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First Person

Ming Tsai wants your vegetables to taste awesome

The chef and TV host on inspiration, food innovation, and the joy of Chinese braises

By Schuyler Velasco

Ming Tsai is a chef, TV host, entrepreneur, and the proprietor of MingsBings, a line of frozen, plant-based rice paper wraps sold in supermarkets across the U.S. He spoke with Experience about the future of plant-based cuisine, where he finds inspiration, and what he’d be doing if he weren’t a celebrity chef.

Where do you come up with your best ideas?
When I’m eating someone else’s revelatory dish, or a technique I’ve never seen, or flavor I’ve never had. That gets me going. I mean, when I eat anything, I’m like, “Oh, I could do that goat cheese better. I could do it this way.” And so, when I have an incredible dish, incredible bite, that’s when I immediately start going to town.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about leadership?
The people who work for you have to be treated with respect. They brought you to the top and will help you when have failures. We’re all going to have crises, and it’s the people below you that will back you up. Especially in the kitchen: It’s your dishwasher, your prep cooks. Without them, you’re nothing. Your food won’t be good, either.

“Anyone can cook a steak, but to make a carrot be delectable, that’s a lot more work.

If you had to choose a different profession, what would you do?
I dabbled with competing in squash a long time ago. I thought it was really fun that you could physically train your body to do something better, and you had complete control of that. You did 80 pushups or you did 8,800 pushups. It’s in your control. But I’m also going to admit I’d love to be a rock star like Slash or someone really out there — to be at freaking Madison Square Garden or a gigantic stadium singing. But I can’t sing, so that’s a problem.

What is your go-to comfort food?
Chinese braises. I love black bean braised chicken or red roast duck. Awesome. The best food in the world is Chinese food; you can ask any chef. Any event we do, we always end up in Chinatown to eat. But lately, too, I’ve been taking big whole vegetables like gigantic Napa cabbages, seasoning them, grilling them, and slicing them on a cutting board like a piece of meat. That’s been fun.

How has your cooking on Simply Ming changed over the years?
Five or six years ago, I started doing vegetarian riffs on the dishes my friends were making on the show — a snow cabbage steak instead of a piece of fish, a vegetarian beef stroganoff. I think people realize that eating plant-based — not all the time, it’s hard to do all the time, but a few times a week — it’s going to be better for your body and the planet. It’s that simple. It’s not rocket science. Every time you eat a double cheeseburger and french fries, I don’t think anyone thinks, “this is going to be good for me today.” Eat it. Just don’t eat it five times a week.

Where do chefs interested in offering more plant-based fare look for inspiration?
I look toward other cultures that do it naturally — Indian and Asian cultures. In Taiwan, there are opulent banquets that are completely vegetarian using tempeh and tofu skin and all types of soy products. In Southern France, there are some amazing fine dining chefs who don’t necessarily call themselves vegan, but they do wonders with vegetables. Anyone can cook a steak, but to make a carrot be delectable, that’s a lot more work. If you want it to taste like meat, that’s a lot harder because everyone knows what a good burger tastes like. I don’t try to make my vegetarian cooking taste like meat. The better approach is to make your vegetables taste awesome.

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Schuyler Velasco is Experience Magazine’s deputy editor.


Illustration by Joel Kimmel


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