that after he married his wife and she took his surname, she became her very own major. That’s because she became – wait for it, wait for it, and say it aloud – Polly Tsai.
As Tsai posed for photos and signed copies of his cookbook after the demo, he spoke in Mandarin to some elderly Chinese ladies, and even revealed that his name actually translates from Chinese into “brilliant dish.’’ How apropos is that?
What follows is a short interview I did with him prior to the demo.
Q: How old were you when you cooked for the first time?
A: I was 6. I made my own Duncan Hines cake – vanilla. I friggin’ loved it, taking the mix, adding egg and oil, and boom – cake!
My friends who were all out playing baseball made fun of me. They were like, ‘You’re doing what?’ But then I sold slices of cake to them for 25 cents each. Pretty smart, huh?
The first real dish I cooked, though, was when I was 10. In Ohio, you never locked your doors, and every one my parents’ age were considered aunties and uncles. Friends of my parents were driving through Ohio and stopped by. Like any good Chinese, I asked them if they had eaten yet. They hadn’t, so I made fried rice.
I was the only one home. I had never made fried rice before but I had seen it done a hundred times by my parents and grandparents. Like every good Chinese household, we always had leftover rice in the fridge. I cooked it up and it was probably a 5 or a 6 on a scale of 10. I probably didn’t use enough oil in the pan, and I maybe used too much soy sauce. But they loved it.
It was an epiphany. It made me realize you can make people happy through food.
Q: You’re the third generation of your family to graduate from Yale. You played squash competitively there and you garnered a degree in mechanical engineering. OK, as someone who knows how Asian parents think, were yours shocked when you decided to become a chef instead?
A: Not really. I used to work with my Mom at her restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen in Ohio. She knew how much I loved cooking. When I was at Yale, every summer, I’d go to France to apprentice and study at Le Cordon Bleu.
I remember being in my last year at Yale and sitting down my parents. I told them I’d get my degree, but that I wanted to cook in Europe and to be a chef. My Mom jumped up and hugged me. My Dad was more deadpanned. He said, ‘You weren’t going to be a very good engineer anyway. Go cook!’ (laughs) He was right, though. You have to love what you do in order to do it well.
After I graduated from Yale, I went to France without knowing much about French cooking. Up to then, I only knew Chinese cooking. But I had good knife skills.
I may have graduated from Yale, but that doesn’t mean anything in a French kitchen. In fact, I remember being in one French kitchen, where I was taking direction from a 16-year-old kid! But he’d already worked there three years and knew much more than I did.
France was one of the best times of my life. I also worked at Fauchon under Pierre Herme. I wanted to learn pastry because all the greatest chefs all know how to do both savory and pastry.
Q: You’ve been on TV for a long time. You’ve seen how food TV has evolved. Do you like the way it’s changed over the years?
A: I didn’t like where it was going. That’s why I left Food Network. I’m a chef, and I wanted to teach people how to cook. The only true cooking shows now are on PBS.
I mean, I had fun on “Next Iron Chef,’’ even if it was rigged. (laughs) [He came in third that season.]
Q: Do you watch any food shows now?
A: I love Anthony Bourdain and ‘Parts Unknown.’ He is awesome.
I also love the old ‘Iron Chef’ show because the bad Japanese translations are just THE best.
Q: What’s the one ingredient you can’t do without?
A: Ginger. It’s savory and it’s sweet. It’s also a natural anti-oxidant. It’s inexpensive and it can grow anywhere.
Q: Your favorite Chinese dish to cook?
A: Peking duck – because it’s a labor of love. It’s a 36-hour process, in which you have to stick a straw down the trachea of a duck to blow it up so the fat renders, hang it so air circulates all around it, and roast it. It’s the coolest ancient culinary technique. I mean, who thinks of sticking a straw into a duck like that? Those first cooks must have been drunk to come up with it.
Q: If you hadn’t gone the way of cooking, do you think you would have taken that mechanical engineering degree and headed west to Silicon Valley to become a tech titan?
A: No, wouldn’t have. Maybe I would have been a professor or a teacher. Or a squash pro, a tennis pro or ski pro.
My Dad was right when he said I wouldn’t have been a great engineer. But my life has come full circle because I now design kitchen and cooking equipment. I’m on HSN, and you can see how much you are selling. I love watching the numbers because nothing jazzes a Chinese chef more than seeing numbers go up. (laughs)