April 30, 2001

East Meets West For Hotel Class

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To perfect his signature “East Meets West” cooking style, celebrity chef Ming Tsai M.P.S. ’89 has traversed the world, learning from seasoned French chefs in Paris to the “real experts” who wrangle ostriches in Texas and deep-sea fish in the Florida keys.

But this weekend, Tsai graced the Statler Hotel kitchen, using his own expertise to teach Cornell students about the art of cooking.

Tsai, an alumnus of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, headlined the 2001 Guest Chef Series. Students in Hotel Administration 437: Specialty Food and Beverage Operations plan and execute the series, which brings three guest chefs to Cornell annually for a weekend visit.

Tsai brought a team of sous and pastry chefs from his restaurant, Blue Ginger, and worked hand-in-hand with students to prepare last night’s four course dinner at Banfi’s Restaurant.

Tsai, who hosts the Food Network’s “East Meets West With Ming Tsai” and “Ming’s Quest,” said he has been in the food industry his entire life.

“My parents had a Mandarin Chinese restaurant in Dayton, Ohio,” he explained.

But Tsai, a first generation Chinese-American who earned an engineering degree from Yale University, did not realize that he had a passion for food until he studied at the Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris during his junior year of college.

“The turning point for me was the Cordon Bleu in Paris,” he said. “I realized the French could cook, too. I had thought only the Chinese could cook.”

Upon returning from Paris, Tsai applied to Cornell’s hotel school because “it was the natural step if [he] wanted to learn about the business.”

However, the hotel school deferred him because he was too young.

“They wanted me to work some more,” Tsai said, adding that he was years younger than the average master of professional services (M.P.S.) student. He returned to Paris to work before entering the hotel school.

In 1998, Tsai opened Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., and he was named Chef of the Year by Esquire magazine later that year.

“I needed my own place because I kept getting fired,” Tsai admitted. “I love being my own boss.”

He decided to open his fusion-style restaurant in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston, because he had learned the importance of location, especially from his Cornell professors.

“Wellesley is affluent, which means well-traveled, which means a well-trained palette,” Tsai said, adding that many people criticized him for choosing the conservative town as the home of his eclectic cuisine.

“I had my critics, but I knew that if I made a good product then people would appreciate it,” he said. “We don’t do weird. We don’t serve monkey brains. But we do a lot of sashimi-style, rare dishes.”

At his restaurant, Tsai combines Asian flavors with fundamentals of European cuisine. Menu items include miso-sake marinated Chilean sea bass and Indonesian curry pasta with coconut shrimp.

Tsai attributes the success of his restaurant, in part, to the “irrational power of TV.” His shows have inspired people from as far as Korea and the Philippines to visit Blue Ginger.

People magazine included Tsai on its list of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World last year.

“I break the stereotype of the Chinese guy,” he said. “I’m very Americanized. I like running water. I like my palm pilot and cell phone. But I’m not skewed or warped. I am so fortunate to live in this country.”

According to Marina Brancely, Blue Ginger’s pastry chef, Tsai’s team travels frequently.

“Ming takes us all over the country,” she said, about coming to Cornell. “There’s always some kind of twist. Working with students [to prepare meals] is a challenge.”

Tsai was pleased to return to his alma mater.

“I love Ithaca and this is the best time to be here,” he said. “I wish I had time to play 18 holes.”

Tsai said he was privileged to have been invited to partake in the Guest Chef Series.

“It’s an honor and it’s fun to work with students,” he said.

The students who produced the Guest Chef Series, most of whom plan to enter the food and beverage industry in the future, were pleased to have the opportunity to work with Tsai.

“It’s amazing. He’s a great teacher,” said Joe Dobias ’01. “He’s not just here to be a celebrity chef. He’s telling us why he’s doing certain things as he does them.”

The Guest Chefs course teaches students how to plan and execute a successful event, according to co-instructor Robert Morgan, who is the Statler Hotel’s executive sous chef.

“They plan the event from the beginning steps to the end,” he said.

Members of the community attended last night’s dinner for $120, which gave the students the budget they needed to fly Tsai and his team to Ithaca and buy top-quality ingredients, said co-instructor Holly Winslow.

“We have a local following. A lot of the same individuals attend every event,” Morgan said.

The students partake in either the service, marketing or production aspect of the event.

As part of the marketing team for Tsai’s visit, Marco Bongioanni ’01 contacted the local press about the event, handled reservations and scheduled a book signing.

“This class allows you to get the whole idea of running a business,” he said.

Betsy Landen ’02 said that the course offers students the rare opportunity to interact with famous chefs.

“We get exposed to well-renowned chefs and a variety of food types,” she said. “[These are] people who we would never get to work with if not for this class.”

Co-instructor Giuseppe Pezzotti tried to involve chefs with different backgrounds and styles of cuisine.

“We try to expose students to the hot hospitality and food trends,” he said.

Past Guest Chef Series have included celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck.

“The chefs are highly receptive to working with students,” Pezzotti said. “They share their knowledge and are very patient. They leave Ithaca with a rewarding experience.”

The 2001 Guest Chefs Series also included Janos Wilder, from Janos Restaurant in Tucson, and Marcus Samuelson, from Restaurant Aquavit in New York City, who came earlier this semester.

“Everybody wins,” Pezzotti said. “It’s good exposure for the University and the community gets exposed to chefs they would not normally get to see.”

Archived article by Stephanie Hankin