Phillips Academy Andover, Yale, Le Cordon Blue, Cornell, Blue Ginger, Simply Ming, The Next Iron Chef — Chef Ming Tsai has an impressive resume. We caught up with him during the first annual Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival at Sandy Lane. Read on for his take on Barbadian street food, kitchen feng shui, and what if anything he would have done differently on The Next Iron Chef.
What’s the thing you’re most excited about regarding the Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival?
Hands-down just coming down to Barbados, meeting people, trying the food, that’s what we, as chefs like to do. Oh, man, I had this roadside meal yesterday, they only serve Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, but there’s always a line, and always locals.
What’s it called?
It’s a roadside stand, there’s no name, there’s just a blue tarp, and they serve grilled fish and grilled pork chops. It’s a real local place. The fish was either barracuda, or hake, no, not hake, maybe dolphin fish, Mahi. They serve it in a Styrofoam box with a big plate of rice, and coleslaw, a little salad and with that garlic cream sauce, it’s basically an aioli, with chips – fries, the whole thing was about $50 Barbadian, or $24 US for two of them. That was cool. And I had the hot sauce last night.
With the fish cakes? The Scotch bonnet sauce?
Yeah, and it kicked my ass. I put it on like I’d normally put sambal on and wow, thank god they had the rum!
Have you been here before?
That’s the thing, no. That was really part of the reason why I wanted to come. Look, I mean, you know it wasn’t going to be like South Beach or Aspen, but you know I knew Coliccs was going to come down, and so I knew it would be a fun event.
What are you doing for your demo?
We’re doing three dishes out of the new book Simply Ming One-Pot Meals. Sake granny smith PEI mussels. Which may or may not be PEI. We’re doing a seared crusted tuna, and salad Niçoise, my take on salad Niçoise. I’m making a cocktail, a pineapple sake-tini, and the spicy pork orrechiette. You know, the classic little ear, and Italians always do pork with broccoli rabe, so here we’re adding fermented black beans, and broccoli. Which brings me to the point of One-Pot Meals, you blanch the broccoli in the same water in which you cook the pasta, so you get all that flavor.
You’re a national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. If you listen to some cooks and waiters, one of their pet peeves is the customer with food allergies. On the flip side, we’ve all heard customers complain about not having their allergies taken seriously. What’s the biggest disconnect between restaurants and customers on the food allergy front?
Since my son was born… well actually we’ve had a system in place at Blue Ginger for thirteen years, so before my son was born we’ve had the same system in place. The answer is we don’t have a disconnect at Blue Ginger, because someone could die. I mean [laughs], I can’t think of something worse than that for a PR nightmare. Besides, I kind of think it’s bad karma to kill someone, probably not a good thing. But what has happened over the last 10 to 15 years is that allergies have grown by leaps and bounds. Now in my kid’s class there are three kids that have an allergy, life-threatening allergies, which is absurd. You have to take it seriously.
One of my goals is to educate people that molecules can kill. If someone is allergic to shellfish you have to remember that if you fry the shellfish in the oil, the oil doesn’t kill the allergy to the shellfish, you can’t use that oil. The best example is when you cook raw chicken. Everyone gets the deal with that. Well, you have to do that with an allergy. And once you educate people that you can’t put a miso mushroom here and then reuse that space for something else, they start to get it. They start to understand, to cohesively put it together, that hey, we will get even more local clientele and make even more money. You can’t believe how many crying mothers I’ve seen in my restaurants because of this. I’m like, “What’s going on? Don’t you like the food?”
And they’ll tell me, “No, it’s just so nice that my child can eat like a normal person. I’m loving it. He’s been ostracized his whole life.” Think about it. When Dave was three or four, I took him to a restaurant in Boston not to be named, and I looked for a manager, and I saw a guy in a suit doing nothing and I knew it was him – and I said, “My son has all these allergies, can you just make him a turkey sandwich?” And he said, “We’d rather not serve him.” And I was like, really, dude?
So let me get this straight, first we discriminated against skin color, then we discriminated against people in wheelchairs, and now this? I can’t think of anything more un-American. But as you know, we passed our first law. Three out of four of the things we were trying for got passed. The bible system did not get through, but we’re building awareness. And you can download that off of Ming.com. It’s an Excel spreadsheet with eight allergies up along the top.