Ming Tsai on healthy eating, weekday cooking, and Duncan Hines yellow cake
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After I interview Ming Tsai, the acclaimed chef hands me his business card. “In case you have any more questions,” he says.
I nod, casual, but later my coworkers and I joke about what it means to hold the business card of the TV show host, restaurateur, and cookbook author. We hail from the Boston area, where Tsai’s restaurants are highly celebrated. “Show this card at any restaurant in Boston, get a free meal,” we quip.
Maybe the small rectangle of paper doesn’t hold quite that level of clout, but I still tuck it carefully into my purse. Tsai has been named a top chef by Esquire Magazine. He’s won an Emmy for his work as a TV show host, and he’s guest-starred on the children’s show “Arthur.” What have I been doing with my life that’s so special?
But I’m not the only one who’s excited about meeting Tsai. Maybe an hour before we exchange cards, he’s standing behind a counter at the International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago, making food in a series of multicookers he’s designed with rice cooker brand Aroma. A small crowd of fans watch intently as he fills the air with good smells.
Tsai is undeniably comfortable in the spotlight. His voice cuts easily through the noise of thousands of people traversing the show floor—it’s not hard to imagine him calling out orders in a busy kitchen—and he talks very, very quickly. He utters the word “braise” more frequently than anyone I’ve ever met.
He mixes up Duncan Hines yellow cake in a cooker, telling us about the first time he ever made the stuff as a child. He’d been home alone, hungry, and decided to try his hand at baking while his friends played sports outside. When the cake was done, he charged his friends for slices and made a profit.
That’s the difference between us, I think to myself. I baked cake as a kid, too, but I gave it to my friends for free. If I’d thought to charge for my baking, would I too be a famous chef by now?
When the cake is done, it sticks to the cooker and comes out in pieces. Not exactly what the chef was hoping for, especially considering the fact that he’d talked up the cooker’s nonstick coating. Still, Tsai tosses a few chunks into his mouth. “Tastes the same,” he declares, unfazed.
His preferences run a bit healthier these days than they did as a child, he tells me later—even if he can still appreciate Duncan Hines cake.
“I never eat after 10:00 pm,” he says, explaining. “And Mark Bittman taught me vegetarian until dinner, which is so easy to do.”
My face must betray my skepticism (I love Mark Bittman, but I also love meat), because Tsai adds, “I’m not against meat. I’ll eat a steak every now and then.” I nod with increased enthusiasm.
“And I splurge,” he says. “I mean, if I’m on Cape Cod, I’m going to eat fried clams… And I was just in Scottsdale, and my son and I, we had Double Double, Animal Style, absolutely. But I don’t eat Double Double Animal Style every day. It’s all about moderation.”
So what does Tsai eat on a daily basis? He’s been singing the praises of the multicookers he’s been paid to demo, but I can’t imagine he actually uses them at home. I mean, he’s a chef. Surely multicookers are reserved for us laypeople?
“This is what I use during the week,” he tells me. “I usually work lunch service, come home, get a meal going, and then I go back to service and work dinner… I see the kids for a little bit, and I’m like, 'Guys, dinner’s in the thing,' and they know. And they know it’s safe, they can open it up, they can scoop out whatever they need, they can close it… but it has the warm function, it’ll stay warm… And when I get home at 11:00, if there’s some coq au vin left, it’s still in there hot. I tell them never unplug it, because I want the food too.”
The thought of an acclaimed chef coming home at the end of the day and scrounging for leftovers surprises me. “None of us chefs ever eat at the restaurant,” he explains. “It’s the most phenomenal thing ever—we’re around prime rib and lobster and foie gras and caviar, and we come home, we eat a bowl of cereal.”
I’d never thought about it, but I guess it makes sense. You can’t eat fancy food all the time, especially not if you’re health-conscious like Tsai. He has a quick, square-shouldered energy about him, cracking jokes with the speed of a man who has not been made sluggish by an overabundance of rich meals.
As we wrap up our conversation, he brings up multicookers once more—after all, he wears many hats, but today he’s here to show off these devices. “GET YOUR MULTICOOKERS NOW. THANK YOU,” he booms, voice pitched loud and low for comedic effect, and then the interview’s over.
“That’s going to win the Emmy,” he jokes, and grins, digging in his pocket for a business card to hand over.
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