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Q&A: Ming Tsai on 'The Next Iron Chef'

Ming Tsai. (Leanna Creel)

During this season of Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef,” we’ve had our eye on “the old guy,” which is his description. Ming Tsai is familiar to cooking-show enthusiasts of a certain (read: mature) demographic that watches public television. Surprisingly, he’s not blowing away the competition, although after four episodes, Tsai’s at least finishing in the top of the pack.

The James Beard award-winning chef has just taped his eighth season for WGBH, has run his Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., since 1998, has several product lines and has just published “Simply Ming One Pot Meals” with Arthur Boehm (Kyle), his fourth cookbook.

Tsai spoke with deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick last week from his home in Natick, Mass. Excerpts follow:

Looks like you’re expanding the Tsai empire.
I’m a one-restaurant chef. That’s all I want to be.

So why “Next Iron Chef”?
They’ve been asking me for years. It’s the only competitive format that’s just about the food -- the best plate of food. I love food and competition, obviously. Being somewhat athletic, I can do stuff quickly. It takes physical strength to do this contest. Definitely not easy. And we weren’t sequestered – that’s why I wouldn’t do “Top Chef.”

How did you prepare?
I trained to run with the young guns. I do prana power hot yoga. I love it, three days a week – at least when it’s not golf season. With the amount I eat, otherwise I’d be 500 pounds.

Was there a psych-out factor with the other contestants?
In the beginning. I won the first challenge, so that kind of set the bar for me. You know, at 46, I’ve seen just about all general ingredients. I figure there’s a technique I’ll know for any of them.

For the record, one of the best things that came out of it is the friends you make, and I know that sounds corny. We kind of made fun of ourselves for bonding. We hung out a lot. Marc Forgione and Bryan Kaswell are great cooks, solid people. I would never have gotten to know them. That level of cook, their age is not an age I’d be hanging out with.

What did you learn from doing the show?
It was hard; great to do but I didn’t consider it a game changer going in. I didn’t always agree with the judges. The one thing I did mind – and I considered it a challenge – was that I lost control of my schedule. Chefs are control freaks. It was six days on, one day off in L.A.

Were you hoping to engage a younger audience?
Of course, the demographic of Food Network is much different than public TV. That’s a nice bonus. A younger demographic may not know me. I got to ride the Emeril train at Food Network long ago. So did Bobby and Mario. I started on Food Network when it had 8 million viewers.

What made you leave?
The schedule for “Ming’s Quest” was grueling. I had no children when I started, then I became a dad. Around the time of 9/11, they wanted me to do more travel, more entertainment stuff. I wanted to do a true cooking show.

Then WGBH approached me when I was on “Victory Garden.” Producer Laurie Donnelly asked me to follow Julia Child’s footsteps. An honor. Who could turn that down?

Why do you think competitive cooking shows are so popular?
The format is entertaining. Ratings and advertising run it.

It’s not that dissimilar from what we do at Blue Ginger. We’re working at the same pace as the competition. I wasn’t on the line every day, and this show got me back on the line. I’ve been cooking for 25 years, and I’m still not bored. When you create a new dish, it’s awesome.

And that new dish would be…?
This week we started Long Island duck, seared. We use the liver to make a warm mousse, topped with roasted kabocha squash gnocchi and a medjool date caramelized shallot sauce, served with greens. Fall’s my favorite time.

Sounds like that’s not a candidate for “Simply Ming One Pot Meals.”
No brunoise or chiffonade. Right. The new book is about not wanting to mess up the whole kitchen for dinner. We also wanted to make the recipes affordable, so I use lesser cuts of meat: short ribs, oxtail, ground meat. We priced out the recipes, and most were $20 for 4 people. East-West is what I’ve always tried to popularize.

I love the hand technique for measuring rice and water. Where does it come from?
That’s the Mount Fuji technique. My grandfather taught me. It doesn’t matter what pot you’re using; anyone can do it.

Rinse the amount of rice you're using by filling the bowl with cold water and stirring the rice with one hand. Drain and repeat until the water in the bowl is clear. Transfer the rice to a medium saucepan. Flatten the rice with your palm and without moving it, add water until it touches the highest knuckle of your middle finger.

If the pot is too small to put your hand in, touch the top of the rice with an index finger. It should come to the top of first break -- about an inch for most people.

But you’re a rice cooker fan.
I’ve been saying it till I’m blue in the face. Get a rice cooker. It’s worth it. I have an induction Zojirushi. It cooks 30 percent faster. It costs $200 or $300, and you can find it at

Let’s say you were the Next Iron Chef. How would you handle it, schedulewise?
Perfectly. You make time for things like that.

By Bonnie S. Benwick  | October 28, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Books, Chefs  | Tags:  Bonnie Benwick, books, chefs  
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It is great to see Ming in the news again. He has been away from the spotlight for too long.

Posted by: margaret6 | October 29, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

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