Kitchen Conversations with Norman Van Aken: Ming Tsai
Did you ever come close to quitting the business and finding something more “sane”?
No. But I’ve also been also very blessed. I opened Blue Ginger with my wife, Polly, 16 years ago. Blue Dragon is my new joint, which I opened with my new [business] partner and which is also awesome. [Blue Ginger] is 4.2 miles from my home. Also, it is in Wellesley, Massachusetts, home of Wellesley College, where Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, and other illustrious women attended. The point is, unlike in New York City, our last seating on a Saturday was like 9:30. Saturday! So, even as the working chef in the middle of the line, I could be done by 10:30, 11 at the latest. So there were never 1 and 2 a.m. nights (working at least!). So I had a much more normal life as a chef than most.
It took me 16 years to open my second restaurant. I was always going to be a ‘one restaurant chef.’ One of my best friends is a commercial realtor, and he owned the spot where Blue Dragon is. It’s a small, single-story, standalone building. He basically made me a real estate deal, which is a deal I could not refuse. So we own the space together, and honestly it is a business decision to own a restaurant outright, which is what I wanted to do with Blue Ginger because I’m so sickened by paying rent for 16 years. So that is how Blue Dragon came along.
I purposely, methodically, did not open up a bunch of restaurants. I had many opportunities. My wife and I were looking to open our first restaurant by ourselves. We knew we wanted to be in a city that had a Chinatown, that was our first criteria. That meant [the city] was big enough to support a Chinatown. Secondly, I could get my products inexpensively. I was laughing at how bok choy was $8 or $9 a pound ‘cause that was a specialty item, and so we needed my products easily accessible, cheaply. We wanted quality of life. We always wanted to get good dumplings, a good bowl of noodles, so that eliminated most of the country. You had Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston, London, Paris if you also looked but that didn’t work. We didn’t want to raise kids across the ocean. Boston ended up being the No. 1 choice. San Francisco was too expensive to buy a home. LA, I didn’t want to drive my whole life on interstates.
I did almost get a job in New York City. You know the man. You know the restaurant, Union Pacific. There were two of us left in the finals. One name was Rocco DiSpirito, and one name was Ming Tsai. Rocco beat me out. The rest is history for him. He is doing really well right now actually. He had his bumps in the road. My wife would have lived in New York City. She did not want to. She was going to sacrifice to let me cook in New York. I’m somewhat relieved in hindsight. I ended up almost opening in Boston, but we couldn’t find a space big enough so we ended up in Wellesley. And that became a really fantastic quality-of-life decision. We built where there was no competition. Not no East-West restaurants, but where there were no good restaurants period.
I kept my sanity by not expanding. So two weeks before this, meeting my wife and [saying], “Look, we got to get out of Santa Fe.” We were sick of the desert. She actually said, “By the way, we are not going to move from a fucking desert to a fucking desert” — meaning no Vegas. So two weeks after that, a man came up to me on Saturday night. We just did 450 dinners. He said, “Chef, I had a great meal with you. I’d love to open a restaurant with you in Vegas.” My dad trained me to always ‘listen to the opportunity, ‘cause you just never know.’ This man was throwing numbers at me I had never heard of as a chef. I was making $75,000 maybe at the time. He was saying, “We could spend $10 million building your restaurant out to spec. You are going to get 15 percent top line, 20 percent bottom line.” He was basically offering me, per his estimate, a $400,000 to 500,000 salary! He just kept on going how great it was going to be. What a big success. I let him finish and I said, “Sir, thank you so much for that offer. I never heard anything like that. It’s ridiculous but for personal reasons I cannot accept.” He said, “No problem.” He hands me his card and says, “My name is Steve Wynn. I am opening up The Bellagio. If you change your mind let me know.” It was the Olives spot in the Bellagio, which does — I don’t know — $12 or 15 million. So, I certainly would be richer now, but back to quality of life, not so much. I don’t think it would be any better. It would probably be worse for so many reasons. By the way, no offense to Vegas or New York, but to raise kids? No. Not my cup of tea.
What was your arc in terms of the first kinds of cookery you loved and how it morphed over your career?
I’ve cooked Chinese food my whole life. I spent many summers in Taiwan, where my grandparents lived. I would always hang out in the kitchen with their cook and watch her work. My grandfather would cut the heads off chickens in that kitchen. The chicken would run around and get blood everywhere. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. We’d go down to the markets, and eat the street food. We’d eat a dish [that] when translated means “so bad not even dogs would eat it,” but they were the most delicious things ever. The dumplings were totally juicy, which I now make and call them ‘Ming’s Bings’ at Blue Ginger.
Chinese was my whole career before I went to Paris. Then once I went to Paris I started doing stages and learned about pastry and I learned the French can cook too. The restaurant was where the writers and artists went, very artsy. Natasha, the patron, was this Russian-French lady, who was very generous and open. That is when I first did my French-Chinese cooking — things such as chive-tied fish with black bean beurre rouge. Ever since experimenting with East-West I’ve never looked back.
I got to go to Osaka, Japan, and my mission was to learn how to make proper sushi rice. There is an art and etiquette to breaking down fish, but breaking down fish is breaking down fish. In Japan there is more water to clean, clean, clean, but at the end of the day you take the skin off. Sushi rice is the heart of all sushi. I spent three months in Osaka literally learning how to make sushi rice. I learned other things too. My cooking as a lot of Japanese and Southeast Asian influences. Funny enough, the flavor profile of Santa Fe — Mexican cuisine with chilies, cilantro, lime juice — is the exact same profile as Southeast Asia. The one main difference is Southeast Asia has fish sauce, which is their soy sauce.
My food continues to develop, mostly on travels. I was in Spain with José Andrés and really had the most tremendous paprika and jamón. I’m loving a local hot sauce right now. It will morph into a few dishes somehow. You do try stuff when you are on the road and think, “I could take that profile, that flavor and put it in.” I hate calling East-West cuisine “fusion,” because that is what you do with atoms to create nuclear energy. It forces them together. It is a forced combination. I like to think of my food as blending, blending Eastern and Western techniques to produce a food that is bold in flavor. If you say “lemongrass broth,” you need to taste the lemongrass. I love contrasting temperatures and textures.
I’m not a health nut. I’m not a “diet chef.” I don’t count calories. The little butter I do use is to finish a sauce. I don’t make cream sauces. I have a high ratio of veg to protein to starch. I like whole grains. I’ve always cooked that way. I’m not cooking that way to be trendy. It’s just the way I’ve cooked. It’s the Asian diet. Meat is used to flavor food. Having said that, do I have a steak at Blue Ginger? Of course I do. But when I really cook for myself, my kids, and my family, I cook the Asian way.
My biggest pet peeve is what I call “confusion cuisine.” The good news in this country is that you can get any product any time. So now people can get white soy sauce, Hawaiian baby ginger and fresh uni. I think you have to earn the right to start blending cuisines. Either go to Japan and learn how they use white soy sauce or wasabi, or if you can’t, go online or get Japanese cookbooks. I’m not saying you have to master Japanese cuisine, but understand it. My best example always is sesame oil with Chinese cuisine. I went to a very acclaimed restaurant where we know the chef. He’s a great chef and he did a tuna carpaccio dish and drizzled sesame oil on top of it as if it were olive oil. When its perfect fruity extra virgin olive oil from Spain or Italy, it’s awesome, but you don’t put that much sesame oil on a tuna carpaccio. You taste sesame oil for the rest of the dinner. That chef didn’t understand how the Chinese use sesame oil, which is like a tablespoon in a gallon or two of chicken stock because it’s such a strong flavor. So learn from the Thai how you buy, store, and break down lemongrass. Learn from all the cultures what they do with their indigenous products. Then once you learn that then you have earned the right, as I say, to then blend. Unfortunately you see people buy these products online, and they blend it and you get this horrible mass of unbalanced flavors. They didn’t earn the right to be blending. Master the cuisine first. I also don’t ever do East with East, like Thai and Japanese. They are both incredibly delicious, well-flavored cuisines. You don’t need to blend those two. But blending one of them with a beef tenderloin from the West or my Foie Gras Shumai makes sense.