Renowned chef and guest judge Ming Tsai elaborates on the judges' decisions.
Editor's Note: This week, we were thrilled to speak to another returning guest judge, Ming Tsai, who among other things is host and executive producer of Simply Ming and chef and owner of the soon-to-be-expanding Blue Ginger.
Bravotv.com: This isn't your first appearance on the show, but were you a Top Chef fan before you appeared? What is it about the show that has you tuning in?
In a way, the competition is no different than what a chef is faced with every night at a restaurant. Every dish has to be perfect and you are under a serious time crunch to get that food out. That said, these contestants sometimes deal with incredible time crunches, and it's amazing the great food that some of them come up with, given their lack of time.
I also love how Top Chef has charity elements in a lot of their episodes. I had the good fortune of participating in two episodes that benefited charities. The last time I was on, Project-by-Project was featured, and this time, Meals on Wheels got exposure.
Bravotv.com: How was this experience different than your previous visit?
The contestants are much stronger than last time. And that's not to say that there weren't strong contestants last time, but across the board, the quality is much higher than I previously encountered.
Bravotv.com: Were you surprised at the results of the Quickfire? Some people say a good palate is innate/you can't train it, etc. What are your thoughts on that?
It was amazing how difficult it was for everyone to taste something blindfolded. I would have thought it would have been easier than it was. We rely so much on our sight in everything we do, and our olfactory system is of course not related to our sight, but it was thrown off completely with this challenge. Ultimately, taste should have nothing to do with sight. I think we were all shocked to see what a struggle it was. Regarding a person's palate, I think the notion that you can't train a good palate is completely incorrect. 90% of my cooks at Blue Ginger, when they start on the line, have never cooked East-West food before. We develop their palates every day by tasting with them. Explaining why the calamari sauce is wrong and then fixing it with them and having them taste it again. Palates can most definitely be trained. However, character cannot. I can't train character. Either you're a good person who cares or you're not, which is why we tend to hire based on character.
Bravotv.com: Onto the Elimination Challenge, what would have inspired you for each element? Earth: I would have definitely done something with mushrooms and deep flavor. I would have gotten into terroir and done a red wine reduction. If truffles were available, I would have used that. Something with a very deep, earthy flavor.
Air: I would have played more with the concept of air in food. I would have done a really light, airy mousse -- like a scallop or a shrimp mousse. For instance, I might have done a really light shrimp mousse and played with the lightness by folding in cream that had been whipped and literally incorporating air into the dish.
Water: I would have done a soup and would have actually used water or broth. I probably would have done a spicy, galangal Thai-like consomme, with maybe a butterfish carpaccio floating on top and fresh bamboo shoots or water chestnuts.
Fire: I think they nailed it. I would have actually taken Serrano, jalapeno and Thai bird chiles and presented it with three types of protein. Maybe do my take on gong bao chicken or a chipotle syrup with chicken or even a jalapeno and mango salsa.
Bravotv.com: Can you expand on your comments on your favorite dishes and least favorite?
I really enjoyed the Fire dish, first because I love shrimp. It's one of the best proteins out there -- it's low in fat, and it's very versatile. Being Chinese, I grew up eating shrimp, and being Chinese, I love heat. Obviously, by my background, that dish was right up my alley, because it had that interplay of salty, sweet, sour and spicy that is so typical of Asian cooking and what I love the most. Air: Not properly rendering the duck fat on the breast was a huge mistake. I do like that they attempted to combine a drink with a dish because I'm a big food and drink guy -- I love pairing wines and beverages with food, and I think that's an important part of dining.
Bravotv.com: There was a bit of debate about sous-vide salmon? Is fish something that lends itself well to sous vide? I have no experience cooking sous vide, nor did anyone 100 years ago in China, France, Spain, or Italy, and our food isn't any better now than it was then. I use plastic for my garbage bags. I will say, that for storing food/increasing the shelf life of proteins or getting marinades quickly into proteins, it's great. I just have an inherent issue with boil-in-a-bag cooking.
Bravotv.com: What ultimately kept Richard over Zoi? Are scales forgivable?
It's not that scales are forgivable, but scales are the lesser of two evils. Both are wrong -- scales are bad, but seasoning is the most basic thing in cooking. It's one of the first things you learn. There is no way they tasted that food well, because if they had, they never would have served it like that. Taste as you go -- that's the first thing you do. Scales are a mistake, an oversight. Not tasting the food to see if it's seasoned -- that's not even having the most basic of skills.
Bravotv.com: Which chefs impressed you the most? Do you have a prediction as to who will win?
I think Dale will win. He has very solid skills and a good palate.
Bravotv.com: We noticed you endorse TruBamboo. Can you talk a little bit about your involvement with the company and why bamboo products are better?
I am actually partnered with TruBamboo and I design a lot of their products and endorse them, as well. I love that bamboo is eco-friendly -- it's one of the world's most renewable materials. It grows back much faster than trees and it's panda-friendly. Plus, it's one of the world's strongest materials, so it's great kitchen material -- it's harder than oak or maple, and unlike plastic boards, it dries out, which makes it safer to use. (Plastic boards trap moisture, which is a breeding ground for bacteria.) I really, truly believe that we have one world, we need to take care of it.
Bravotv.com: Anything else you'd like to add?
Hats off to Top Chef for continually putting food and chefs in the forefront and in front of viewers. It only helps the industry that all us chefs know and love. I do want to expound on my sous vide answer -- it may sound extreme, but I am first and foremost a lover of food -- good, simple food. I think if it takes you 20 steps to make a carrot taste like a slightly better carrot, it's not worth it. At the end of the day, it's just food. There is nothing better, to my mind, than Chinese street food. No disrespect to all of the scientist chefs out there, but in the homeland, food is just food. Different is not always better, but simpler is always better. As many people know, I own one restaurant, Blue Ginger. In May, we are expanding the space to include a lounge, and I could have done anything I wanted for that menu, but I decided to go with what I love and crave, which is Chinese street food. The menu focuses on what I call "Ming's Bings." One of my strongest sense memories is standing in Taipei as a young teenager, biting into a bing filled with pork that was absolutely perfumed with ginger. That's what I strive for when I cook -- food prepared simply that brings transcendent pleasure.