“In China, when you see someone, you don’t typically say hello or how are you, instead you ask — ‘Have you eaten?’” Ming Tsai recalls this cultural greeting as an aspect that is strongly ingrained within his personal identity. A renowned chef, restaurateur and television personality, Tsai’s presence in the culinary world is big and his journey with food has been unique.
Tsai’s childhood was spent in the kitchen. His parents, who are from Beijing, loved to cook and he loved to eat. Family bonding time often revolved around cooking as they spent countless hours at their family-owned restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen, in Dayton, Ohio. “The only times I saw my parents fight were in the kitchen,” Tsai says. “I would then step in and tell them to let me cook. After about five or six times of repeating this pattern, I would see them drinking and giggling in the next room, and that’s when I realized, they just wanted me to cook!” Given his upbringing, which involved embracing delicious food and traveling the world at an early age, Tsai grew up to value culinary cultural integration.
Making people happy with food has been Tsai’s biggest motivational factor when it comes to cooking. “Being 100 percent Chinese, you had three choices. You were either going to be a doctor, [a] lawyer or an engineer,” Tsai jokes. “I began studying mechanical engineering and went to Yale, but then I started going to Paris every summer and thought, damn, the French can cook, too!” With each summer spent in France, Tsai’s zest for cooking Eastern and Western food grew stronger. Then he landed his first job as an apprentice to renowned pastry chef Pierre Hermé.
"Details matter and being aware of it will help you in any profession"
Despite receiving his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Yale University, Tsai decided to pursue a career as a chef. For him, building public rapport as a chef meant creating a presence on television. From battling on Television Food Network’s cooking competition, “The Next Iron Chef” to hosting TV shows such as “Simply Ming” on PBS and Food Network’s “East Meets West” and “Ming’s Quest,” Tsai’s ebullient personality made him an instant celebrity.
“I’m in season 14 pre-production, which for PBS or for any other show is a great run,” says Tsai of his TV show “Simply Ming.” “This year we’re going to Hawaii and Norway to shoot.” But the aspect of the show that he’s truly excited about is shooting two more episodes with his parents. “They are the best guests and they’ve been on my show every other year since the beginning.”
How does Tsai keep the show fresh after running and hosting for 13 seasons? “It’s automatically fresh because I always have new guests. There are repeat guests, but I always bring newer chefs — there’ll probably be four or five new chefs who I’ve never worked with before, which is exciting.” In addition to introducing up and coming chefs, Tsai also makes sure the show changes locations. “We change the format and setting. For example, last year we did our shoot at a penthouse in Boston.” To better connect with the audience, Tsai says, “We’re cooking to make sure it makes sense to the home cook. Lots of real-time cooking, including the slicing and dicing, because a home cook doesn’t have all that stuff pre-diced for them. So I think that’s always well received.”
Each of his cooking endeavors has a common theme: East-West fusions. With strong Chinese roots that tie Tsai back to a 116th-generation descendent of the Chinese emperor in 210 B.C. and family documentation dating back to 2700 B.C., he is proud of his Asian heritage and an advocate for cultural awareness. “We’ve always been proud to be Chinese,” says Tsai, and goes on to talk about the importance of languages. “If you want to be a multimillionaire, you need to speak English, Mandarin and Spanish.”
From opening up restaurants Blue Ginger, Blue Dragon and his newest endeavor to launch a new Asian casual-food chain, Tsai understands the appeal of Asian food. “If everyone did eat better, the world would be a better place.” With investors already lined up and plans to share his profits with charity, his newest Asian food chain will give consumers more accessible options beyond Panda Express.
In terms of advice to those entering the workforce, Tsai believes in two fundamental things: pay attention to the details and be kind. “I don’t care if it’s a P&L because you’re an accountant, or if you have a scalpel in your hand to cut someone open, or if you’re looking at a recipe to bake a soufflé,” says Tsai. “Details matter and being aware of it will help you in any profession.”
The Chinese saying “hao ren hao bao,” which translates into “good things happen to good people” is mentioned in relation to the importance of exercising kindness. Being kind and paying it forward in all capacities eliminate negative buzzwords and create a positive cycle. As executive chef ambassador for Family Reach, a nonprofit organization that helps families deal with the financial and emotional burdens of cancer, Tsai actively works to raise awareness in his own special way, such as launching “Cooking Live! With Ming Tsai and Friends,” which has amassed more than $1 million to date.
Tsai additionally encourages people to pursue their personal interests. “Don’t get pigeonholed into doing things — if you don’t love it, you’re never going to be good at it. It’s important to follow your passion.” With a heritage and a career life that are just as flavorful as his culinary art, Tsai is a positive influencer and representative both inside and outside of the Asian community.
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