ome people are verbal sprinters. They dash off a sentence or two in bursts, then stop for air and appreciation. Ming Tsai is a miler. He redlines the ear's processing capacity for a minute or three without pause or prompting, as though to finish before something burns. It's a striking reminder that Tsai's kitchen god status was built on his ability to fluidly deconstruct fusion techniques between bastings, wok tosses and commercial breaks. It doesn't hurt that, at newly 40, he retains the cherub-cheeked good looks and boyish breathlessness that first set female hearts mincing and reassured male gourmands that you don't need a goofy accent to get exotic.
The babyfaced Cordon-Bleu chef first invaded American kitchens in 1998 as host of a Food Network show called East Meets West. To help satisfy appetites whetted by the show, he and wife Polly opened the Blue Ginger Bistro in Wellesley, Massachusettes. Two years later Tsai began shuttling around the world turning local ingredients into fusion productions al fresco for Ming's Quest. In 2003 he moved over to PBS to host Simply Ming, a show that focuses on so-called master recipes for sauces, pestos, dressings and rubs that serve as the flavor-base for actual dishes.
Tsai's life narrowly missed being stereotypical. When he was born on March 29, 1964, his father was working as a high-level scientist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. His mother ran the family's Mandarin Kitchen restaurant and taught cooking classes. As a teen Ming helped out in the restaurant while aspiring to follow in his father's footsteps. Not until college did he discover that his real passion wasn't science but cooking. He toughed out the Yale B.A. but went straight to Paris for two years of Cordon Bleu training and two years of apprenticing. Back in the states he went to Cornell for a masters in hotel management, then spent nine more years apprenticing under top chefs before beginning his on-camera career and opening Ginger.
In recent months Tsai has embarked on the ultimate leg of a chef's journey toward cultural icon status -- having his likeness adorning a line of frozen dishes at Target. Tsai's rise has been swift and sure, taking barely six years from the day he first began showing Gen-X gourmands that cooking is hip, fun and even sexy. We wedged a foot into one busy afternoon to get a peek into the private side of America's most publicized force for good food.
GS: What's the biggest misconception that amateur chefs have about cooking? MT: People going to culinary school who want to become chefs?
GS: And people who read Gourmet magazine and watch your show. MT: That's two different people. People who read Gourmet -- hobby chefs?
GS: Let's start with people who want to become chefs. You seem to have some definite ideas about cuisine. MT: Speaking for the style of cuisine I do -- which I call east/west cuisine or east-meets-west cuisine -- the good news is that we live in America and in America you can get everything. You can get lemon grass, you can get red soy sauce, you can get white soy sauce, you can get galangal, you can get all the products you enjoy at a Thai restaurant or Vietnamese or Chinese or Japanese, coupled with the fact that people are traveling more, and that with technology, i.e. the web, there's more information out there. So people have more access to all these wonderful tastes, flavors, ingredients. The misconception is that more is not better. Just because you can get 15 tasty ingredients, doesn't mean if you put them into a blender, you're going to have a great tasting dish. At least the thing I see most often, you get young cooks, amateurs or ones who want to be chefs -- they're like a kid in a candy store. They don't figure out and learn and understand how the Thais treat lemon grass, how they store it, how they buy it, how they chop it up, how the Chinese use sesame oil, how the Japanese use wasabe.
My schtick is that I learned first traditionally how to use those ingredients and techniques. I specifically went to Japan with one mission -- how to make sushi rice. So I traditionally learned how to make those things first. I know I've been blessed and I've had opportuities to live and work in France, live and work in Japan. That shouldn't discourage people. You can just go to the best Japanese restaurant in town and still learn from a Japanese chef. You don't have to literally go to that country. It's better to be immersed, but in either case, learn first how that culture uses the traditional ingredient or technique, and then you've earned the right to start blending it into your own style of food. If you learn from Chinese or Coreans who use a lot of ginger how you store it, buy it, chop it up, you would never throw it into a food processor or a blender because all you end up with is a lot of strings. That's a typical mistake. People would think, "I have a food processor, I can throw it in there." That works for onions,. It doesn't work for ginger. I've seen some great tuna carpaccio dishes that even some chefs dribble sesame oil on the plate which is what you do with extra virgin olive oil. But sesame oil is such a strong oil, so flavored, so deep in its flavor that, one, you don't even taste the tuna, and two, you taste sesame oil for the next three courses. You're doing a disservice by usiing sesame oil. If you learn traditionally how the Chinese use sesame oil, we would use a tablespoon in four quarts of chicken stock because it's so strong flavored.
GS: How about for the casual weekend chefs? What do you see as their big misconception? MT: I don't know there are misconceptions. They're just trying to have fun and put food on the table. I think a common misake is that people follow the recipe to the T and don't use common sense and taste as they go. I tell all my cooks here, I tell everyone I ever train, you have to taste as you go because things are diferent. Water is different from town to town. Flour, rice, temperature -- all these things can affect how things taste. A carrot does not taste like a carrot like a carrot like a carrot. If you get a carrot just harvested, you don't have to put anything on it because it's so bloody sweet, but you get a carrot that's a couple of days old, you're going to have to season it more or cook it more. A recipe -- like my two books [Blue Ginger and Simply Ming] -- they're not gospel, they're a foundation. They're my idea of how you should treat these food products, and if you want to put an Asian flair to it, this is what you should do. But that should be a foundation for inspiration. I've always said that a succedssful cook is not someone who makes my dish and it comes out great. That's good because you spent $32.50, but a successful cook is someone that takes my recipe and adds their own culture to it, either adds chili if they're from Mexico or eggplant if they're an eggplant freak or they take out something but they make the recipe their own. If someone can be inspird by a book, take a base recipe, change it so it really meets what they like to eat, and it turns out to be a great dish, that's a successful cookbook.PAGE 2