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Ming Tsai: enthusiastically Ming

A celebrated chef with a cause. Several of them.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

A chef with an outgoing personality, Ming Tsai ’86 is a Food Network star who just might bring your order to your table himself. View full image

Twenty years ago, Ming Tsai ’86 opened a big, swanky restaurant in Wellesley, as tony a Boston suburb as there is. Friends who’d eaten there started telling me I’d better drive in from my Beacon Hill apartment to try the Chinese-American-pan-Asian food this young Yale graduate was making. (In Wellesley, the fact that he was a Yale grad and squash star registered.)

The food at Blue Ginger was indeed worth celebrating, and I wrote one of the first raves in my review of the restaurant. Tsai made food that was accessible, slightly whimsical, elegantly presented compared with familiar Chinese restaurants, and with Mediterranean accents and spices that provided both reassuring touches and exotic interest. Most notably in retrospect, the food was clean: free not just of MSG, but also of starch-coagulated sauces, sticky and syrupy coatings, and batters that tasted of old oil. Lightened, freshened food with the occasional Cajun-style or Hunan kick was a new generation’s answer to the warm, careful style of Joyce Chen, who had followed in Julia Child’s public-television footsteps. Tsai, too, went onscreen with Simply Ming; his can-do, guy’s-guy personality fit with the up-and-coming crop of Food Network stars like Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali.

One reason Tsai became so popular was his high-energy sunniness. At Blue Ginger on a random weeknight, he was likely to take a lap through the dining room. He closed the place recently, after a 19-year run, to concentrate on smaller restaurants that he promises will be more casual. The first is already in place, the always-hopping Blue Dragon, which he opened in 2013 in the newly hip Seaport district of Boston. A friend wrote me recently to say that when he happened to stop in for fish tacos and pork and scallion wontons, “Guess who brought the order to the table? Ming Tsai!”

His next venture will be a chain called ChowStirs—an entry into the fast-casual market that is attracting many well-known chefs. Like many of the new breed of restaurant, it will cater to the millennial desire to pick ingredients and build meals, and also emphasize the allergen-free ingredients Tsai took up as a cause when his son David, then a young child, was diagnosed with multiple food allergies. Tsai even persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to pass an awareness and training law for all restaurants in the state.

Part of the ChowStirs proceeds will go to Family Reach, a nonprofit that helps cancer patients and their families. Through a chance encounter at a charity golf tournament seven years ago, Tsai learned about the financial plight of such families—one study found that cancer patients declared bankruptcy 2.65 times more often than the cancer-free—and was drawn to help. “I can proudly say I’ve raised $6 million” to help families, he told me recently. If the new chain takes off after its downtown Boston test location opens early next year, that amount will grow. And this is in addition to his years of work with Squash Busters, which prepares young people in underserved areas for college, using squash as an entry point.

For Tsai, this generosity is normal: from the time he had fame to leverage, he leveraged it to help others. It’s another reason for Yale, with its emphasis on service, to take pride in an entrepreneurial, food-minded son.

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