One of the things that I love about interviewing chefs is that each seems to have their own unique passion. Some are technical chefs and celebrate how the ingredients are prepared. Others have a passion outside of the kitchen and see their newfound celebrity as a way to bring attention to a cause that they care deeply about. Still others have developed a special skill, like charcuterie or reviving heirloom ingredients that has brought them much recognition.
A few months ago, I was invited to meet Chef Ming Tsai while he was participating in the Food and Wine Buick Discovery Tour in Atlanta. Ming, as he prefers to be called, has had a long and very successful career. As I prepared for the interview, I wondered where the conversation would go since Ming has such a diverse and recognized background, beginning with his training alongside some of the world’s best chefs including Pierre Herme in Paris and sushi master Kobayashi in Osaka. Since opening his restaurant, Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1998, he has achieved an impressive list of awards and accolades, written four cookbooks and hosted three television shows. His awards include Best New Restaurant from the James Beard Foundation in 1998 and the honor of being the Foundations’ Best Chef Northeast in 2002. His current TV show, Simply Ming, is nominated for a James Beard Broadcast Media award this year. You can read more about Ming in his biography.
Changing the way we view food, eating healthier and managing food allergies are all important issues to Ming. When asked what his thoughts were on the next culinary buzz, it did not take him long to respond with “Food as medicine. This concept has been in existence for thousands of years in China. We are just discovering it here in this country and in other parts of the world.”
His most recent cookbook, Simply Ming – One Pot Meals, was developed for people who are interested in cooking more healthful foods at home with less fuss. “People want to cook more and cook simply. This is the trend we are seeing and will be helpful in fighting obesity and sickness. Going to restaurants is still the complete dining experience and that will never stop, but cooking at home is a positive trend. More good food, good health and good eating.”
Ming also mentioned the importance of certain foods in our diets, including Maitake Mushrooms, which are known as a super food in China. In China they are considered to be an “immunity enhancer”. High in antioxidants, important in maintaining a healthy heart, Maitake Mushrooms are also known to fight cancer. Ming told us there was “something very cool coming down the pike”. He now has a Maitake Ground Coffee Blend that is available on his website. He firmly believes in the preventative and healing benefits of these mushrooms.
Involved in many philanthropic endeavors, one that is very important to Ming is the Chefs Move! to Schools initiative with Michelle Obama and other chefs throughout the country. This program was created to tackle the problem of childhood obesity in our nation’s youth and to educate them about the importance of proper nutrition and exercise. As he says, “We are making a dent, however, there are 6,000 chefs trying to cover 150,000 schools.”
“No one has the solution to this problem. There is a lot of money involved with larger corporations. When some of these companies subsidize lunches where chicken fingers and french fries cost $1.50, how can you compete with that? We need to get more people cooking vegetables in schools and get rid of the soda machines. There is no place for them in our schools.”
Another very important organization that Ming is involved with is FAAN, the Food Allergy Anaphylaxis Network. As their national spokesperson, he has worked with the state of Massachusetts to create a new food safety law and hopes to bring further awareness to the rest of the country. Since one of his children has food allergies, he knows the importance of properly handling food in a restaurant for those people with allergies. There are an estimated 12 million people in the United States that have food allergies.
“We have the safest restaurant in the country (Blue Ginger) for people with food allergies and are busier than ever because of that. It is serious. Someone can die from this. If a guest tells us they are allergic to certain foods, we use new cutting boards, pans and knives” Ming also said that some people will say they are allergic, when they really aren’t. “We jump through hoops to keep them safe. We take it very seriously. If you just don’t want something like butter, tell us.”
Catering to people with food allergies has its business benefits as well. Ming said that most restaurant decisions are made by the person with food allergies, if that is a concern with a group of diners. The next restaurant choice is made by children, which was quite interesting.
So, what is the future of dining out if we are all cooking at home more, whether it is for health or allergy reasons? Dining out is not going away, it is just changing. “At the end of the day, it is all about the food, isn’t it? It’s all about people making food and people serving the food. It’s about the total experience. You can drop $5 million dollars creating a space and it doesn’t make it any better. It is all about the food and the service. It’s the whole experience.”
A question that I am sure Ming has received quite often over the years is why someone with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Yale and a Master’s Degree from Cornell would choose to be a chef. “After junior year, I knew I wanted to be a chef. My mom was great and told me to follow my dream and give it 110%. Dad said I wasn’t going to be a good engineer anyway, so go cook.”
My bet is that Ming could be successful at anything he chooses to do in life. One thing we know he is quite good at is golf. Mr. B played golf with him the day after this interview and while it was a tight match to the end, Ming beat him by one stroke. Mr. B is demanding a rematch.
I have prepared several recipes from Simply Ming – One Pot Meals. Every one of them was excellent. I decided to share this recipe for Three-Bean Chili since I often get requests for vegetarian recipes.
The flavor of this chili was a real surprise with the addition of several Asian ingredients including fermented black beans, tamari sauce and edamame. It had the right amount of heat for us and was perfectly seasoned. I used homemade roasted vegetable stock which gave it a real depth of flavor. As Ming suggests, make extra and prepare it a day ahead since chili always tastes better the next day.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
2 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil
2 medium red onions, cut into 1/3-inch pieces
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons fermented black beans
2 serrano chilies, minced
1 bunch scallions, sliced thin, green and white parts separated
1/4 cup wheat-free tamari sauce
2 cups shelled edamame
1 (15-ounce) can white beans, drained and rinsed
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups roma tomatoes, roughly chopped, with their juice
1 quart vegetable stock or unsweetened black tea (I used homemade roasted vegetable stock)
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Greek yogurt
1, Heat a stockpot or other tall wide pot over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom. When the oil is hot, add the onions, garlic, fermented black beans, chilies and scallion whites. Sauté until lightly caramelized, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tamari sauce and deglaze the pot. Add the edamame, the white and black beans, tomatoes with their juice, and stock and bring to a simmer. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Simmer until the mixture has reduced by one-quarter, 45 to 60 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the yogurt, scallion greens and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper. Serve from the pot or transfer the chili to four individual serving bowls. Serve with yogurt on the side.
Recipe courtesy of Chef Ming Tsai
Simply Ming - One Pot Meals