Turkey tips from an alumnus engineer: Q&A with Ming Tsai ‘86

Before Ming Tsai became a celebrity chef known for fusing Eastern and Western cuisines, he was a mechanical engineering student at Yale. He’s now host of his own cooking show, “Simply Ming,” and serves as chef-owner of the Massachusetts restaurants Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon. Tsai explains how he went from studying thermodynamics to competing against Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef” and offers some tips on preparing for Thanksgiving.

Ming Tsai

On the shift from mechanical engineering to cooking:

Tsai’s father, Stephen Tsai, ’52 B.E., ’61 D.Eng., was a chief scientist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. “Still today, at 86 years old, he’s one of the foremost graphite designers in the world working with composite materials,” Tsai said. “So me being the good Chinese son — or almost any son — you want to be like dad, right? So I figured: ‘Okay, I want to be an engineer.’”

On the other hand, his mother, Iris, ran Mandarin Kitchen, their family restaurant in Dayton. Tsai spent summers there helping out and “caught the restaurant bug.” As a Yale student, he began spending his summers in Paris. “And I realized: ‘Damn, the French can cook too,’” he said. “I went to Le Cordon Bleu the summer of junior year, and that ‘s when I’m like ‘Wow, I not only want to learn French cuisine, I want to mix French and Chinese; I want to create something new.’ I still think they’re the two best cuisines in the world.”

On the many ways a chef can use an engineering degree:

“I’ve now gone full circle because I’m currently designing kitchen equipment,” he said. “So I’m actually using my engineering so much more now than I ever have before.” His latest creation is the Simply Ming Premiere Gourmet Pressure Cooker.

His engineering education also came in handy when he was developing food products for Target. “The food scientists loved me because I’d be like ‘We need point-zero-one grams more of that.’ Or I would do a ratio or percentage. I would be able to speak their language — numbers to numbers. So for food scientists, that worked out well. Usually, chefs say ‘Oh, that’s not salty enough,’ whereas I’d say ‘This has to be 12% more salty.’”

A number-conditioned mind also meant that his restaurant opened on budget and on time. “The ability to analyze numbers is what makes a restaurant successful,” he said. “There’s a hundred — I don’t know, a thousand — chefs better than me in the kitchen. But you have to have the business acumen to be able to know what’s going in your business as well. That’s the whole analytical mind that the engineering degree gave me.”

On how to make your turkey taste good (along with a science-y explanation)

“My number-one go-to advice is you have to brine your turkey,” he said. “But people are scared of it; they don’t like touching raw poultry.”

Tsai’s advice: Get a cooler big enough for your turkey and fill it halfway with room-temperature water. Add equal parts salt and sugar until “it tastes like sweet seawater.” Put the turkey in, add some frozen gel packs (ice cubes dilute the solution), and make sure the turkey is fully submerged. Leave it overnight.

“What you’re doing is the most basic thing you learn in biology — osmosis,” he said. “It’s basically equilibrium — nature wants to equalize everything, so what happens is all those water molecules in the turkey when it first hits the brine want to equalize and that water wants to go to the sodium. So literally, all the juice leaves the turkey first. But because of nature, it wants to equalize, so it brings back in the flavored juice, which is water, sugar, and salt. And that goes back into the molecular structure of the turkey. So once it’s properly brined when you cook it, there’s sodium in the microstructure of the meat, so that’s going to retain the moisture so much better.”

Some advice for minimizing chaos in the kitchen:

“You should really focus only on the turkey and the gravy the day of,” he said. “Everything else — the brussel sprouts, spinach, bok choy, or whatever — all that stuff should be done in advance. Your pie should be done in advance. That leaves the basics for whatever has to be done the day of.

“The other paramount thing is that you have turkey soup. I will have in my gigantic stockpot, the turkey carcass — carrots, onions and thyme already in — and I use store-bought low-sodium chicken stock,” he said. “In two and a half hours, I have the best turkey broth, and usually I add noodles or rice. I love turkey soup. That’s my favorite reason to cook turkey.”

On giving back:

Tsai serves as the president of the advisory board for the Family Reach Foundation, which provides financial help to families who have a child with cancer.

“The number-one cause of personal bankruptcy in this country today is cancer,” he said. “It’s a crazy statistic when you think about it.”

Tsai said his work with the charity has been extremely rewarding. “Regardless of who you are, you’ve got to leave your mark and give back,” he said. “That’s what I tell my kids. I don’t care what my kids are going to be when they grow up, as long as they leave their mark. That’s the most important thing.”

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William Weir: william.weir@yale.edu, 203-432-0105