Barbados Food & Wine Festival Q&A with Chef Ming Tsai

The chef of Blue Ginger talks Barbados street food, one-pot meals, and what he might have done differently on The Next Iron Chef

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.

You designed your kitchen in conjunction with a feng shui Master, is there one element of feng shui that you saw put into practice in your kitchen that might translate to other kitchens?

Yes and no, because face is based on when you’re born. But for example there’s a funeral home across the street from the restaurant, and a funeral home holds dead good people and bad people, so we have a mask facing the funeral home, and that mask wards off the bad spirits. One of the general rules is to never have your front door and your back door in a straight line, that represents money in, money out. There are general rules like that. Also, water is important. We have to fountains in the restaurant. You want good chi to hang out. And you can feel it, you go into a place and you’re like, yeah, this places feels good, it has good chi. Also, having too many mirrors is bad, that’s bad chi, and the mirrors confuse it. It’s like, that’s my brother, no, that’s my brother. General rules for the home are to never have a bathroom with no window. But you should really bring an expert in. You can Google stuff and learn enough to do damage, and it’s really no more expensive to hire an expert. No more than it costs to hire a therapist, and everyone has therapists these days. Well, not me. I don’t have a therapist.

 

Chef, you came very close to being Food Network’s next Iron Chef. In another interview, you named a number of things you gleaned from the experience, namely, it got you back on the line, and that you made some good friends.  Is there something you can tell us that you learned during the course of the show that you think might have helped you to know at the beginning?

Iron Chef? What’s that?

 

I don’t know, it’s this little TV show that has gotten some attention I guess.

On or off the record? [laughs]

 

On and off the record.

You know it was exactly what I thought it would be. I knew what to expect, I did Iron Chef with Bobby once, so I knew about the intensity. But you know, I didn’t lose because of my food. I’ve said this on the record, I respect the judges' decision, but I disagree with the decisions. Michael Symon got it, and he’s a chef, and that was one dish that he did love. And the lardo was brined and cut like a beautiful hot piece of fat, the best things for truffles. I respected their decision, but I don’t agree. I always think back on what I’ve done food-wise, and at the moment, I could, if I had had the time, done something to add some more crunch or something, but the concept was strong. It was something I would serve at Blue Ginger. And preparation-wise to do something this physical, I did train.

I didn’t really play the game. I didn’t take more lemongrass than I needed to screw someone. I didn’t, like one person in particular, say over and over to respect the potato. But he was doing that to make his dish the winning dish. I don’t blame anyone for that. It’s a competition. I kind of went in thinking well, the best food should win.

Would I do it again differently knowing something now that would help me? No, I don’t think so. At the end of the day I credit Food Network.  They promised at the beginning, “We’re going to make you all look good, and one of you will look great. Now if you do something stupid like vote for yourself all that time, that’s your fault.”

But you know, like with the buffet challenge when the Cryovac bag exploded, I mean, it exploded! What are you going to do? And Canora was going around saying, “You destroyed the machine!” It’s like, dude, it’s okay. I could have gotten really upset about that if they just cut to a commercial break, and then they didn’t show that I went back to clean it. That would have been a problem.  But they did the right thing.

 

What’s the question you most wish food reporters would ask you?

I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that. That’s a tough one.

 

Okay, well, what’s the thing you think chefs should aspire to?

I think for younger chefs nowadays they’re trying to do too much. Stick to what you know, and what you were raised on. If you’re Italian stick to that, that’s your soul. It’s good to see what’s out there, but that’s your birthright so to speak. So if you’re Italian, you’re Italian. It’s not always about doing other stuff, but just to do better stuff. I don’t think different is necessarily better either.  I mean, I had a five-hour, 37-course meal at El Bulli, where every single bite mattered, and it was impressive. But I don’t think it’s ever something I could do, or would want to do. I think you need somebody like him to do that, with a brigade of 25 cooks. I mean, you can have fun with it, you come back and learn how to make one of those dishes and serve it to your staff, but it’s a disconnect to me. Then there are seven spumas you’re doing, are you doing it because people want it or because it’s how you cook.

 

QUICKFIRE:

Best sandwich in Boston? Michael Schlow, the Schlow Burger. It’s freaking delicious. The chicken at Blue Ginger is close though.

Favorite music to listen to while cooking? I’m more into reggae or blues. Anything with soul.

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