Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, August 4, 1999

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Ming Tsai sweats it out behind the steamer basket at Cuisines
of the Sun. He's serving up his signature shumai made with foie
gras. Helping him is Warren Uchida, sous chef at Hoku's.

Mad about Ming
By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Chef Ming Tsai shows his "parfait" made of raw ahi, caviar and wasabi tobiko.

Food TV's favorite fusion chef
wears his celebrity well

From Ming's menu

By Betty Shimabukuro


THE young woman in the elevator is breathless: "Have you seen Ming Tsai yet?" She has one aim as she heads off to one of the premier eating events in Hawaii, opening night at Cuisines of the Sun in Kona. She wants to meet Ming Tsai. She believes he has fabulous charisma -- all over his body, if you get the drift.

An hour later she has tasted every one of the signature dishes served at Tsai's tent. But did she meet Ming?

"Our eyes met," she moons. "It was good enough."

The man definitely has star power. Tall, with a voice that commands and an easy, companionable public self. The TV show helps. That would be "East Meets West with Ming Tsai" on the Food Network, where he is arguably the hottest thing since Emeril Lagasse, and much cuter.

In barely a year of airtime, Tsai has won the kind of fan devotion that normally follows celebrities of far less culinary natures.

Barney, for example. At 21 months of age, Montana Toyama comes running the minute she hears the theme music for "East Meets West" on TV. At Cuisines of the Sun, her father pointed out the man in chef's whites and asked, "Who's that?"

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Tsai challenges Hawaii chef Alan Wong to a game of Go
in Hoku's, the bar at the Mauna Lani resort.
He offered to bet $1,000. Wong won.

"Ming Tsai," she answered clearly. Then she had her picture taken with the star chef.

Tsai views the attention with some amazement, but also acceptance. It came on surprisingly fast once his show hit Food TV, he says, and you never know how long it will last. "When it stops, that's when I'll miss it."

In Kona, he never seemed to turn down a request for a photograph, an autograph or just a bit of attention. Even Alan Wong, Hawaii's star chef, could be seen with a disposable camera, snapping a shot of Tsai posed with a group of Wong's friends.

All part of the game, Tsai says. "It doesn't cost me money to shake someone's hand and say hi."


It's not all flash. There's food involved and it's a superlative blend of Asian influences and classical European techniques, by the measure of some heavy-duty critics.

Tsai's restaurant, Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., was nominated for a James Beard Award as best new restaurant; Esquire magazine named Tsai chef of the year.

"You'll find food that at its best has a fresh delicacy and sense of joyous experimentation from a chef drawing on two vocabularies," Corby Kummer said in Boston Magazine, which gave Blue Ginger a '98 Best of Boston award.

"Not everything is perfectly balanced, and sometimes enthusiasm gets the better of expertise. But Blue Ginger's food is always interesting and often exciting, and Tsai has earned his right to fuse."


Backstage at Cuisines, Tsai is up to his wrists in raw ahi, tossing it in a big black bowl and flavoring it with olive oil and salt. It goes into molds made of sections of PVC pipe, pressed down with a Tabasco bottle. On top go layers of caviar and wasabi-flavored tobiko and a cream topping. Unmolded, it's an Ahi and Caviar Parfait.

Tsai shows his assistants how to make a depression in the center of the caviar so that it looks like a solid layer from the outside, but actually conserves on caviar. "Very Chinese," he says.

This is a recurring theme, his Chinese-ness and its associated, shall we say, economy. In a public demonstration of the making of his Soba Noodle Sushi, Tsai comes to the slicing stage and points out the sushi innards hanging out of the ends of his nori-wrapped rolls. The Japanese, he says, would trim off these rough edges. "Then again, I'm Chinese. What are you going to throw it away for? You paid for it already."

On television, Tsai frequently speaks of his family heritage and his culinary roots working in his parents' Chinese restaurant in Dayton, Ohio.

He's explained how his mother and grandmothers fought for the cheeks, tail and eyeballs of every fish brought to the table; how his father and uncles fought for the check at every restaurant meal, as a point of honor.

It's part of his appeal as a TV chef that his show is perhaps 80 percent food and 20 percent Ming -- snapshots of him growing up, stories out of his childhood, pure personality.


Tsai acknowledges he has come along at the right time: At 35, he is of a generation poised to inherit. Plus, he speaks for a cooking style poised to inherit --Euro-Asian fusion.

He dislikes that word, fusion, by the way. Says it sounds unnatural. His term is East-West cooking.

Whatever it's called, Tsai says it isn't a modern invention, and it isn't a fad. "I really believe that every food combination has been done in some form. No one's inventing a cuisine."

The difference is, its time has come. The public is growing more sophisticated and more familiar with Asian foods, he says, and once rare ingredients such as fresh ginger and lemongrass are becoming widely available.

"This style of cooking is not a fad, it's not a trend that's going to fall off the Earth." It is, he insists, the cuisine of the next millennium.

There's a spiritual aspect as well, one that also fits in with the times, Tsai says. "In a nutshell, slowing down ... flowing with the eddies ... that's the way I've been since I was 10."


If Part 1 is the food and Part 2 is personality, Part 3 in the celebrity chef equation would have to be the respect commanded in the kitchen.

Warren Uchida and William Queja, sous chef and assistant chef, respectively, from Hoku's in the Kahala Mandarin Oriental hotel, were assigned to assist Tsai at Cuisines of the Sun. Both came home impressed with Tsai's professionalism and good humor in the kitchen.

"When you watch TV you think he's so up there and untouchable, but here he's just like us," Queja says. Some "name" chefs will leave their sous chefs to run the kitchen and will check in only to make sure everything's on track, he says. Tsai, however, was "hands on all the way," prepping, cooking and serving along with everyone else on the line.

He treated the staff with relaxed familiarity, Uchida says. "Before he left the kitchen he always went around and acknowledged everyone ... After each event he always thanked everyone. That shows a lot of character."

Tsai says confidence in the kitchen is part of the chef's job description, "to get staff to believe in what you're doing."

"If you put a dish out and say, 'I hope this is a good dish,' you're a line cook," he says. "When you can say, 'This is the best dish I can do,' you're a chef."


Bullet On TV: "East Meets West with Ming Tsai" recently won a Daytime Emmy award. It airs on the Food Network daily at 11:30 a.m. It also shows at 10 weeknights and at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Bullet Online: For recipes and background info, see For info on his restaurant see

Bullet In print: "Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cooking" is due out in October from the publisher Clarkson Potter.

Bullet In person: Tsai's Blue Ginger restaurant is in Wellesley, Mass. It was nominated for a James Beard Award this year as Best New Restaurant. The winner was Babbo, in New York.

Off Ming’s menu

At Ming Tsai's Blue Ginger restaurant, the sea bass and noodle sushi are served together, garnished with Wasabi Oil and Soy Syrup. For simplicity's sake at home, though, the dishes do well separately and ungarnished.


1 cup light miso paste
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 cup sake
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1/2 tablespoon ground pepper
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup sugar
4 6-ounce Chilean sea bass fillets (thick, square cuts)

Bullet Garnish:
8 ounces wakame salad
2 ounces wasabi tobiko
1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted

Combine all the marinade ingredients and add the fish, completely coating the bass. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Broil or grill until done.

Drizzle Soy Syrup and Wasabi Oil (recipes below) in a zig-zag pattern on each plate. Place a small mound of wakame salad on the plate and top with sea bass. Shape wasabi tobiko into a small ball and place atop sea bass. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 290 calories, 9.5 g total fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, greater than 650 mg sodium.*


1/2 pound soba noodles, cooked just softer than al dente
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup chopped Chinese parsley
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Wasabi Oil (recipe follows)
5 sheets nori
1/4 cup pickled ginger, julienned
1 cucumber, peeled and julienned
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 yellow bell pepper, julienned

Combine the first 6 ingredients. Check for seasoning. Using a sushi mat, cover with one sheet of nori, shiny side down. Lay a thin layer of noodle mix on the bottom third of the nori. Arrange pickled ginger, cucumber and peppers on the noodles and roll lightly. Moisten the top edge of the nori with water to "glue" the roll. Repeat process with remaining nori and noodle mix.

Slice sushi in half, then cut each half diagonally. Place 3 slices of sushi together, top with a little mound of pickled ginger.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 320 calories, 8 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, greater than 1,200 mg sodium.*


1/2 cup wasabi powder
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup canola oil

In a small stainless steel bowl, whisk together the wasabi, mirin and sugar. Add water until a loose puree is achieved. Whisk in oil. (For extra spicy, use less oil.)

Approximate nutritional analysis per tablespoon: 115 calories, 11 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, less than 5 mg sodium.*


2 cups thin soy sauce
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 lime, juiced

In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients over high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer, and let simmer until a syrupy consistency is achieved (liquid reduces about 70 percent. Cool.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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