Master of His House


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“ It’s not like i was asked, ‘can you come to dayton?’ no offense against dayton, but it’s a little easier coming to the hawai‘i food & wine festival,” Ming Tsai divulges. Th e 51-year-old recalls the time Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi approached him to participate in the first Hawai‘i Food & Wine Fest. Having been longtime friends with the two local culinary heroes— and yes, Hawai‘i’s rather enticing geographical location—Tsai was more than happy to oblige.

That was five years ago, and Tsai hasn’t missed a single year since 2011, making his way back here each fall. Th is year, he heads for Kona for the festival’s first signature event, Seven Chefs, One Big Island, on Aug. 29. It’s too early to tell exactly what he’ll be making, save for the ingredient he’ll be using: Kona Coast Abalone—something he’s thrilled to be working with.

Tsai was sent a case of the prized mollusk to play with before finally deciding to go with a tried-and-true practice. “Th e best [method] was the Chinese technique of steaming and flashing with oil … It’s really the best way to treat [abalone] besides sashimi, but I want to do more than slice abalone.”

And Chinese food is something that Tsai knows well. Very well. While he was raised in Dayton, Ohio (so, yes, Tsai is allowed to knock his hometown as he sees fit), his family was always big on making and savoring authentic Chinese fare. Tsai cut his teeth cooking at his family’s restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen, so his passion for cooking was present early on—not that he envisioned himself becoming a chef at the time.

Tsai graduated from the legendary Phillips Academy Andover and continued on to equally esteemed institutions—Yale, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering; summers at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, which left him leaning more toward cooking than engineering; and Cornell University, where Tsai earned his master’s in hotel administration and hospitality marketing. Not letting any of his schooling go to waste, Tsai opened his first restaurant, Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1998 to great success. Th at same year, Food Network premiered cooking show “East Meets West with Ming Tsai,” where Tsai showed offhis skills in creating Eurasian-fusion fare in front of the world. Tsai nabbed accolades for both endeavors (James Beard and Emmy Awards respectively, just to name a few). Currently, he now has a second restaurant in Boston— gastropub Blue Dragon, which opened two years ago—and his show “Simply Ming” on PBS, which starts its 13th season this fall.

Tsai has nothing but praise for food shows on TV. “It’s still great for all us chefs, because it’s still promoting food,” Tsai opines, “and it indirectly promotes going to the restaurants and indirectly promotes the book sales, the farmers, the vineyards and everything we do in our business…”

But cooking-competition shows are another story. While he’s done a few—beating Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef,” as well as competing in the “Next Iron Chef,” Tsai feels that genre has peaked and is now playing its course out. “Listening to some of these judges when they say, ‘I like the nuance of the jelly bean with the fish …’ I mean, c’mon … That’s when it can get a little ridiculous.”

Not that it means he’s lost his competitive spirit. With amusement, Tsai recalls, “Someone asked me to go back to the “[Next Iron Chef] All Stars,” but I said, ‘No I’m retired, I’m done.’ But then I’ll watch it and say, ‘Shit! I could’ve beaten him, you know’ … I tell my wife, ‘No, he shouldn’t do that! What were they thinking?’”

Strangely enough, out of all the things Tsai has made throughout his career, one of the standout dishes from his kitchen is, surprisingly, fried chicken—something he considers difficult to make.

“It sounds really funny, but everyone knows and has a special way to make fried chicken. You get one out of 10 people in America who try Peking duck and thinks it’s delicious, but it’s because they’ve never had it before. Everyone’s had fried chicken, so there’s certainly more fried chicken critics, and every culture has their own version,” Tsai says. “It actually took us three months to develop our fried chicken for Blue Dragon—buttermilk tempura fried chicken, brined in a salted buttermilk. I took the best of all cultures and combined it. It’s been a huge hit.” Laughing, he adds, “I didn’t think after all my years of training everywhere, my fried chicken would be my best seller.”

When he’s in Hawai‘i though, he gets to play the role of diner rather than chef. A creature of habit, Tsai tends to make his way around his local favorites—Side Street Inn for the pork chops, Giovanni’s on the North Shore and, of course, the biggies like Alan Wong’s, Roy’s and Morimoto. Last year’s visit, however, had him adding to his list of culinary gems.

“The Pig and the Lady. What a great restaurant. Andrew Le is the nicest owner. We had the best food there; it’s phenomenal,” Tsai says. “[The food is] really fun, tasty and well-executed. I wish him luck.”

Tsai also sings praises to a couple chefs on Maui, namely, Sheldon Simeon at Migrant and Ka‘ana Kitchen’s Isaac Bancaco. “Full disclosure,” Tsai says. “[Isaac] is a great friend and my old sous chef from Blue Ginger.”

This year though, Tsai has to make his stop in Hawai‘i short and will likely only stay on Hawai‘i Island. Parents Iris and Stephen, who actually reside at Kahala Nui a fair amount of year, plan on hopping over to Kona to spend time with their son. Tsai has a few family duties of his own to attend to soon after Seven Chefs, One Big Island—his sons, David, 15, and Henry, 13, start school in the fall. Additionally, Tsai is also scheduled to go to Italy in late September for Expo Milano 2015. A modern-day world’s fair, he’ll be cooking his signature dishes in the USA Pavilion. “They’ve asked a bunch of us chefs to cook in Milan to represent the U.S.,” Tsai explains. “Representing your country and showing off all the great American products is a huge honor.”

And it’s not the only huge honor Tsai has been bestowed with. Even before Expo Milano, Tsai has been “representing,” preparing meals for some of the world’s top figures. As a member of American Chef Corps—a part of the State Department’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, established in 2012 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—he, along with the likes of Marcus Samuelsson, José Andrés and our very own Alan Wong, is called on from time to time to cook for visiting dignitaries.

“[The Chef Corps coat] is the proudest chef coat I own,” Tsai shares. “I let the State Department know if I’m going to a particular country, and they try to set up something with the appropriate chef or diplomat of that country—it’s quite an honor to be part of that.”

His first Chef Corps assignment? Cooking at the White House for then-President of China Hu Jintao. “The visiting dignitaries so appreciate that there was thought put into the meal based on where they’re from,” Tsai says. “They’ll have Marcus Samuelsson cook when someone from Sweden comes; they’ll have Rick Bayless cook when the President of Mexico comes … [the State Department] brings in the appropriate chef for the appropriate dignitary of that country.”

But of all his roles and accomplishments, the one that Tsai is the most grateful for and feels fortunate to be part of is his charity of choice, Family Reach. Currently Tsai serves as president of the National Board of Advisors for the organization. Family Reach helps families with a child or parent with cancer through direct financial support. “It’s the only national charity that provides a financial lifeline for families who have a child with cancer,” Tsai asserts.

His affiliation with them started five years ago when he met Carla Tardif, the executive director for Family Reach. Tardif called Tsai after a meeting him at a golf tournament and explained to him that one of her Family Reach patients, Darlene—a terminally ill cancer patient—told her that her last wish was to meet Tsai and eat his food.

Without hesitation, Tsai invited Darlene and her whole family to dine at Blue Ginger, where they had an unforgettable time. Th at’s when Tsai made his decision to help Family Reach on a deeper level, and only Family Reach. “I use what I can do to help these families … but I’m the one getting the most out of helping them. Th e only people pissed off are all the other charities,” he says, jokingly. Not wanting to spread his efforts too thin, Tsai’s had to decline requests from other groups. Another reason he’s so pro-Family Reach is that he knows exactly where every cent is going—straight to the families in need.

So for the last five years, he’s been working hard, raising money for the group. Through his charity event, Cooking Live with Ming Tsai, he’s raised $2.5 million to date. Tsai holds 12 events around the country each year. His last event was in Boston, which took in $420,000, and his next event will be held in New York on Nov. 2.

He’s ecstatic about the new app the organization recently launched, called Family Reach Give. “It’s the first app specifically for [helping families who have members with cancer]. Th e app features 13 families at a time, and you can specifically donate money to one of the 13 families …” Tsai shares.

“you have to figure out something that you’re passionate about; what you can do to help others. Because at the end of the day, this is not a dress rehearsal, we only have one wave in life.”

For more information on Ming Tsai, visit To learn more about Family Reach, visit

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