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
Chef Ming Tsai at Sandy Lane in Barbados during the first annual Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival.
Arthur Bovino

Chef Ming Tsai at Sandy Lane in Barbados during the first annual Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival.

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.