Quest for Fire

Ming Tsai Is Coming to the Galleria

The celebrity chef talks Houston dining, allergies and spicy fish heads.

By Alice Levitt November 15, 2016

Mcc ming tsai 2 kikyup

Ming Tsai, looking excited to go to Macy's.

Planning a trip to the mall, even the sprawling citadel to shopping that is the Galleria, education isn't typically one of the goals. Neither is meeting one of America's best chefs. But right in the middle of holiday shopping madness, on December 5, Ming Tsai will be hosting a Holiday Pop-Up Kitchen on the second floor at Macy's from 6 to 8 p.m. And he already knows what he'll be cooking. He shared those details, as well as his favorite things to eat in Houston and the causes closest to his heart on the way to last night's benefit for his favorite charity, Family Reach, which helps to pay for pediatric cancer treatment. Read on for details about all of the above, and how to score a spot at Tsai's demonstration.

Houstonia: Have you eaten much in Houston?

Ming Tsai: I really haven’t, although I shot some shows there. Caz [chef Bryan Caswell], is probably my best chef friend there. I've eaten his burgers at Little Bigs. And his seafood restaurant, Reef, is delicious. You have a very strong Vietnamese population—he took me to Vietnamtown and I was very impressed with the pho we had. I judged a contest at Underbelly, which was fantastic. You guys have a very strong food scene.

The fusion at your Boston gastropub, Blue Dragon, mirrors the melting pot that is Houston, particularly dishes like chicken-chorizo dumplings and Thai chile pimento cheese with lime spiced tortilla chips.

I'm Chinese by birth. My food always has an Asian tinge to it. The concept at Blue Dragon is Asian tapas, so we have a little bit more leeway than at [more formal] Blue Ginger. In my opinion, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, that is all American food now. Ethnic food now is Ethiopian, Korean, and now literally Chinese, Italian and Mexican—that’s American food. But there’s still really good ones and unfortunately bad ones, too.

Will that be reflected in what you're cooking at the Galleria?

I just went over [the menu]. The theme is the holidays, so I’m starting with a sparkling pomegranate cocktail. We’re not allowed to drink in the store, so you put sparkling water in it—with your imagination, you can make it a Kir Royale, replacing the water with sparkling wine. I really focused more on hors d'oeuvres. I'll do a honey crab wonton with a tinge of honey, wrapped in a wonton skin and crisped in the fryer. Grilled garlic chicken satay with Thai basil purée. Then one of my signature dishes, smashed shrimp siu mai. It's a classic siu mai in shape, then smashed with one hand and pan seared. The textural difference is added by smashing it.

That was created for Aspen Food & Wine maybe eight years ago. I was cooking at a private event for about 100 people. I had a huge wok, a huge steamer. I had the siu mai all loaded up—eight minutes, it should have been perfect. I should have known it, being a mechanical engineering major, but water does not boil at the same temperature at the higher altitude—we had a steamer full of raw siu mai. I was supposed to be the man, I was the hired person. A bunch of expletives came out of my mouth, but fortunately, in this beautiful home there was a paella pan, it was dirty, that meant it was seasoned from use. We smashed the siu mai and put them in the paella pan and put them under bricks, so now I smash my siu mai on purpose. It’s a good lesson: Disaster can create something delicious. 

As the father of a child who suffers from food allergies, you’re committed to speaking out about them. What do you say to chefs who don’t take allergies seriously?

I say get with it. It's the right of every American to eat safely in every restaurant in America; if you can’t handle it, don't open a restaurant. You can kill someone— that’s serious. I don't know anything more serious than death—if you're dead, you're dead.

I encourage, from a business point of view, for chef-owners, if you become known as a food allergy-friendly restaurant, you’ll gain the most loyal clientele ever. I can’t tell you how many mothers I've seen in tears because they're out to dinner with their children who are 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and they’ve never been out to dinner as a family. I am who I am because of going to restaurants. You learn so many things at the table, etiquette, how to handle yourself at a dinner table. 

On PBS's genealogy show Finding Your Roots, you learned that the first emperor of China is your 116th great-grandfather. Has connecting with your personal history affected how you cook?

It’s affected my life even moreso. I just came back four months ago. I took my father, who's 87, and my uncle, who’s 90. We went to the smallest of villages in Hunan and 80 percent of the village were Tsais. We got to meet all of these people who were just as amazed as we were amazed. We saw the steles [on which the genealogical records are recorded]. Life-changing. The responsibility. My God. I’d never seen my dad or uncle so proud and of course we ate like freaking kings.

Their food is delicious. It's almost a scene out of Mad Max. Even with huge woks, everything is out of the in open. Everything is room temp but delicious and spicy—oh, my God. The famous steamed fish head is literally covered with green and red chiles—probably the spiciest thing I’ve had Chinese-wise. As a dish, it's incredibly delicious and incredibly spicy. After that, we had two or three different specials on Blue Ginger's menu in honor of Hunan cuisine. 

Hunan and Szechuan were always my favorites. But as a kid with my grandfather, I would try to out-eat him with sambal. That was a test of manliness, I guess. I’m very biased being Chinese—I'm sure if you ask Morimoto-san and Batali and François Payard and Boulud where they eat when they leave the kitchen, they all eat Chinese food. I don't know a chef in the world that doesn't like Chinese food. Chinese food is always one of their favorites. 

See Ming Tsai cook his smashed shrimp siu mai and more at Macy's in the Galleria on December 5, from 6 to 8 p.m. Click here for more information.