Kitchen Conversations with Norman Van Aken: Ming Tsai
Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef-restaurateur, cooking teacher, and author. His restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, Norman's, was nominated for multiple James Beard Awards. He has a forthcoming cookbook called ‘Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen.’ This interview is one in a regular series of ‘Kitchen Conversations’ — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us. You can find all of Norman’s contributions on his page at The Daily Meal.
This month, Van Aken spoke with chef Ming Tsai. In an age when bold-face chefs are constantly opening new restaurants, Tsai has remained focused. He’s only recently opened his second restaurant, Blue Dragon in Boston, after having run Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts, since 1998. Tsai is best known for blending the flavors and techniques of Asian and French cooking schools.
In addition, Tsai hosts a popular PBS cooking program, Simply Ming. He has hosted several cooking programs on Food Network and has been a constant contributor to NBC’s Today show.
Here he shares his cooking history and what he really thinks about fusion cuisine.
The Daily Meal: When did you realize that cooking would become serious to you?
Ming Tsai: The first time, I was 10 years old and I made my uncle and auntie happy. And that felt good.
I think it was serious to me when I was taken seriously and I realized, “Damn! I actually can cook.” When I realized I could actually blend East with West, which was Chinese and French at that first time. I made black bean beurre rouge with garlic-chive-stuffed Dover sole.
I’ll describe the place. You walk in the door, and it was so small you had to pull the deuce out to let the other deuce in. Only about 30 seats upstairs and 20 downstairs. The kitchen held three people. We had Shareef. He was the dishwasher, or plongeur, as well as the garde manger all at once. I was the sous chef as I was No. 2 in the kitchen and then there was Jean-Marc. And there is something to be said for small kitchens, because I could turn and plate. We would peek out at 120 diners on a Saturday. It was crazy with such a small team. Shareef plated the one or two desserts, which we purchased, though we did make ile flottante [a rich dessert]. I had a piano with eight burners, salamander above that, reach-in on the other side, plates everywhere. We were doing French food — pan-seared calf’s liver with vinegar and shallots, we had some kind of pasta, we had lapin de moutarde [rabbit cooked in mustard], we had beautiful lamb with mirepoix and Gruyère mashed potatoes, of course. I fell in love with pain Poilâne. So chef served chèvre crottin on it with the most simple frisée salad with the most exquisite vinaigrette. We had saumon cru with a basil vinaigrette, always a special of the day, and that is when I got to create my stuff.
We had one small [pick-up] window that could hold two plates.
At the top of the skinniest staircase there was a “locker room,” where they literally had one shower head but you would still shower because you were so dirty and it was so hot in that little kitchen, and we loved to party so it was great fun for me. Since “statute of limitations” is over, I totally got paid under the table. It was hundreds of francs, and it was really great money for me since I had no expenses. It was a fantastic job, but most importantly, it gave me the confidence of “Oh my God, I created a dish and people actually liked it.” Of course, not just the owner nor chef Jean Marc, but the plates came back clean, and sometimes there would be a note with a comment from the happy guest! Sometimes they would peek their head into the kitchen, and boy, did that feel good. But that is not why I cook, but it is probably why I keep cooking. It’s so nice to actually have a job where you can make people happy. We are very blessed.
Are you the first chef in your family?
Technically, no. My mom was the chef-owner of Mandarin Kitchen in Dayton, Ohio, the culinary capital of the world [laughter]. Although my dad helped design the restaurant including the $5,000 stainless-steel egg roll cart, which I took out to the middle of the town square in Dayton and sold egg rolls and drinks. [My mom] was an empty-nester early. My brother and I both went to Andover. So at the urging of friends she did a lot of local cooking classes. And just like my grandmother, who was my mom’s mom. She is in Heaven now. She was way ahead of her time. When we used to visit Iowa City, she was the head nutritionist at the famous heart hospital there. She used to put hoisin chicken on cheese pizza, and we were like, “What are you doing?! We want pepperoni. We want sausage.” I wish I listened because Wolfgang Puck started doing that too. I’m like eight years old when this was going down, so we are talking about 1972, way before Wolfie was putting anything on anything.
My dad was also way ahead of his time. He decided because of the lunch rush at the Mandarin Kitchen he needed “quick service,” but Chinese food is made to order. He created batch cooking, as we know the famous batch cooking restaurant now is called Chipotle, where you cook in batches. You put it in steam-tables. He had the steam-tables behind. We had the fried rice, chow mein, Mongolian beef, sweet and sour pork, all of the specialties, and bam, bam, bam, served them. We could bust out 150 to 200 lunches, no problem. It’s too bad they didn’t patent those processes!
So, to answer the question, no, I’m technically not the first chef. I am the first to make it my career. Again, my mom didn’t start until after both kids were gone. Both of my grandparents on my dad’s side were great cooks. In Dayton, they would grow their own cucumbers and chiles to make their own sambal. But, I was the first professional. My junior year in college I knew I wanted to be a chef. I went to Cordon Bleu. I had the realization, ‘Damn! The French can cook too!’ That is when I started blending East and West.
Do you feel this kind of life caused you to sacrifice having a normal life?
You know, I’ve been very blessed. You know this. You know me well. And I’ve always, always put quality of life ahead of everything else. Quality of life changes the older you get. When I was in Paris cooking after college, quality of life was cooking up a storm, eating well, playing pro squash on the weekends, traveling through Europe. Easy, no kids, no wife, no nothing, but my one common denominator was always one thing: good food. I love — always will, still do — good food. I’m always asked why I’m a chef, and my go to is that I was, still am, and will always be hungry. That’s why I am a chef.
As a little kid, two or three years old, I was hanging out in the kitchen because my parents or grandparents would throw me a scrap. Plus, I was always fascinated by the fire, the chopping, the smells.
As soon as I graduated from college I was cooking in Paris. I never had a 9-to-5 job. I didn’t really “sacrifice” because I didn’t really know what it was. I couldn’t imagine not wanting to cook at night. That was always the dream, right? You always started at lunch, and when you made the big time you became the cook at night because dinner was more important than lunch. That was my normal life. When I used to work as the assistant [food and beverage manager] at the Inter-Continental in Chicago, it was literally 70- to 80-hour work weeks, six days a week — that was “normal.” So again, what is a normal life? What I did always was to squeeze in “normal stuff” like still playing squash or still doing yoga — still having “me time,” if you would. It’s easy not to do that. It’s easy to sleep in until noon or 1 p.m. if you are the p.m. sous chef or line cook and then work until close and then go out drinking and then repeat. So I was somewhat disciplined at a younger age to make sure I got that stuff in. Plus, I was very competitive in squash. So in Paris, for example, I would work Monday through Friday, take a TGV train to somewhere in France, play in a tournament late Saturday morning. Luckily I was ranked high enough that I didn’t start playing until the quarterfinals. I’d play Saturday and Sunday, and go back to work Monday. It was the best, best life. I miss that life.