I've been sold on Ming Tsai ever since he was a barrel of laughs in Aspen, so when I heard he was headed west, I knew I had to meet him. Ming was in town hosting a benefit for Macy's Come Together, a campaign to provide 10 million meals for families in need. I caught up with him in the green room before his demo, where he shared his thoughts on the importance of cooking for others, why you shouldn't buy a $4.99 skillet, and whether we're likely to see him on Top Chef Masters. Read his thoughts after the jump.
YumSugar: Why is cooking such an important part of your life?
Ming Tsai: To be able to share a part of me on a plate is my joy. [With cooking] you can get a reaction from every sense. It's not just sight; it's sound, smell, and, most importantly, it's taste. You can't taste art; you can't taste music.
YS: What got you into cooking?
MT: I was, still am, and will always be hungry. I figured out early that if you hung out in the kitchen, you're gonna get scraps. Then, at the age of 10, a couple showed up [at the door] who I recognized. They were friends of my parents, and my parents were both gone. Now, the Chinese say, "Chi le ma?" Not "hello, how are you?" but "have you eaten?" They tell me they're starving. So I made them fried rice, except I had never made it before. I put too much oil and soy sauce — rookie error. But they loved it, and they smiled. And I thought: I can make people happy through food? That's how I got the bug.
YS: Why did you become a part of the Macy's Culinary Council?
MT: I loved the idea, which was really to get top chefs in various styles of cooking to get people enticed to cook with great equipment. People are trying to cook out of this thing they bought for $4.99, and it's harder to get the sear on scallops. It's harder not to burn your steak. To be honest, you don't actually need that much talent; you need to know how to hold a knife. But you need a base foundation of equipment. If you have the right pans, knives, boards, and seasonings, your food's going to be better.
YS: Any chance we'll ever see you on Top Chef Masters?
MT: Apparently I was one of the first they [Bravo] asked to do Top Chef Masters. To be honest, my agent said, "Absolutely — if you can guarantee that he wins." I had more to lose than to gain. It was a huge commitment — two and a half, three weeks. I don't have two and a half weeks; I've got two kids and a business. And you know what gets me? That some of the old Top Chef winners and runners-up are judging them. What right do they have to be judging Hubert Keller? That's so wrong. They have no right critiquing Hubert Keller's food and Rick Bayless's food. That absolutely would've irked me.