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Q & A With Ming Tsai, Part 2: "Confusion" Cuisine, The Importance of Cookbook Pictures + Why We Need To Go To Grandmother's House

Ming Tsai poolside at The Standard in Hollywood
Ming Tsai poolside at The Standard in Hollywood
A. Scattergood

In the first part of our interview with cookbook author and longtime television cooking show host Ming Tsai -- yes, he has a restaurant too, if you're anywhere near Wellesley, Mass. -- the chef talked about the evolution of food TV and cooking for cartoons, and revealed that Emeril does not in fact say Bam! in real life. Thank god, I guess.

In the second part of our interview, the chef picks up where he left off, which was apparently talking about his appearance on this season's The Next Iron Chef, another episode of which airs this Sunday night. No, he didn't tell us who won. We didn't ask. The Food Network probably has spies, even on Hollywood hotel patios. Probably especially on Hollywood hotel patios. Turn the page for more on this and other things, and check back later for Tsai's mother's recipe for vinegared shrimp.

Ming Tsai: I'll segue, because you'll probably ask this. Why the hell would I do The Next Iron Chef?

Squid Ink: Yeah, well. So why?

MT: They've asked three times, I was like, Pass, pass. My agent was like, You have nothing to gain. You could lose first, it could be embarrassing. And then this time it came around again and I'm like, You know what? I'm 46, I want to prove to myself that I have game. I'm the most competitive person I know, because I love to win. I race my kids up staircases and I beat them. They're 10 and 8.

SI: Enjoy it while you can.

MT: I'm going to. And I love food. Plus, being around 46 years, I've seen every product. It's not like I'm going to go, What is that? And it was fun. So that's why I did it. I also knew, I just knew, that I was not going to be the worst of 10 people. They weren't going to get Thomas Keller. You know, Keller would probably stink at it, because that's not how he cooks. Well, first of all, Keller is so smart he probably wouldn't do it, but you know what I mean. It's so funny, everyone was so nervous. And I'm like, guys, just don't even think about it. Just cook.

SI: So, your new book...

MT: I think this was my favorite book. This was the fastest one ever. I met the publisher a year ago, and exactly a year later [it's out]. I'm very proud of the photography, and there is no food styling. I think it does such a disservice for someone who's cooking, and you make it and you're like, god, mine doesn't look anything like the photo. What did I do wrong? And so I didn't want to use gloss or Q-tips; I just wanted to plate it. The point is, how you plate it is how it's going to look like.

The purpose is to get people back cooking. Sitting down as a family, having dinner. We did this: every single night at 5 p.m. we sat down to dinner, mom, dad, brother, myself. Every single night. And every Friday we went to grandma and grandpas. 5 p.m., again. Everything happened at the dinner table: how was school, who are you dating, any problems. And most importantly, what are we eating next. Always the topic of discussion. And that's lost now in this country. Between soccer practice and ballet. And you're twittering at the dinner table. Are you kidding me?

SI: Kids aren't learning how to cook.

MT: It's a huge problem in China. The generation that's like 15-25 in China, they don't know how to cook. So then what happens? Chinese cuisine's going to go? Because all these guys who are cooking right now are the 40-80 year-olds. And yes, there's cooking schools, but it's the home cooking that's falling off.

So by keeping it simple -- the one pot -- because you do get demotivated to make a great meal when you have to spend an hour cleaning up. Five pots and pans, it's a pain in the ass. You won't do it tomorrow. But if it's literally one pot.

SI: You have just the one restaurant?

MT: Just one. No empire. Just one restaurant. I'm certainly the only chef on TV who has one restaurant. It's by design, it's not because I couldn't. It's rather selfish: it's just quality of life. I have two boys, I want to see them; I play golf with them, I travel with them. I have one wife, which is all I need. And I'm really so freaking busy. This is my fourth book, I'm always producing more TV, because I enjoy teaching, I enjoy doing that, and I like retail. I'm on the board of this nutritional roundtable at Harvard to try to help solve obesity. Because as chef, I think it's our responsibility to help out. I'm the national spokesperson for FAAN, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, because my first son was born with allergies to soy, wheat, dairy, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and eggs. Seven of the eight. A very unfunny joke from upstairs. The son of a chef. But you can't feel bad for David; he's eating better than any adult. Organic New Zealand lamb rack with rice noodles and line-caught halibut with fried rice. Food allergies are crazy right now. When I was in high school, maybe one kid had a nut allergy. One.

SI: You studied to be a mechanical engineer at Yale?

MT: Got my degree. And then moved to Paris.

SI: So did you want to be an engineer or a chef?

MT: I wanted to be my dad. He helped develop the B-1 bomber, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which is why we ended up in Dayton, Ohio. Once I got to Yale, I started doing engineering. But then every summer I started going to Paris. There's not a better motivator in a foreign language class than when you walk into it and there's two beautiful Italian girls who speak no English. Then I started doing apprenticeships, and then junior year, I went to Cordon Bleu. Just three months; it's my only formal schooling [in culinary]. I never did the CIA. Came back thinking, Damn, the French can cook too. Because up to that, all I cooked was Chinese. Immediately thought, Fren-ese cuisine, I called it. French-Chinese. Why can't I blend? And then right after I graduated, I went right back to France and got a job at Fauchon with Pierre Hermé, who is still the best pastry chef in the world. I mean, such a perfectionist. Such a pain in the ass to cook with. He didn't yell and scream like Gordon Ramsay, he just was like, If it's not perfect, don't even think about showing it to me.

SI: And now you've become known for fusion cuisine, for lack of a better word.

MT: I actually hate the term fusion. I mean, you fuse atoms. I like East-West, because you're blending. But at the end of the day, Americans are famous for naming things, so it's called fusion. But what I hate is when inexperienced cooks think that they can just blend anything. You first have how to learn how the Thais use lemongrass and how the Chinese use sesame oil and how the Vietnamese use cilantro, before you can earn the right to blend. Bad fusion cuisine, what I call confusion cuisine, is horrible. It's worse than bad Chinese food. And you should never blend Chinese with Korean or Japanese with Thai. Each dish is East-West, but it's one predominant Asian country or culture with Western technique.

This book. There are a lot of one-pot books that are around. No one invented one-pot. But East-West flavors that are simple? And every recipe has a photo, which I think you have to do.

SI: Why? There's been a lot of conversation about whether cookbooks need pictures lately.

MT: Absolutely. Because you want to see it. If you see what it's supposed to look like at the end, you have an idea. And you're like, Oh, that's why I'm searing it now, or whatever it is. But you can't have photos so good that you can never match them. Because then you're like, This sucks. It's what a cooking show is: it's a video cookbook. Which is why they're so popular.

SI: It's interactive. It's like your mom taking you into the kitchen.

MT: Right. And I'll tell you, if you have grandparents who are still alive. Or if your parents are old and they're still cooking, get with them and write down how that gnocchi's done, how that red sauce is done, anything. Because once they're gone, you'll be like, How did she make that? And it's gone forever. The best food in the world is someone else's. And the best food really is in someone's home. Restaurants are great; I love restaurants. But in someone's home...

Every Friday we went to my grandparents' and I so looked forward to it. My grandfather grew his own chiles to make his own sambal. He made his own dumpling wrappers. He'd make his own noodles. Although I did actually absorb a lot, if I'd known how valuable that was, if I'd been smart enough back then, I would have spent so much more time with them. Because you won't find what your grandparents did in a cookbook, you just won't. And grandparents never measured. You have to be there. You have to feel it, and not just watch.