Starting with the summer he spent cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris while still a Yale mechanical engineering student, Ming Tsai has taken a somewhat unconventional route to chef stardom. Today, by way of Paris, Osaka, and Chicago (to name just a few of the cities he’s called home), Tsai is a cooking-show host, author, and owner of Wellesley’s renowned Blue Ginger restaurant. He’s also a traveler to the core. He tells IgoUgo why it’s impossible for him to separate food from travel—and explains his penchant for food photos.
IgoUgo: You honed your craft as a chef all over the world; how did these travels influence the way you cook?
Ming Tsai: Every chef cooks based on his or her personal experiences. Reading cookbooks or watching TV is awesome, but you need to actually go to places to see, smell, touch, and, most importantly, taste the food at a particular place. There is no stronger influence in creating a chef’s repertoire than taste, and travel is really the only way to do that. Even with all the great technology out there today—vodcasts, websites—nothing can substitute being there: the heat of the air, the smells, the type of people surrounding you, the architecture…it all adds up to the whole experience.
IgoUgo: On your TV show Ming's Quest, you cook amazing meals with the native ingredients you find in different destinations. What food product or ingredient would you cross an ocean to get right now, if you could?
Ming Tsai: I’d go to Tsukiji in Japan and handpick tuna for toro.
IgoUgo: At what point did you know that when you opened a restaurant, you wanted to create an East-West menu, like you’ve done at Blue Ginger?
Ming Tsai: Except for my training, the only style of food I’ve ever cooked is East-West cuisine. Every chef cooks from where they’re from, where they’ve lived, where they’ve traveled to—hence travel is a huge part of a chef’s life. I’ve been fortunate; I did my first professional East-West dish at Natacha in Paris in the mid-‘80s and that really gave me the conviction that the way I grew up eating should also be the way I’d cook at my restaurant.
IgoUgo: This year, your show SIMPLY MING has seen you cooking in kitchens across the country with other top chefs. What and where was one of your favorite dishes, from this year or past years?
Ming Tsai: All the recipes my guests prepared were absolutely fantastic—there's a reason we all do this for a living, right? But, in terms of my favorite place in the US, nothing beats San Francisco and wine country!
IgoUgo: How much does place influence your enjoyment of a dish?
Ming Tsai: Tons. The smells, sights, sounds, what the food is served on, the aroma from the spices at the spice market next door, it all makes a difference.
IgoUgo: What's your favorite food destination? Is it the same as your more general favorite place to visit?
Ming Tsai: In the US, definitely San Francisco and wine country as well as NYC! Outside of the US, Paris and Beijing. Favorite food destinations definitely are also my favorite places to visit in general. Food is, and has been, such a huge part of my life, it would be impossible to separate the two.
IgoUgo: We’ve read that you like to photograph what you eat on trips. What do you do with all those photos?
Ming Tsai: Well, I put some of them in my self-published book, Ming’s Master Recipes—you can find photos from my trip to South Africa in there. I also just keep them for mental reminders. That’s how I was raised—we always used to make fun of my dad for taking pictures of everything, even airline meals, but now I thank him profusely, because I can go back and look at the exquisite truffle chicken I had at Taillevent and be right back there.
Photo courtesy of Laurie Donnelly for WGBH