Monday, September 28, 2009

Ming Tsai, Chef, Father and Advocate for People with Food Allergies

Photo by Anthony Tieuli, WGBH
To many people Ming Tsai is a talented chef and the co-owner of two restaurants: Blue Ginger and the Lounge at Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts. To others he is the familiar face from the TV show, Simply Ming. Yet for me, Chef Tsai has also been an inspiration and a comforting presence despite that fact that until a coincidental meeting at the Lounge at Blue Ginger, we had never met.

When my 3 year old son was initially diagnosed with 7 different food allergies, I was so overwhelmed. I was concerned about his health and about the quality of his life. I knew that birthday parties, school and restaurants would all be minefields. I also worried that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy so many of life’s pleasures, such as traveling and eating out. Amazingly in a world filled with kids with peanut allergies, I only knew one set of parents who had navigated that world: Chef Ming Tsai and his wife, Polly. I knew that the Tsais had a young son with multiple food allergies. So for the last 3 years, I have hoped to talk to Chef Tsai and to find out how they have navigated the world and supported their son. A few weeks ago, I was privileged to have that chance and to finally ask him the questions I had wondered about for many years.

Before I share the interview, there are a few things to know about Chef Tsai. First, he is as personable in person and on the phone as he is on his TV show. He is incredibly funny, witty, intelligent and thoughtful. He is also deeply committed to fairness. That has played out in a few ways. First, for him, children deserve the simple right to be included and to be children. He also believes that a child with food allergies should never have to be defined by those allergies. In addition, Chef Tsai believes deeply that it is a person’s right to eat safely.

Chef Tsai and his wife Polly, have two sons: Henry, age 7 and David, age 9. David was initially allergic to soy, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, wheat and eggs. Luckily for him, he has grown out of all but his allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. In large part because of the impact of his son’s allergies, Chef Tsai has been a spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). He also worked closely with the Massachusetts Legislature to help write (and get passed!) the nation’s first food allergy law, Bill S. 2701. This 4 part law, which will begin on January 1, 2010, requires restaurants to take precaution to assure the safety of people with food allergies. For more details, you can go to Chef Tsai’s site or click here to watch a video of Chef Tsai talking about how restaurants can comply with the new law.

Chef Tsai has also done all he can to make sure that his two restaurants are safe for people with food allergies. The Lounge at Blue Ginger has a 100% peanut free kitchen, while Blue Ginger itself is as safe as restaurants get for people with food allergies. As I wrote in my post on the Lounge at Blue Ginger, “For 11 years, Blue Ginger and Ming Tsai have been at the forefront of demonstrating that an outstanding restaurant doesn't have to sacrifice quality for the safety of all diners. The staff is well informed on food allergies and on cross-contamination issues (e.g. if a knife is used to chop peanuts and then used to cut fish, a peanut-allergic person could go into anaphylactic shock). The staff is also well-acquainted with the 3 inch binder that Ming Tsai created which details every ingredient in every dish at the restaurant.”

I began by asking Chef Tsai the question I had wondered for so many years, had he taken his family out of the country and, more particularly to countries that rely heavily on peanuts and peanut oil: China, Thailand or Vietnam? Chef Tsai noted that, with the exception of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, his family has never left the country. Ironically, a few days after we talked, the Tsais were taking their first trip to Japan. Chef Tsai confirmed my concerns that countries that rely so heavily on peanut oil can be prohibitive to someone with a peanut allergy. Yet, in preparing for their trip to Japan, they were taking along special laminated cards in Japanese that make it clear, through words and images, that eating peanuts can be fatal. He pointed out that the use of peanut oil is rare in Japan. Yet he also emphasized an angle that I had not quite thought through: that Japan is also safe because they have an excellent hospital system, which is essential in the worst case scenario for a child with a food allergy.

Chef Tsai and I laughed together as he explained how they traveled in the U.S. when his son was younger and had many allergies. He noted that his family would literally pack up 7 days worth of food…in coolers! He went on to say, chuckling, that he would then use an induction burner to cook stir fries in hotel bathrooms. Yet he also pointed out that, while this was a challenge as a parent, “You can never feel sorry for David because he has eaten better than most adults.”
David’s allergies have had a less significant impact on home cooking because, as Chef Tsai pointed out, “Both my kids love fried rice and fried rice noodles. And, being Asian, rice noodles and rice are a normal part of our diet.” He went on to share one of his go-to meals. They purchase Applegate Farms brand smoked turkey or sliced ham. Then they stir-fry it up with leftover rice. He pointed out, “It is quick, easy, nutritious. You can throw it in carrots. And it is cheap, too, which is good.” You can watch Chef Tsai making his turkey fried rice at the How2Heroes website. Chef Tsai revealed another of his secrets-garlic oil from Trader Joe’s. He noted that it is great in a pinch to flavor stir- fries and fried rice. They also often eat butterfish, halibut, shellfish and lamb. Again, he pointed out with another laugh, that “Most kids don’t have rack of lamb all the time. My kids just have a father who has access to rack so they get to eat well.” Chef Tsai pointed out another gem when he noted that, “I think kids actually don’t love bland food. If you just give them French fries that is all they are going to eat. Give them a veggie that tastes good because of the caramelized shallots, onions and garlic, they will eat it. Plus the fact that they smell it when they come home and that smell generates more for a dish than anything. The nose can really get your olifactory system moving. Make your food taste good. Don’t dumb the food down for your kids.”

Chef Tsai went on to share evidence that his younger son’s sense of smell has clearly blossomed. Chef Tsai ran out of cream when he was using a new soft-serve ice cream machine at home, so he threw in some Greek yogurt. His son, coming over to watch the ice cream churn leaned over, and, said, “It smells like yogurt.” Chef Tsai said with a dad’s pride, “I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ You could taste the yogurt, absolutely, but you couldn’t really smell it, especially with vanilla and sugar and cream. And there was only half a cup of yogurt in there. I was like, ‘Did you just say that? Really?’ I was blown away. Kids can do amazing things. You think you know them and then they are identifying yogurt from 20 feet away. I was surprised he didn’t say, ‘Oh, and is that the strained Greek yogurt?’”

Chef Tsai’s children don’t just eat his cooking, but they join him in it, too. He noted that they both love to cook. His younger son loves sugar so much that Chef Tsai said, in jest, “His mission in life is to cook and clean the bowl.” He then went on to say that they both enjoy helping with stir-fries, to season food, and to watch him cook.

In addition to being a cook, Chef Tsai loves to eat. His favorite restaurants include the original Oishii in Brookline, and Oishii, Boston. Chef Tsai said the he believes that Oishii Boston is “the best high end Japanese dining experience in Boston.” He also highlighted the Uni Sashimi Bar as another of his favorites because they “get the most pristine fish, and use simple flavors as well as some exotic flavors that I love like uzu and ponzu."

Both sons enjoy eating out as much as Chef Tsai. Their favorites include CK New Shanghai in Wellesley and Bernard’s Chinese at the Chestnut Hill Mall. Chef Tsai noted that both restaurants, although they have peanuts, don’t use peanut oil and are very “aware and cognizant of allergies.” Other favorites include Dah Mee in Natick and Legal Seafoods. In fact, Chef Tsai pointed out that Roger Berkowitz (President and Owner of Legal Seafoods) “is a great friend to people with food allergies and he does a great job at his restaurants. They have a dedicated fryer just for French fries. There is no wheat or shellfish-just French fries.” Chef Tsai went on to remind me that “the biggest issue for people with food allergies…is not that people aren’t careful but that people don’t realize about cross-contamination. For example, if you fry fish and then fry French fries the fries could be affected by the shellfish as molecules still transfer even in something that is hot like oil. That is the training that we do. That is what we try to transfer and that is what we hope for with the new poster from FAAN [part of Bill S. 2701]. It is really a cheat-sheet about cross-contamination. It talks about fryers and steamers and cutting boards and salad bowls and that those all have to be washed. If they contain allergens, they have to be washed to be cleaned.”

Yet Chef Tsai made it clear that he also goes one step further when he eats out with his sons-he calls the chef! He pointed out that, “I have an extra layer of security. But I encourage anyone to call the general manager and chef. Make sure you have a comfort level that they care. They can still make a mistake. But if they don’t care and won’t take you seriously, then don’t bother. There are plenty of places that want your money and most restaurants are getting that they need to serve everyone.”

It is ironic that most people perceive being an “allergy-friendly” restaurant as being a financial challenge. Chef Tsai commented that the reality is that, “[although] 12 million people have food allergies…the impact on restaurants is so much bigger because usually a food allergy person has a family. So a dining decision is really about 4 people going out to dinner, not just one person. So if you are a food allergy restaurant like Blue Ginger, I get 4 people to come in, not just one person.”

For Chef Tsai, though, Bill S. 2701 is clearly about much more than money. We talked about the impact of the bill-the fact that Michigan has already followed suit with a similar law and that the federal government is considering one as well. After all, he noted that, “It is a national safety and healthy concern. Especially because allergies are growing. It is not going away. “ For him, is has also been rewarding to spread awareness about how serious food allergies are, and how restaurants can be as safe as possible.

Chef Tsai and I ended by talking more about how he helped David to navigate food outside life with his family. More specifically, we talked about the common challenges of eating at school, at camps and birthday parties. When David was in nursery school, the Tsai family would drop David off at parties with a few key things. First, he would have a cupcake that he could eat. Next, they made sure to provide him with guidelines about which food was safe (e.g. drinks, potato chips, etc.) Finally, though, the Tsais gave EpiPens (a medicine injector to help people who are having allergic reactions) to the host parents and, if necessary, gave the parents a lesson in how to use the EpiPens. Chef Tsai noted that no parent ever had to do that. He also said, proudly, that “And David was a trooper. It didn’t really bother him. He knew he had to eat differently. And it really didn’t slow him down.”

Circumstances changed as David got older. That is when I learned that one of the main reasons that David doesn’t attend Natick Public Schools is because the Natick Public Schools didn’t have a nut policy in place when David started school. In fact, the Tsai family chose the private Park School in Brookline, “not only because it was one of the top schools but also because when we started there, they had already been completely nut free for 8 years. They had a policy 3 to 4 years before we started there. And that was key to us. We went to other private schools and they all said, ‘We could start being nut free.’ Or, ‘We will make this table nut free.’ We didn’t want our child to be the reason people couldn’t eat peanut butter. We didn’t want to put our kid in that position. So Park School’s policy alleviated tons of pressure. You can’t bring any food into school. You can only eat what is in the cafeteria. No one could have nuts. No one could eat peanut butter for breakfast unless they brushed their teeth and washed their hands. So, Park School is very, very safe. That has made David feel good and like any other normal kid.”
I think, then, that what struck me most about my interview with Chef Tsai wasn’t just his obvious devotion to his family and his sons. It wasn’t just his support for people with food allergies or even the work he has done to make his own restaurants safe. It was his recognition, from his heart that all children need to just be kids. I know that for me and my family, his hard work and his advocacy on behalf of all children has made a difference to our little boys.

Blue Ginger and the Lounge at Blue Ginger, 83 Washington St., Wellesley, 781-283-5790
Ming Tsai's Website and Coverage of Food Allergies

Sunday, September 20, 2009

One of the Best Bargain Meals in Town-Rialto, Really!

When I was 21, my parents took me out to Rialto. It was a fantastic meal...and I haven't been able to make it back since. Yet after interviewing Jody Adams and using her cookbook, I became wistful about that meal and wanted to return. However, until I can rationalize a special occasion, I knew it wasn't in the current budget. Instead, a friend and I decided to try out the Monday night oyster special. From what we read on the Rialto website, we assumed we could sit at the bar and devour $1 oysters for the evening.

What we didn't expect was that the "bar" includes a lovely lounge area with tables and chairs and that there is an entire, reasonably priced menu of wonderful Rialto dishes to choose from.

We began with a plate of the delicious oysters. Yet what sets Rialto apart is that they were served with 3 delicious sauces: a spicy Harissa, a savory migonette and a wonderful pureed tomato sauce.
Next, we shared a plate of antipasti. You can order any 3 from a range of choices for $10.00. First we had a heavenly duck liver pate. The taste was so complex that I ran home to check the recipe in Chef Adam's cookbook, In The Hands of a Chef. In fact, it includes over 10 ingredients!  I would go back for this alone as I doubt I will be making it any time soon! Next, we enjoyed a grilled stuffed squash blossom, filled with cheese and herbs. Our third dish was "titled fried olives...salami, parmesan." What arrived were fried dumplings of chopped salami, olives and parmesan rolled together. They were decadent mouthfuls and would be fantastic with a cold beer.

We were incredibly impressed with our duck sandwich. For $13, we got an enormous sandwich filled with duck, gruyere and a heavenly gingered fig compote. Two people could easily share this for a light meal. However, not knowing when we would have the chance to return, we tried one more dish: The Fisherman's Soup. Again, the presentation struck us. We were served a bowl that was lined with a emerald-colored basil oil. The waiter than poured a fragrant saffron colored soup into the dish. It was served with garlicky rouille, shredded gruyere and toasts, that when popped into the soup, melted into pools that were creamy and rich. The soup was simple but tasted of the essence of shellfish. It was delicious.

We ended the meal with one of our more expensive dishes-a $9 dessert. But I have to say, it was worth it. It was a cherry cream tart, served with a tart yogurt sorbet, mint and "sesame crunch". Each element was excellent, nor was it too sweet.

I am not sure when I will make it back to Rialto. But I will be back to the bar, soon.

Rialto Restaurant and Bar, 1 Bennett Street, Cambridge 617-661-5050

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A European Patisserie and Bakery...In Marlboro!

We had picked apples at Honey Pot Hill and were stuffed from breakfast at Stephen Anthony's, but in true FoodieMommy fashion, we couldn't resist checking out the Madrid Bakery located a few doors down from Stephen Anthony's.  FoodieDaddy walked in to scope out the place and immediately reported that it was worth checking out. He was right. 
In fact, this easy to miss location is and the owner and chef, Sergio Mendoza Yebra is a native of Madrid, trained in European pastry techniques.   I haven't found that many bakeries that offer pastries that are as beautiful and tasty as these. They offer both large and small versions of specialities such as the "Souffle" which has "Smooth lemon cream, a thin layer of vanilla cake, whipped cream with a touch of cinnamon sugar and caramelized lemon Swiss meringue on a buttery cookie shell."  They also have Spanish cakes such as an almond torte, gorgeous, flaky croissants and meringues in a range of flavors and colors. 
Madrid European Bakery and Patisserie, 1019 Boston Post Road (Route 20) East, Marlborough, 508-485-8844

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Breakfast Worth Discovering, Stephen Anthony's in Marlboro

Wait-don't stop because you just read "Marlboro." Seriously. Stephen Anthony's is a place that is worth finding. And, in fact, it may not be as far as you think. First, it is near the wonderful orchards of Metrowest. It is also only about 15 minutes from Framingham. We happened upon it after a recent morning eating and picking apples at Honey Pot Hill in Stow. We are thankful to the local man who responded, "Stephen Anthony's" when we asked for a restaurant recommendation that had great food, reasonable prices  and was kid friendly.

He couldn't have been more accurate. From the moment we walked in, the kids were greeted warmly. It is situated on a lovely pond in Marlboro, not far from the Sudbury border on Route 20. While they offer delicious sounding dinners and lunches (including dinner plates that average $15.00), we arrived for Sunday brunch. And, as people who love a good brunch, we lucked out. First, the pork lovers in the group groaned happily over the homemade (!) sausage.
 I loved the maple laden version, though the garlicky version was also yummy.  
Our friend actually ordered the sausage sampler which came with hash browns while his son loved the french toast. 
FoodieDaddy enjoyed the corned beef hash, while we all clamored over the homemade biscuits. FoodieDaddy also shared bites of his luscious, light, Belgian waffles and mini-pancakes. I also appreciated that they made hot dogs for our sons, even though they are not typically served on a Sunday.   The portions are large enough that you can fill yourself up for two meals and prices are very reasonable. 

However, if for some ridiculous reason you are still hungry, walk a few doors down and check out Madrid, a European Patisserie and Bakery. Or, just stay tuned for a future post.

Stephen Anthony's, 999 Boston Post Road (Route 20) East, Marlboro, 508-460-9618

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Apple (and Many Blueberries) a Day: Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow

It is hard to choose from all the wonderful places to pick apples as fall rolls around in New England.  However, on this gorgeous crisp day, we returned to one of our favorites: Honey Pot Hill in Stowe.  We arrived as they opened at 9 and were literally the first to arrive. (By 10:30 the crowds were in full force, so I highly recommend arriving early.)
We love the chance to see some barn animals: chickens, goats, bunnies and goats.  For 25 cents, our boys loved that you could actually feed them. 

Yet one of the best aspects of Honey Pot Hill is the chance to pick both blueberries and apples in late August and early September.  At this point you can pick Gravensteins, Akane, Sansa and Ginger Gold apples.  Each bite of the apples, as well as the silvery blueberries, made us question why we ever buy them at the grocery. The blueberries are so flavorful that it is worth buying extras to freeze and use throughout the year. As for us, we plan to make applesauce, apple cake and apple cobbler. Honey Pot Hill also has a Hedge Maze and a Tractor ride, but we tend to skip the extras. However, we never miss the chance to try one of their warm, tender apple cider donuts.  They are available at the store. You can also purchase sweet peaches, fresh pears and caramel apples.

After eating our full of fruit, some how we always find room for lunch. Two years ago we loved the experience of Nancy's Airfield Cafe. Honestly, the food wasn't as memorable as the chance for our first son to watch planes land. I don't know of any other restaurant that is literally on an airfield. However, this year, as both of our son's have egg allergies, we decided to pass and headed instead to a fabulous find: Stephen Anthony's in Marlboro. Stay tuned for a future post.

Last notes-bring cash or a check (they don't take credit cards) and call ahead to check what is available for picking that day.

Honey Pot Hill Orchards, 144 Sudbury Road, Stow 978-562-5666

Friday, September 4, 2009

A First Visit to Hungry Mother, Cambridge

When Hungry Mother opened over a year ago, I was immediately taken with its story. A group of committed people, believing that they had what it takes to open a great restaurant, convinced friends and neighbors to invest even a few dollars towards their dream.  I am a romantic when it comes to tales like this and for their sake, I wanted it to do well. And it has. In fact Hungry Mother in Cambridge has done so well, that Chef Barry Maiden got the Food and Wine award for "Best New Chef" in July of 2009 and the restaurant made the Travel and Leisure list of "50 Best New American Restaurants" in May. I had also heard and read many stories from reviewers, bloggers and friends of great meals they had eaten there.

This meant that my friend (another foodie) and I had high expectations. And, it was so very good. Each dish, a twist on Southern dishes, reflected care, thoughtful use of ingredients and offered dishes that I haven't previously had before.

I was initially impressed with the bartender who took the time to explain a few of their featured drinks. I ultimately chose the No. 53: a combination of rum, yellow chartreuse and lemon juice. It was a perfect drink for a hot night.

We began the meal with the "Spicy Pimento Cheese", which was essentially a gussied up cheese ball.
It was comforting starter. But what I continue to replay was the absolutely delicious trout salad. It was served with crisped trout skin, creating a unique cracker. Typically trout can be strong and overpowering. However, by keeping the salt to a minimum it was a light and refreshing salad. I also loved the pickled radishes that played off the trout.

For main dishes we shared the Cornmeal catfish which was pretty fantastic. The breading was crisp and airy, and the red rice was flavorful. The Berkshire pork loin and BBQ rib were also good, but not quite as memorable as the other dishes.
However, it is the the cornbread that will keep me returning. The term cornbread doesn't really do justice to this side dish. It featured two pieces-a wedge and a corn bread stick
The outside was caramelized to a crisp golden, while the inside was cakey and just sweet enough. In fact, we loved the cornbread with the pimento spread.

We finished the meal with two desserts. The chamomile pot de creme went a bit beyond the traditional flan/pudding with the lingering scent of chamomile, while our green tomato cake was a filling end to the meal.
Hungry Mother tries to use local ingredients as much as possible, so their menu varies. The atmosphere has a nice balance of being upscale enough to know you have had a great night out, without being pretentious. They also offer validated parking at the lot just down the street (and near the Kendall Square Movie Cinema).
Lastly, it is worth making a reservation. You don't want to miss the cornbread.

Hungry Mother, 233 Cardinal Medeiros Avenue, Cambridge 617-499-0090

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Healthy Habits Kitchen and BuyWithMe

After a lovely vacation on Cape Cod, I returned home to find myself so ill that I could barely make it off the couch. But dinner still loomed and as I envisioned my husband heading out to buy one more pre-packaged sodium-filled meal at the grocery, I suddenly remembered-I had a coupon from BuyWithMe for Healthy Habits Kitchen in Wellesley. BuyWithMe offers discounts for certain businesses if enough people go in on the deal. And this summer, they were offering a discount for Healthy Habits Kitchen. As a way for me to actually try BuyWithMe and Healthy Habits, BuyWithMe sent me a gift certificate for Healthy Habits.

Healthy Habits Kitchen has a few options for busy people. First, you can schedule an "assembly session" where you can assemble a healthy meal for your family. You can also take the route I did and pay just $1.00 more and the folks at Healthy Habits will actually get the dinner ingredients ready for you. Finally, you can get a group of friends together for a night out. Healthy Habits will then host a private party for 8 to 15 people where they provide appetizers, meal samples and dessert. It is BYOB and you have a lovely lounge to hang out. You then prepare meals. So, it is both a chance to hang out with friends and have dishes set for the week.

Their menu rotates periodically. Alas, for some reason I thought the food was already prepared. But instead, Healthy Habits packages it so you can freeze it for later or prepare it for a home-cooked meal. Luckily the Marinated Steak Tips required only a grill to cook (meaning little clean up!) They were very delicious-tender and flavorful. We also tried the "Tropical Chicken Kebabs" and the "Mojito Chicken." (Both are pictured at the top of the post.) These required a bit more prep work, but again, it was minimal and took only the grill (for the kebabs) and one pan (for the chicken). Again, both were very good.

Do be aware that Healthy Habits, in trying to support portion control (all meals are 400 calories or less), lists each of these dishes (1/2 orders) as serving 2 to 3 people. Maybe my husband and and I are both big eaters (could this be why we both have to go on a diet?) but neither portion filled us up. However, this would have been useful if we had eaten it with a big salad and were trying to watch our weight. Also, note that each of these dishes (a half portion) cost $18.99.

We also got side orders of lemon jasmine rice and pineapple brown rice. These cooked up quickly with minimum effort and were both tasty.

There is a chance BuyWithMe will team up again with Healthy Habits for another discount. So, watch carefully. It would be a good discount on a good meal.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Another Farmer's Cart Delivery-The Late Summer Version

In June, I wrote about a wonderful new business, The Farmer's Cart, that was started by a woman named Maureen in Natick. To support farmers and consumers who want local produce, each week Maureen rounds up the best of the week at local farms. She then drops off the goods at your doorstep. When Maureen offered to drop off another bag of beautiful fruits and vegetables, I happily accepted. And, in fact, just like last time I was so impressed with the quality, the selection and the little touches that Maureen adds.

Maureen picks her produce up at a range of farms, including Tangerinis in Millis, Dowse and Sunshine Farm in Sherborn and the Natick Organic Farm. This week the selection included: the sweetest corn I have ever eaten, organic scallions, a fresh head of garlic, Juilet and big tomatoes, fresh blueberries, green peppers, fresh basil in a clear glass, crisp Paula Red apples and sweet peaches.  In addition there was the earthy, delicious bread from B & R Bakery in Framingham. Finally, there was a lavender sachet and soap from the Iron Horse Farm in Sherborn.
Maureen includes a write up of all the items and selections on how to use them.  She adds personal recipe cards. She packs the produce in fabric totes with ice packs to keep it fresh until you are able to pick it up at your door.  She can also drop off coffee from Karma Coffee, fabulous fudge sauce from Shootflying Hill and local honey. Finally, she provides a weekly e-mail so that customers have a sense of what to expect each week.

I love to visit farms and farmer's markets. But then there are weeks like this, where I am returning to work, my sons are returning to school and day care, and even a simple errand feels pretty overwhelming. Maureen's drop off not only provided us with wonderful fruit to tide us over until the weekend, but her service helps to support farmers when some of us just can't make it to their farms.

The Farmer's Cart,, 508-333-6233