If you spend any time watching cooking shows on PBS, you'll know who Ming Tsai is. Or if you've read any of his cookbooks -- the fourth, Simply Ming: One-Pot Meals, has just come out -- or watched old Food Network television. Or seen a particular episode of the kids show Arthur. (More on that later.) The James Beard Award-winning chef, whose restaurant Blue Ginger (yes, he just has one), is in Wellesley, Mass., was in town the other day on his book tour, enjoying a bit of California sun at his Sunset Boulevard hotel.
He took some time between stops (he'll be at Macy's in the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa tonight) and visits to the Kogi truck to chat about the new book, about the evolution of food television, and about his current stint on The Next Iron Chef, assuming he makes it past this Sunday's show. We don't know. He wasn't saying. Turn the page for our interview, then check back later for the second part of the interview and Tsai's recipe for his mother's vinegared shrimp.
Squid Ink: So how did you get into this racket anyway?
Ming Tsai: Ha. You know I've cooked really my whole life, cooked 25 years. My mom had a restaurant called the Mandarin Kitchen in Dayton, Ohio, and that really was my summertime job all the way through high school. It was there that I realized that if you served tasty food at a reasonable price with a smile, you not only gain loyal customers but you can actually make someone happy. Through food. And I thought, that's pretty cool. So I could actually do something and everyday make people happy? It's very self-gratifying. And it's instant. I know within two hours if I did a good job. It's the plate's empty, or it's not.
SI: Or they're screaming or they're dead.
MT: Or they're dead. Hasn't happened to me yet, but thank you for putting it out there. It's not going to happen, not on my watch. But you know, I'm blessed. I get to do a job that I don't really consider a job. I just love playing with food, in all shapes and forms. If it's cooking for my kids or writing cookbooks or doing my shows. And most importantly, cooking at my restaurant.
For the record, I'm a craftsman not an artist. There are a couple of artists out there; I think Thomas Keller is an artist. I think Ferran Adrià is an artist. But most of the rest of us, we're craftsmen. And we get to craft everyday something different based on what you have. It's dissimilar to other careers. I guess if you're a surgeon, you have to perform at that moment and I guess you get instant gratification after the 2-hour surgery.
SI: Again, they're not dead.
MT: Yeah, versus not dead. But that's not the same joy that you get from cooking. One thing that I realized with my buddy Emeril once: why do children, not children who are ten, but children three and two years old watch cooking shows? We finally realized that on a cooking show we're actually looking into their eyes. Children actually think we're speaking to them. Every other thing on TV, you're the third party. You're watching Friends, you're watching Hogan's Heroes. Hogan's Heroes dates me. I loved that show. We convinced my dad -- because we were only allowed to watch PBS and sports -- that Hogan's Heroes was historically significant so that it would fall under the PBS category.
SI: PBS, sports and Hogan's Heroes?
MT: Yeah, all we watched.
SI: The PBS thing goes way back, it seems. Your current show [Simply Ming] is on PBS.
MT: The Food Network was the start of my television career. Emeril had just started, and to be perfectly blunt, he was horrible. I was horrible. Bobby was horrible. We were chefs, we weren't in TV. We didn't know what to do. I certainly watched Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet and Graham Kerr and Martin Yan. So to finish the thing about the kids, they think you're talking to them. They see broccoli, they've seen mom or dad working with broccoli before; there's a familiarity. There's some fire and smoke and then sometimes there's music. It's nonviolent, fairly safe entertainment. It's something that parents and two year-olds can watch at the same time. Come on, I watched Teletubbies a lot; didn't really get a lot out of it.
SI: You've been on Arthur.
MT: Yes, exactly. And if I'd cooked as well on Arthur as I did on The Next Iron Chef, it'd be a whole different story.
SI: You cooked on Arthur?