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

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