"The flavors of the Azores have stuck with me," smiled Ming Tsai, the award-winning chef/owner of Blue Ginger Restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and host/executive producer of "Simply Ming," the WGBH-TV public television food program, as he welcomed guests to an Asian/Azores tasting at the restaurant this week.
The occasion was the announcement that Tsai, who went on a foodstudy trip to the Azores Islands in September, will begin a five-part series on Azorean food on that television show on Saturday, February 2.
Tsai said he thought Azorean ice cream "unbelievable," made fresh from all the cows living in the Azores. But the "coolest thing," he noted, are the vineyards, surrounded by lava rocks that heat up during the day to help sweeten the taste of the grapes and the wine produced there.
The best flavor of all, Tsai raved, is the "Pimenta da Terra," or spice with a red pepper base made in the Azores. "I put it on EVERYTHING,' he laughed. It was part of the tasting at the restaurant, which included a rich fish soup topped with an aoli crustini, marinated tuna tataki, tender shortribs, cheeses from the islands of St. Jorge and Pico, fig jam, passion fruit desserts, Azorean wines and special fruity cocktails made by Azorean mixologist Joao Couto, who had traveled to Massachusetts along with Chef Hugo Ferreira of the cooking school Escola de Formacao Turistica e Hoteleira on San Miguel Island, to celebrate the Evening with Ming Tsai.
While filming fot the television show in the Azores, Tsai went fishing with the locals, played a little golf, discovered the Azorean "awesome hot bread pudding" to which he added coconut for an Asian touch, and watched the ancient art of crushing grapes with bare feet to make authentic island wine. "Each island is different," marveled the chef, speaking about the nine islands of the Azores. In the first year his restaurant opened, 1998, Blue Ginger was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as "Best New Restaurant 1998" and was given the Zagat "Top 5 of the Most Popular Boston Restaurants."
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton invited Tsai to represent the United States with the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership Initiative/American Chef Corps, using food as a foundation for public diplomacy efforts home and abroad. Tsai has been named Esquire Magazine's Chef of the Year, and Boston Magazine named Blue Ginger "Best New Restaurant" in its first year in business. Among other accomplishments, Chef Tsai has a degree in mechanical engineering from Yale University . His summers during the Yale years were spent studying cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Early this year Tsai will open Blue Dragon, a 75-seat Asian gastro pub in the Fort Point Channel section of Boston.