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Celebrity Chef Ming Tsai cooks up storm with East-meets-West cuisine

The wrinkles have started appearing and the hairline is receding, but 46−year−old celebrity chef Ming Tsai — rated number 16 on People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful People” list 10 years ago — shows no signs of slowing down his career since his debut to superstardom in 1998.

Tsai, who is the executive chef of the award−winning restaurant Blue Ginger in Wellesley and the host of his two cooking shows, has received more accolades than many chefs of his caliber. He was voted “Chef of the Year” by Esquire in 1998 and won an Emmy Award for his cooking show “East Meets West.”

But Tsai’s current success would not exist without the passion for cooking that was instilled in him by his parents while growing up in Dayton, Ohio.

“Both my parents were great cooks, and I always was around food and eating their food,” Tsai told the Daily. “My mom opened a restaurant [where we lived], so I got the restaurant bug at the early age of 13.”

Tsai cooked alongside his parents at their restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen, for two years before attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Following in the footsteps of his father, Tsai continued on to Yale University to earn his degree in mechanical engineering. At Yale, however, he realized that science was not his cup of tea.

“There was not one class that interested me, so after graduating I did not venture into any [mechanical engineering] jobs,” Tsai said.

In fact, Tsai said that the only memorable experience he had during his college years was the summer he spent at the prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. So it wasn’t difficult for Tsai to figure out where his interests laid. He continued to take more cooking classes and work in kitchens from Tokyo to Paris before returning to the United States to enroll at Cornell University’s College of Hotel Administration. At that point, Tsai began to gather more practical skills that he later used to build up his commercial success.

“There was a great human resource class in the business school about organization behavior which taught [communications] skills,” Tsai said. “That was useful in a sense of learning about how to be nice to people.”

In between filming for his current cooking shows, “Ming’s Quest” on the Fine Living Network and “Simply Ming” on PBS, running his restaurant and publishing his fourth cookbook, “One−Pot Meals” — out this November — Tsai still tries to learn new things every day, a practice which to which he attributes much of his success.

“Just like every other chef, I try to eat a lot of other people’s foods and read literally hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks,” Tsai said. “I also eat in traditional Thai restaurants, which is where I get my inspiration.”

Tsai uses traditional Asian recipes as a starting point for many of his dishes and redefines them with a Western twist. At Blue Ginger, for example, some of his signature dishes include foie gras−shiitake shumai in sauternes−shallot broth and tea−smoked salmon and beef Carpaccio with avocado−jicama salad and fresh wasabi emulsion. He also gives classic Caesar salad “the Ming treatment:” dressed with sesame and topped with Chinese cruller croutons.

Although the popularity of the fusion−style marriage of Eastern and Western flavors has dwindled since its height in the ’90s, Blue Ginger has continued its success, winning an Ivy Award from Restaurants & Institutions in 2007 and a Best of Boston award by Boston Magazine in 2008. Recently, Tsai also competed in “Iron Chef America,” beating Iron Chef Bobby Flay in “Battle Duck.” His surprise victory against the world−famous chef is also why he is currently now a contestant on the Food Network’s third season of “The Next Iron Chef.”

With a promising career still underway, Tsai is still humble about what he hopes to achieve.

“The most important thing for me is just sound business that continues to do well; I’m surrounded by 90 employees that are amazing and reliable,” Tsai said. “That satisfaction I get is more than when I get a golden statue or a guest appearance or a prestigious title.”

Tsai believes that anyone can achieve similar success in the culinary world through hard work.

“If you finally get the opportunity, like I did, you must knock it out of the park,” Tsai said. “Just remind yourself that you get one chance, and this is not a dress rehearsal.”

– Jon Cheng

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