Friday, March 7, 2008

Ming sings about his blings

Having a famous chef join your table for a preview of his next restaurant project is just another can of Schlitz for my blogging colleague Bret Thorn. But it’s a heady treat for a non-food-writing, chain-focused schlub like me. So when Ming Tsai pulls up a chair at his Blue Ginger restaurant in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, you tend to listen raptly as he details the venture he’s undertaking with rock-star designer David Rockwell. Not that the endeavor needs any underscoring by a celeb. A 50-seat lounge with a menu limited to “bings,” a lstyle of Asian dumpling, isn’t exactly another burger place.

Yet Tsai invoked White Castle in explaining the rationale for Ming’s Bings, which will be the only items offered at the 50-seat lounge he's adding in the space adjacent to Blue Ginger. With young kids at home, Tsai has not gone for a namesake Vegas restaurant or the other bling of celebrity chef-dom. The add-on lounge and accompanying private dining rooms will be the first extension of his single-restaurant empire, despite the offers he’s fielded continuously in the 10 years since Blue Ginger opened. But Tsai slyly suggested that Ming’s Bings might not be his last undertaking. He explained that the bings he’ll serve are light, healthful riffs on the simple Asian street foodknown as xian bing. Usually the potstickers are made with gingered pork. Tsai indicated that his array might include a burger that’s encased in a dumpling-style wrap and served in a box—“like White Castle,” but “with a thinner layer of carbohydrate around the protein.”

So, asked NRN executive editor Richard Martin, are you going to see Ming’s Blings pop up in airports and other the other usual sites for chef-created finger fare?

“It all depends on what kind of a write-up I get in a leading industry publication,” he joked with our party, which also included NRN editor-in-chief Ellen Koteff, executive editor Robin Allen, regional business development manager Chris McCoy, and his wife, Martha.

Tsai graciously fielded our questions about high and low points in his career, including the moment he knew a career in engineering wasn’t for him. During a test in college, he was supposed to compute the speed of a dot traveling atop a tube that was riding on on a 33 1/3-rpm record. Instead of computing the answer, Tsai scrawled in his test booklet, “I don’t care,” and stormed out with the conviction he was destined to be a chef, not a bridge or skyscraper builder.

He also shared his secret for cooking calamari, which is served at Blue Ginger with what he described as a sweet potato coating. His chefs learn to cook it to the restaurant’s standards by closing their eyes and listening to the sound. The loud SHHHH of the calamari hitting the oil, or what Tsai calls the “crescendo,” quickly tails off to a near hush. The calamari has to come out of the oil at precisely that point because Tsai estimates the window for “perfect” calamari extends only for 40 seconds. The expeditor ensures the chef’s ear was acute by tasting a piece from each plate; Tsai noted that the expeditor might sample 60 pieces in a night.

In keeping with the blogging style set by the esteemed Thorn, it’s only right that I end this installment with a list of what I ate: Hawaiian Bigeye Tuna Poke served on a crispy cake of sushi-style rice, followed by Mom’s Famous Three Vinegar Sauteed Organic Shrimp, and completed by a shared platter of hush-puppie-like delectables that were sold as donuts. Bret could tell that this dish was perfected with a kiss of tamarind, or that one featured an ingredient you could only get in one section of China on a spring Tuesday, but I’d be out of my league. But if you’re ever looking for the lowdown on a Bloomin’ Onion, I’m your man.

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Anonymous Orrick Nepomuceno said...

Since I was classically trained as a chef in my formative years and have found myself in a completely different sector of the food industry, your entry brings be back to when I was going to culinary school in Vermont. I had aspirations of being the next great chef in the US and thought that I had a great story to sell of an immigrant coming to this country to find his fame and fortune.
But alas, working as a chef, as fun as it may be, is tough work and with little appreciation. I miss it sometimes, but I know that I am making a ton more money now and working less. Plus it gives me the opportunity to eat overly priced dishes like at Ming's restaurant!

March 8, 2008 at 6:24 AM  

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