Celebrity Chef Ming Tsai: Cooking Rules
The celebrity chef talks hot sauce, pairing wine with Chinese food, and how to take photos in a restaurant.
After all these years running restaurants and filming your cooking show, Simply Ming, do you still enjoy cooking at home? “All of us chefs still cook. We still get a lot of joy and solace out of cooking. My most favorite thing to do is cooking for my children and my wife. There’s nothing more fulfilling than cooking for friends and family in your restaurants or at your home. That’s always the case. That’s why we’re chefs. We want to make people happy through food.”
How important is it to you to eat with your family? “We try as much as possible. I’ll say this to my grave, if we could just please get more people to the dinner table, families, friends, politicians…But if we could actually sit down and take the time to eat dinner and break bread literally with people, a lot of these problems we have in this world would go away.”
What’s your favorite holiday to cook for? “Everyone loves Thanksgiving, as do I because it’s all about food, but Chinese New Year is just as important. I love them both. The Chinese New Year is all about eating dumplings because they resemble an ingot of gold. There’s all this great folklore and truism, too. Long noodles for longevity. There’s a lot of play on words. Nian means year but nian also means sticky. So nian gao is a traditional Chinese desert that’s a rice cake that’s sticky. You steam it. You’re supposed to eat that. Green leafy vegetables because it’s the color of money.”
That sounds like quite a celebration. “The other great thing about special occasions like that, I absolutely beeline for the best wine I have downstairs in the cellar. You need that opportunity. You can’t be drinking Château Margaux every day.”
How big is your home wine cellar? “It’s not huge. I have like 200 bottles. My friend has 20,000, which I think is stupid. You’re never going to drink 20,000 bottles of wine. American and French are my two faves. I love all the new world stuff, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Especially the sauvignon blancs coming out of there. I am chardonnayed out. No offense to all the chardonnay producers but I think I just drank too much of it in ‘80s and I like the crisp acidic passionfruit, gooseberry of sav blanc.”
Is there a perfect wine pairing for Chinese food? “I’m asked all the time. Straight out if it’s spicy, of course, beer is fantastic. But if you’re going to drink wine, the best grape is riesling for Asian food. Because Thai food, Chinese food and even Mexican food has great spice to it and needs a little residual sugar. We’re not talking about Mad Dog or white zinfandel. We’re just talking about a couple of brix more than a normal wine. That sugar offsets the spiciness of those chilies. If you drink a red wine with a Sichuan dish, that spice would just accentuate the tannin in that red wine. And that wine is going to taste so much more tannic than it should be. The wine maker did not intend for you to eat that. With bright spicy food, you’ve got to go gewürztraminer or riesling. Chenin blanc is close. Viognier is pretty good, too. Again, I don’t like sweet wines. And by the way, don’t overlook Champagne. Sparkling wine and Champagne they’re fantastic with Asian food. The bubbles help cut through the greasiness and the bubbles help tone down that spiciness. And everything is good with Champagne. Even breakfast.”
You’re on the road quite a bit. Do you bring menus home from places you’ve eaten? “It’s changed. I used to always bring menus, now I just take a photo of the menu and then I take, of course, pictures of all the food.”
Do you have any tips about photographing food? “Here’s one thing I have to insist on all you foodies out there in the world. This is from all us chefs. Absolutely take photos of the food. I take a photo of almost everything I eat except maybe breakfast, although I’ve done breakfast, too. Take the photo, put your camera away and enjoy the dish. Don’t take a photo and start Tweeting it and Instragramming it. No, your food is dying. Even a steak, that crispiness of the char from the broiler goes away in a minute. Eat the dish, please. Respect the chef that just spent a lot of time making that dish. You can always Tweet, Instagram and Boomerang later.”
Do you put out salt and pepper on the tables in your restaurants, Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon? “Only by request. We bring a pepper mill when we serve salads. But there’s never salt on the table. And literally, Blue Ginger has been there 18 years, and I can count on two hands the number of people who asked for salt. The food is fully flavored. If you want to knock yourself out dude, here are two tablespoons [of salt]. I’m not offended by it. Some people just don’t have taste buds, right? By the way I say this all the time, you don’t have to like my food, not everyone has taste.”
Are you a condiment collector? “You open my fridge, my Sub-Zero, and I got 55 hot sauces. My wife is like ‘you did not bring another hot sauce, did you?’ I love hot sauce. There’s such a varied palate of hot sauce, some are really tart and vinegary, some are incredibly smoky and some are incredibly salty. I don’t want the nitro ones, that you touch [a bit] and your dead. That doesn’t do anything for me.”
Is there one type that is your go to? “Sambal is my favorite. I like sambal a little bit more than sriracha. Sriracha is good but it has a little too much garlic. I’d rather control my garlic level. Sambal is just pure spice. One of the best condiments for a sandwich is 50-percent sambal and 50-percent Dijon mustard. And if you want to thin it out a little bit add 20-percent mayonnaise. Put that on a hot dog, on a burger, on a ham and cheese, on whatever, it’s so freaking good.”
Before I travel I try to cook some dishes for my family to eat while I’m gone. Do you ever do that? “That’s interesting. I can never cook for just two or four people. So, when I cook it’s always for ten or 12 because that’s the size of my pots and pans and it’s the same amount of effort. So, I sublimely already do that.”
I want to eat leftover at your house. “The braised dishes just get better every day. It just gets better and better and better sitting in your fridge.”
Ming Tsai is the owner of Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon, and host of cooking show Simply Ming on PBS. He’s also on the board of Family Reach, a charity that provides financial support to families fighting cancer.
Interview has been condensed and edited.