10 Questions with KC – Chef Ming Tsai

Interview with Food Allergy Activist Chef Ming Tsai

After our recent adventures in dining gluten free, the G Free Foodie Team thought you might enjoy a re-post of our conversation with Chef Ming Tsai…

The G-Free Foodie crew doesn’t get star-struck often – well, maybe when we meet a member of the San Francisco Giants, and I would probably not be able to hold it together if I met Nigella Lawson, but barring those instances, we manage to play it pretty cool. So when Ming Tsai agreed to an interview with me, I don’t think any of us on the G-Free Foodie team were ready for the other ones to start screaming and jumping up & down, but I’ll be honest, we all did. See, Chef Tsai isn’t just a TV star, award-wining chef, cookbook author & restauranteur – he’s a Celebrity Chef standing up for those of us with food allergies – and embracing us with delicious food. Read a little more about the man and our shared affinity for Fage Greek yogurt – then make his Chicken Fried Rice out of leftovers at your house -like Chef Ming does! He even wants us to dry out the rice if it’s fresh, saying: “Fried rice is a great way to use up leftovers and put a satisfying meal on the table in about 15 minutes.  You can throw in just about any type of quick-cooking raw vegetables and ground meat.  Day old rice, which is nice and dry, is actually better than fresh.  But if you don’t have any leftover rice in the fridge then you can spread just cooked rice on a sheet tray and stick it in the freezer for about 30 minutes.”

Celebrity Chef endorsement of leftovers. I’ll take it. And I’m still jumping around – KC

1. Can you tell me a little about the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), and how you became one of their  national spokesperson?

FAAN is a fantastic resource for folks with food allergies and anaphylaxis, parents, teachers, restaurants and health professionals.  They developed a practical guide for training staff and safely preparing food for diners with allergies that is a must-have for restaurants.  In addition to raising awareness, FAAN has been instrumental in getting far-reaching regulations around food labeling and policies for schools and airlines passed.

One experience in particular served as the catalyst for me to speak out about food allergy awareness.  I took my son David, who was diagnosed with food allergies as an infant, to a family-friendly restaurant when he was about 5 years old.  Before we were seated, I spoke to the manager about his allergies.  I couldn’t believe it when I was told, “We’d prefer not to serve you.”  As a father, hearing that made my blood boil.  And the restaurateur in me was absolutely incredulous.  Refusing service to a paying customer is obviously a bad business practice.  Doing so because you don’t know what’s in your food or if it’s unsafe for someone to eat is scary and wrong.  After that, I was determined to teach people the simple system we use at Blue Ginger to keep track of allergens and prevent cross-contamination.

2. Can you tell me about the Food Allergy Bill in Massachusetts?

Food allergies are just as dangerous and potentially lethal as sanitation violations so proper training and conscientiousness are critical.  The Massachusetts Food Allergy Bill, Bill S. 2701, is a huge step in the right direction and sets a powerful precedent for other states.  The law requires restaurants to post general information about food allergies, as they relate to food preparation.  And standard food service courses, including ServSafe®, must now include a food allergy training component.

Equally important is the required statement on menus: “Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy.”  At Blue Ginger, we ask all guests if they have allergies upon being seated.  That way, the server can suggest appropriate menu items, or modifications, and ensure the best dining experience possible from the very start of the evening.  It makes it easier for all involved.

The last part of the law also requires the Department of Public Health to develop a program that would designate restaurants “Food Allergy Friendly.”  This section was inspired by the Food Allergy Reference Book we keep at Blue Ginger.

3. What is your Food Allergy Reference Book and how did it get started?

I created a Food Allergy Reference Book, which we call the “bible,” when I opened Blue Ginger in 1998.  It is a 3-ring binder filled with lists of all the ingredients in every single thing we serve diners.  Instead of using a conventional recipe format, ingredients are grouped by component – protein, veg, starch, sauce 1, sauce 2, garnish, etc.  The major allergens in each dish are also highlighted in a box at the top for easy reference.  The reason we do this is because, a lot of the time, a single component may be omitted or substituted to accommodate a food-allergic guest.  Making a dish suitable for a shellfish allergy may be as simple as leaving off the fried garnish (since the fryer is a source of cross-contamination).  I have posted sample food allergy forms and a training video on my website, ming.com.

The “bible” goes hand-and-hand with the training of cooks and wait staff.  Having all this information accessible was a smart business practice 14 years ago and is even more valuable today, now that food allergies are so prevalent.

I wish all restaurants would adopt this system.  Often times, allergens are hidden in ingredients like soy sauce or introduced by the fry oil.  If you don’t check each and every component of a dish, you cannot confidently tell a guest with allergies what menu items he can safely eat.  Having this information written down in a clear format makes human error avoidable.  At Blue Ginger, we have a system of checks and balances in place to prevent mistakes.  When a guest tells their server that he or she has an allergy, the server consults the Food Allergy Reference Book and the chef to determine suitable menu recommendations.  After the guest agrees to an allergen-free menu item or modification, the server rings in the order and highlights the tickets to alert the expeditor and line cook.  The chef or expeditor must approve and initial the ticket before the dish is fired.  A restaurant manager will bring the dish to the table, reiterate the guest’s allergies and confirm that the dish is free of said allergies.

4. Along with your esteemed culinary credentials, I read that you also have a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Yale, and a Masters Degree in Hotel Management and Hospitality Marketing from Cornell.  What advice would you give an aspiring young chef who may want to bypass traditional education?

Go to college because that’s an important degree to have.  And while you’re in college, get a job in a kitchen to make sure you love it.  You have to love chopping onions if you want to be a chef.  There’s no way around it.  Even coming out of culinary school, you would still end up chopping onions.  There are more culinary schools now that offer four year programs so you can earn a bachelor’s degree, which is the best of both worlds.  Bottom line is cook, cook, cook.  You have to be passionate and willing to embrace all aspects of the business.

5. I read that you grew up cooking in your parent’s restaurant as a child, what was your favorite meal to make when you were young?

Fried Rice.  It was the first dish I made when I was ten years old and I still make it for my kids.  Besides being delicious, it uses leftovers.

6. If we opened your refrigerator, what would we find?

You would find some sparkling water, Fage Greek yogurt, Wan Ja Shan® Organic and Gluten-Free Tamari and Ponzu, Dijon mustard, and an assortment of green vegetables.  There must be about 40 hot sauces stored in the fridge door that I’ve accumulated during my travels.  I also keep HLC Probiotic pills, kombucha, wine and Champagne on hand.  And there is always leftover Chinese food.

7. Are there any products you’re particularly excited about right now?

Yes, I really like black garlic.  It is milder than regular garlic and reminiscent of fermented black beans.  I add black garlic puree to soups and sauces for a great hit of umami, the fifth taste of savoriness.  In fact, I served a black garlic sauce with butterfish at the State Department luncheon I cooked in honor of the Vice President of China, Xi Jinping, last month.

Wan Ja Shan® just came out with a spicy Organic Worcestershire Sauce which is fantastic.  Their new Organic Shiitake Stir Fry Sauce is also very flavorful.  Both are gluten-free and vegetarian.

Sambal is one of my all time favorite ingredients so I had a local food producer make me plum and cranberry sambals.  They have a great kick and the fruit flavors work really well with my East-West cuisine.

8. After a long day, what’s your favorite easy meal?

Ramen is comfort food.  I take instant ramen soup, add whatever fresh vegetables are in the fridge, and a couple poached eggs for protein.  It is so satisfying but not too heavy to digest before going to bed.

9. Your cooking show “Simply Ming” could quite possibly be my favorite show on television.  You make the art of cooking look so effortless.  Can you give the G-Free home cooks a tip to get top quality flavor?

You have to start with top quality ingredients.  Chefs aren’t magicians.  We rely on farmers, foragers and fisherman to provide us with the makings of a great meal.  I am also choosy about the Asian sauces and condiments that I cook with. I use only naturally brewed soy sauce and wheat-free tamari made without artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.  You can really taste the difference.  And that’s the most important thing – taste, taste, taste your food and season it accordingly.

10. Pick one: Chocolate, Lemon or Pumpkin?

Definitely lemon.  It brightens the flavor of savory dishes and balances richness.  Lemon juice adds tartness while the zest contributes refreshing lemon flavor that really stands out when added as a garnish just before serving.  You can use lemon to lower your sodium intake.  Another bonus is lemonade.

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