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Chef Ming Tsai
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Written by LIS Staff   
Chef Ming Tsai is considered the premier chef in East-West cuisine, and has built a reputation as host of public television’s Simply Ming.  He is the author of several cookbooks, including Simply Ming: Easy Techniques for East-Meets-West Meals and Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cooking. On a recent Saturday afternoon, LIS caught up with Chef Ming Tsai at his restaurant Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA.

How has the local food trend affected Blue Ginger?
For the last eighteen months I have personally made a concerted effort to make Blue Ginger greener, and buy as local as possible.  The catalyst for me was meeting this fantastic guy by the name of Josh Viertel [President of Slow Food USA].  We really bonded at the Telluride Film Festival.  The theme this year was the lack of food in the world, and all the mouths we have to feed.  It was a very interesting and inspirational weekend for me. Josh in particular is just really well spoken.   He was a farmer and he eats, lives, and breathes what he does.  He loves his job.  So that was really the catalyst to get on board. 
What are some things you are doing at Blue Ginger to be more local, and green in general?
The challenge for me is two or three-fold.  We’ve always recycled.  We moved away from fish that are over-fished and now get a lot of our seafood from a company called EcoFish.  They sell only eco-friendly supplied cod and seasonal seafood.  But you can imagine if I made my chicken stock from organic celery, carrot and onions that were local, I’d have to charge $40 for a bowl of soup.  I can’t do that, especially in a recession.  That’s the reality of owning a restaurant.
How has the recession impacted the restaurant industry, and Blue Ginger?
There are two things happening right now, not just in Boston or New York but everywhere.  We are coming out of a recession, or so we’ve been told.  I think that for about the last year some great intentions have been put on the back burner, as people just try to stay afloat. That’s just a reality. If you’re not making your payment, you don’t give a crap if it’s organic or local.  Knock on wood, we are not in that position.
How does Blue Ginger deal with the trade-off of cost vs. quality of vegetables?
There are tons of restaurants that need just what we need.  We’re no busier than any of them, but we need them at a competitive price right now, because you cannot be spending 20% more on your vegetables.  You just cannot pass that on to the customer.  Local and organic would be ideal, but I cannot live on a case of onions.  Some restaurants are smaller.  If you’re a ten-table or a fifteen-seat place you probably have a one chef with two line cooks operation, and I’ve been in those.  There you can do it.  You can go to the market and what you buy is what you use. Now having said that, we still do get some things local.  We have beautiful strawberries from Verrill Farm and whatever greens we can possibly get.  They’re actually large enough now that they can deliver.  Personally, outside of Blue Ginger, I do what I can.  I buy organic, but it’s Whole Foods organic, so a majority of it is not local.  So it’s not “green,” but it’s good for you.

Sometimes it’s hard to find an apple in a Whole Foods in  New England that has been grown locally, even in the fall.  They usually come from California.
That’s my problem times a hundred.   Whole Foods cannot risk having no apples for the next day because a local farmer’s tractor broke down, so they have to buy in bulk from California which is guaranteed.  Blue Ginger faces the same risks.  Now if everyone thought that way, then we‘d never get anywhere.  There are people that are riskier than me that will do more.  But we are well ahead of where we were two years ago, and we will continue to do it.  I think of the younger chefs coming out of CIA and Johnson and Wales.  They are being inundated by this, so they’re really thinking about cooking locally and using only the ingredients that are around you.

As a professional chef with a family, how do you view cooking at home?
You gotta cook.  If you cook at home it does three things. First, it saves you a boatload of money. For thirty bucks you can feed a family of four very well.  The other thing that cooking does is something we are missing these days, and that’s eating at a dinner table with your kids. For a parent like me there is nothing more fulfilling than cooking a meal for your children and having them tell you, “this is so good.”   When I recently came back from a long trip, my son came up to me and hugged me.   He didn’t say, “I miss you, dad,” he said, “I missed your cooking.” It is just so fulfilling to cook for them, because you give a part of yourself.
If you had only ten minutes to whip something up, what would it be?
I would absolutely make a stir fry of some sort. We are not big steak people, but we do keep around some ground lamb, turkey or chicken.  Even pork chops. But for a quick thing, ground meats are just so fast. What I will do is cook the meat then put it aside. Then I would add my garlic or onion and the vegetables, then add back the meat and serve it over the hot rice. Or take some noodles and add them to the meat and vegetables to make a chow mein. You could even take left over rice and fry it.  Every chef cooks simply.  None of us go home and make soufflés.

What is the most important ingredient in your home kitchen?
Besides salt?   I think it’s either garlic or onion.  When I go to Whole Foods I buy the peeled garlic. You don't need to waste time peeling garlic. And you don’t need ten cloves of garlic to make a dish taste good, you maybe need two.  I always start the cast iron or wok with either minced onion or sliced garlic and oil to get it some color.  And once you have that flavor permeating your kitchen, your kids will eat that.  Any kid would eat that.  No kid likes steamed broccoli, because it tastes like steamed broccoli.

What are five staples in your pantry?
For me it's salt or soy sauce. Then you need an acid, so a vinegar, or a citrus like limes. You also need some kind of dry starch.  A brown rice is nice.  We use sushi rice.  One of my go-to starches is couscous.  And we do whole grain.  At Whole Foods you can get whole wheat couscous.  Then an oil, a canola oil, or if you can afford it grape seed oil.  Salsa is another good thing to keep in your fridge.  Mango salsa will add flavor to a dish real easily.  If you made a stir fry chicken and added a salsa, you are basically done. You don't even need to make it from scratch.  There are some great bottled salsas. Trader Joe’s has these great simmering sauces that are all natural. And some curry pastes that if you were to make yourselves would take a year.  But it's right there and tastes great.

What is a secret ingredient you always keep on hand in your kitchen?
Hot sauces, and they never go bad.  I mean literally, I have moved hot sauces from our old home.

What tool should a home cook have in their kitchen, that they may not think to own?
A rice cooker.  It will be the best $29.99 you’ll ever spend.  The other thing, go to Target and get a pressure cooker.  Especially when it gets colder and you have cheap cuts of meat that you need to braise, but you don’t have four hours because you work for a living.  When my wife is a little under the weather, I’ll do ox tails or short-ribs or lamb shanks or pork butt.  You can throw everything in, cover it, and in an hour it’s all done. They have electric ones but the $30 to $40 one you saw your grandma using on the stove, they’re brilliant.  You could make rice like that too.
What is a cooking technique that’s used in professional kitchens that does not get used enough at home?
Braising.  A great technique for home or parties is to braise something like short-ribs, then chill them.  When you’re ready to serve them, you can grill them or even pan sear them and then you get a crispiness to them and they are just great.  By just braising alone there is no texture.

What are some of your favorite pairings by season?
In the winter I like soy and chili.  In the fall, I love mushrooms, I’m a huge mushroom fan.  The combination of mushroom and thyme or lemon thyme is just phenomenal!  I love fennel and citrus in the summer.  Like a fennel salad.  In the spring I like peas and truffle oil.  What we do is a lemon truffle vinaigrette and a split pea soup.  It’s just a fantastic combination.  Tomatoes and shiso is really good.  All stone fruits with ginger are good.

What are some of the cookbooks you read at home and would recommend to the home cook?
I do like the periodicals like Gourmet and Bon Appetit, they’re good.  And, religiously, the Wednesday New York Times.  There is always something in there.  If I’m in any place, any restaurant, and I see a book, I get it.  I have between five hundred to a thousand books at this point.  Some of these guys have these 5000-page things and I don’t read all of those.  For the home cook, there’re so many and most are so specialized.  But in my style of food there is a great reference book, Asian Ingredients by Bruce Cost.  In that it just really explains, “What is a fish sauce” with a recipe or two on how to use it.  “What is lemon grass,” “What is lime leaf...”

Sort of a Larousse Gastronomique for Asian cuisine.
Larousse is something you have to have to understand how French cuisine really started, based on mother sauces. I think any chef in the state or any chef in the country has touched it in some way, fashion or form.  That or Julia’s book, her first book.  It goes through béchamel, etc. It’s not that you must cook French, but it IS western style cooking. How do you braise? How do you roast? How do you sauté?  It’s all the basic basics and I think that’s key.  You need a foundation.
Do you think the young Culinary School graduates’ focus on local and sustainable cuisine is just a trend or something here to stay?
Oh no, I think it’s here to stay.  I think everyone in this country or even this world are realizing that--and we’ve been saying it for a hundred years but--we only have this one world and this one sea.  Especially the sea, because we are so over-fishing our seas right now that the whole country is off blue fin.  There are people that are boycotting it.  We’ve been serving big-eye from Hawaii.  They’re saying if we continue with the blue fin tuna, in ten years they’re gone.  Forever, extinct.  So I think that is being drilled into the heads of people.  I saw a thing on the Discovery Channel about the blue whale and they said that there something like 30,000 ten years ago, and we’re down to just hundreds now.  And once they’re gone, they’re gone.  Plus, energy is the other big word.  It’s all related to energy, basically.  So I think people are realizing that it’s better to cook what is around them, like people did hundreds of years ago.  You’re seeing more artisan-type foods with cheese and bread and oils and chocolates.  People are realizing that quality is better than quantity.  And I think that a lot of new chefs coming out now are going to want to cook in smaller restaurants, and make simpler food.  When the food is simpler, then the focus on the individual ingredients can be awesome.  
Chef, thank you for your time.  We really appreciate it.
I think what you guys are trying to do is very admirable, because you are trying to help the home cook.  It was nice chatting with you. Have fun.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Tieuli for WGBH 

1 Comment

  1. I've seen his cooking show on PBS and love his quick approach to making meals. It's fun to see that in more depth with this interview.

    Great job and a great read.

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