Tsai ’89 whips up success in career as chef

Ming Tsai ’86, who became famous for melding Eastern and Western cuisine on his television cooking shows, received his training at Yale, but not in culinary arts. Though he went on to become an Emmy Award-winning television chef, Tsai pursued a degree in mechanical engineering at Yale.

Tsai first became a household name among cooking aficionados in 1998 when he started his own cooking show, “East Meets West, Cooking with Ming Tsai,” for which he won an Emmy Award after beating out such esteemed cooks as Julia Child and Martha Stewart.

“I think the pinnacle was when I won the Emmy,” Tsai said. “I never grew up thinking I wanted to win an Emmy. It was never on my radar. I never even knew it was spelled with two m’s. When my agent called me to tell me, I fell off my chair.”

While “East Meets West” is no longer on the air after over 200 episodes, Tsai is currently the star of another television cooking show on public television, “Simply Ming,” and he is working on a new reality cooking show, “Cooking Under Fire,” which will debut this spring. In his new reality show, Tsai will serve as the head judge on a panel evaluating aspiring chefs from across the nation.

But Tsai himself did not always aspire to become a chef. He said he arrived at Yale after attending Phillips Academy Andover determined to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who both majored in engineering at Yale. He was also an avid squash player on Yale’s varsity team. At Yale, he spent most of his time playing squash, and during senior year, he said, he took the easiest course load among his friends so he could spend more time on practicing and playing. He even married his squash coach’s sister.

Roger Barnett ’86 LAW ’89, one of Tsai’s roommates at Yale, said a typical day for Ming would entail taking an engineering exam in the morning, playing in an afternoon squash match, hosting a DKE party at night and then whipping up food for his roommates from leftovers at the end of the day.

“All these contradictory and significant accomplishments make Ming what he is, which is a unique blend of different talents, and that’s reflected in his success in the culinary world,” Barnett said.

Tsai’s passion for cooking extended beyond preparing snacks for his roommates. His father, Steve Tsai ’52 GRD ’61, said Ming Tsai’s culinary talent was apparent from an early age when he worked as a “makeshift cook” at his parents’ restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen in Dayton, Ohio. After spending the summer following his sophomore year at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, Tsai decided he wanted to pursue a career in cooking.

“I made my first fried rice when I was 10,” Tsai said. “As a kid I was always in the kitchen and I always knew I wanted to be around food. I knew that being around food would make me happy and when I went to Paris, I realized I could actually do it as a career.”

Stuart Kensinger ’86, who was friends with Tsai during his time at Yale, said Tsai was always passionate about what he did, including his culinary endeavors. He described their undergraduate experiences as a “four-year continuum of fun and antics.”

“Ming is full of a lot of personality,” Kensinger said. “He was always entertaining and generally at or near the center of the life of the party. All through Yale he would entertain us and cook for us. We knew that was the place he was headed.”

After graduating from Yale, Tsai attended Cornell University for a master’s degree in hotel administration and hospitality marketing. In 1998, the same year he began taping his first cooking show, Tsai opened his own restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., Blue Ginger, after being fired twice from the position of chef at other restaurants. Featuring Tsai’s signature style of East-West cuisine, the restaurant won several awards in its first year, including the Best New Restaurant award by Boston Magazine, and Tsai was awarded Chef of the Year 1998 by Esquire Magazine.

While he is proud of his success as a television figure, Tsai said he wants to be known primarily for his culinary skill.

“When people ask me what I want to be remembered for, I certainly want to be remembered more as a chef than as a TV host,” Tsai said. “I was a chef first and I will always be a chef first.”

Michael Schlow, a chef at Radius, Via Matta and Great Bay restaurants in Boston, described Tsai’s food as “full-flavored” and “exciting.”

“What he has been able to do is both use the Western techniques as well as the Eastern techniques and what ends up happening with his food is you really have a coherent dish at the end,” Schlow said. “It isn’t just scattered all over the place like some fusion cooking, which can often be a mess. There’s a point to which he’s heading and he reaches that.”

Tsai said he plans to continue improving on Blue Ginger and his career as a television chef.

“We’ll never be perfect, but we strive to always be better, because once you rest on your laurels, you’ll hear that Blue Ginger used to be a great restaurant, and I never want to hear that,” Tsai said.

Tsai’s father complimented his son for his persistence and work ethic, attributing his son’s success to those characteristics.

“Intellectually, he’s not as fast as his older brother, but he makes up for it by being dogged and working hard at it,” Steve Tsai said. “I think that’s his best quality, his ability to take a job and persistently stick with it.”

Though Tsai acknowledged the role his hard work played in his success, he said he would advise today’s undergraduates to enjoy their time at Yale and find time to relax.

“You should not take yourself too seriously,” Tsai said. “If you don’t look back on that and say those were some of the best four years of my life, you’re missing out.”

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