Q & A With Ming Tsai, Part 2: "Confusion" Cuisine, The Importance of Cookbook Pictures + Why We Need To Go To Grandmother's House
In the first part of our interview with cookbook author and longtime television cooking show host Ming Tsai -- yes, he has a restaurant too, if you're anywhere near Wellesley, Mass. -- the chef talked about the evolution of food TV and cooking for cartoons, and revealed that Emeril does not in fact say Bam! in real life. Thank god, I guess.
In the second part of our interview, the chef picks up where he left off, which was apparently talking about his appearance on this season's The Next Iron Chef, another episode of which airs this Sunday night. No, he didn't tell us who won. We didn't ask. The Food Network probably has spies, even on Hollywood hotel patios. Probably especially on Hollywood hotel patios. Turn the page for more on this and other things, and check back later for Tsai's mother's recipe for vinegared shrimp.
Ming Tsai: I'll segue, because you'll probably ask this. Why the hell would I do The Next Iron Chef?
Squid Ink: Yeah, well. So why?
MT: They've asked three times, I was like, Pass, pass. My agent was like, You have nothing to gain. You could lose first, it could be embarrassing. And then this time it came around again and I'm like, You know what? I'm 46, I want to prove to myself that I have game. I'm the most competitive person I know, because I love to win. I race my kids up staircases and I beat them. They're 10 and 8.
SI: Enjoy it while you can.
MT: I'm going to. And I love food. Plus, being around 46 years, I've seen every product. It's not like I'm going to go, What is that? And it was fun. So that's why I did it. I also knew, I just knew, that I was not going to be the worst of 10 people. They weren't going to get Thomas Keller. You know, Keller would probably stink at it, because that's not how he cooks. Well, first of all, Keller is so smart he probably wouldn't do it, but you know what I mean. It's so funny, everyone was so nervous. And I'm like, guys, just don't even think about it. Just cook.
SI: So, your new book...
MT: I think this was my favorite book. This was the fastest one ever. I met the publisher a year ago, and exactly a year later [it's out]. I'm very proud of the photography, and there is no food styling. I think it does such a disservice for someone who's cooking, and you make it and you're like, god, mine doesn't look anything like the photo. What did I do wrong? And so I didn't want to use gloss or Q-tips; I just wanted to plate it. The point is, how you plate it is how it's going to look like.
The purpose is to get people back cooking. Sitting down as a family, having dinner. We did this: every single night at 5 p.m. we sat down to dinner, mom, dad, brother, myself. Every single night. And every Friday we went to grandma and grandpas. 5 p.m., again. Everything happened at the dinner table: how was school, who are you dating, any problems. And most importantly, what are we eating next. Always the topic of discussion. And that's lost now in this country. Between soccer practice and ballet. And you're twittering at the dinner table. Are you kidding me?
SI: Kids aren't learning how to cook.
MT: It's a huge problem in China. The generation that's like 15-25 in China, they don't know how to cook. So then what happens? Chinese cuisine's going to go? Because all these guys who are cooking right now are the 40-80 year-olds. And yes, there's cooking schools, but it's the home cooking that's falling off.
So by keeping it simple -- the one pot -- because you do get demotivated to make a great meal when you have to spend an hour cleaning up. Five pots and pans, it's a pain in the ass. You won't do it tomorrow. But if it's literally one pot.
SI: You have just the one restaurant?
MT: Just one. No empire. Just one restaurant. I'm certainly the only chef on TV who has one restaurant. It's by design, it's not because I couldn't. It's rather selfish: it's just quality of life. I have two boys, I want to see them; I play golf with them, I travel with them. I have one wife, which is all I need. And I'm really so freaking busy. This is my fourth book, I'm always producing more TV, because I enjoy teaching, I enjoy doing that, and I like retail. I'm on the board of this nutritional roundtable at Harvard to try to help solve obesity. Because as chef, I think it's our responsibility to help out. I'm the national spokesperson for FAAN, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, because my first son was born with allergies to soy, wheat, dairy, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and eggs. Seven of the eight. A very unfunny joke from upstairs. The son of a chef. But you can't feel bad for David; he's eating better than any adult. Organic New Zealand lamb rack with rice noodles and line-caught halibut with fried rice. Food allergies are crazy right now. When I was in high school, maybe one kid had a nut allergy. One.
SI: You studied to be a mechanical engineer at Yale?