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?
MT: Yeah, there was the dream that I was an Iron Chef. I made a shrimp dish in like 7 seconds. And Arthur was just getting his cake done. I crushed him.
SI: You crushed a cartoon.
MT: So anyway, that's the kid thing, which is really interesting. When I was at Food Network, I started doing Ming's Quest, which was a travel show. I didn't have any children. 75 days a year on the road, which was a lot. And then we had a newborn, and then pregnant with a second kid, and then 9/11 hit, which put the kibbosh on it. Because we'd be be 3 or 4 people with 15 giant bags of camera equipment. You just couldn't do that, at least for a full year. Plus I really wanted to do a true cooking show, and public television really offers you that format. That's how Simply Ming started. We're in season eight right now. It's kind of like a restaurant, once you pass year five…
SI: So Here's a question: since you've been in TV for awhile, how has food television changed?
MT: Oh, leaps and bounds. The bottom line is, Thank god for public television and food TV and all the blogs. Because all it's doing is bringing an awareness of different techniques, different foods. It's getting the customer to demand more from restaurants, from grocery stores. People are more traveled now, so they'll come back from Thailand: I'll need lemongrass. Guess what, Whole Foods has lemongrass and three types of ginger. So it's great for all of us chefs. Raising the bar. 20 years ago, we were like, Look how the French eat. Look how the Italians eat. Look at how the Chinese eat. We're the most powerful, smartest country on earth: how come we're eating fast food? Now we're the powerhouse. All the ethnic foods is what's really raised the bar for us. You can get a great meal in a truck now, right? Especially in L.A. The Kogi truck. I'm probably going to go there right after this.
Back in the day, there was Julia Child and Frugal and Martin. Here's a dish. This is how you cook it. Done. Julia Child makes a bechamel, which is a pain in the butt for a home cook. No apologies; this is just how you do it. So now it's morphed. The first stage I saw was, okay: well, people don't actually cook traditional French. Two things happened. There are shows about simple food that people can cook, and then there are the entertainment shows. Emeril Live was really the one. It was an amazing show for all of us. He made food and cooking fun. He had the live band. His schtick. Bam! He does not say Bam! in real life. Hey, let's go to a movie! Bam! No.
SI: You know, that's really kind of a relief to know.
MT: Emeril brought entertainment into food. He introduced what caviar was. Now people know, hey, that's fish eggs that are brined. And he introduced people to how to make a good meatloaf, good mac-n-cheese. Even taking basic stuff, he showed people how to make it better. People could identify with that. And he wasn't doing jasmine tea souffles and blah blah blah. He wasn't trying to impress people by doing the hardest duck dish you could ever do. He was doing the opposite: here's some duck, you may never use duck, you gotta use duck, guys, it's just like cooking chicken. So there was Emeril, there was Rachael Ray: open a can. She's like look, I'm not a chef, I just want to teach people how you can actually cook at home by opening a can of creamed corn. So that was what happened in the 90s. And then health started coming in, all these healthy shows, with the time factor: 30 minute meals, how do you eat if you're on a diet. Then, as of 6 or 7 years ago, reality TV sets in. And I'm guilty. I'm on one as we speak.
It's NASCAR. They want to see the car crash. That's all it is. And you know, I did a show called Cooking Under Fire. It was the first reality cooking show ever. On public television. We shot our first show at Sona. I don't even know if it's open any more. [It's not.] I was the exec producer, I was the head host, the head judge with Michael Ruhlman and Todd English. And the first quickfire — my term — challenge was cook an egg. 10 minutes. A year later, Top Chef: the first quickfire challenge? Cook an egg. They copied it verbatim. And guess what? Bravo did a better job. They had more money, more pizazz, they got in Kenmore. We were on public television, we had a limited budget. And I was bummed because Cook Under Fire was a true cooking show.
Shows have morphed now. Now they're looking for the sidelines: the guy with the tattoo hooking up with the girl who just came out of the closet and is transgendered, you know? What's that have to do with the liver or the ground pork? Nothing. But that's what Nielsen ratings are based on. So not faulting that. You gotta produce. You have to sell what people want.
Check back later for part two of this interview, and yes, a recipe from the chef. Because you're hungry. Or you feel like cooking. Or both.
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