Ming Tsai is the epitome of a multihyphenate talent. He’s a James Beard Award-winning chef. He’s the host of an Emmy Award-winning television show. He’s a cookbook author, a restaurateur, an entrepreneur, and a volunteer. And now, he can add another title to the list: Northeastern University Commencement speaker.
Tsai will address Northeastern’s 2020 graduates at Matthews Arena on Saturday, Nov. 13 in a set of two commencement exercises that were postponed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.
“I’m very honored and humbled to be speaking,” Tsai said. “It’s an awesome responsibility because I get to talk to these young folks who are going out into the world and making a change.”
Graduates of the Class of 2020 and their guests will attend one of two ceremonies, at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. on Nov. 13. The commencement ceremonies are part of a weeklong series of events that include an opportunity on Wednesday for graduates to share their Husky spirit on social media, and the university’s Veterans’ Day ceremony on Thursday.
“Chef Tsai is an extraordinary talent,” said Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University. “A true entrepreneur whose personal life has empowered his professional endeavors, he has been an inspiration and a great friend to the Northeastern community. His passionate pursuit of health and wellbeing through food has taken him on a journey of innovation. His story of an engineer turned food entrepreneur and philanthropist will resonate with our 2020 graduates—many of whom are already pursuing multidisciplinary careers.”
Tsai had an illustrious career, opening restaurants, hosting TV shows, and writing cookbooks before his wife, Polly, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer—a diagnosis that altered the course of Tsai’s life and career.
During treatment, Polly, who is now cancer-free, switched to a vegan diet in order to shore up her health. Tsai easily made tasty, nutritious meals at home, but had trouble finding the same qualities in many of the vegan options at grocery stores.
So, he started MingsBings, a unique and “unconditionally delicious” plant-powered pocket full of whole foods and easily recognizable ingredients. And, a portion of the profits from the veggie burgers benefits two charities important to Tsai: the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Family Reach. Tsai chairs the National Advisory Board for the latter, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide financial relief and support to families fighting cancer. In the 10 years he’s worked with Family Reach, Tsai has raised more than $10 million for the organization.
On Friday before the two ceremonies, a welcome reception for graduates and their families will feature MingsBings, and Tsai will also drop into a food truck serving MingsBings between ceremonies on Saturday.
“Food is life,” he said. “Food heals, food brings people together. It’s the way I can give myself to other people and make an impact.”
Renowned for his fusion of Eastern and Western cuisines, Tsai got an early introduction to food and hospitality by cooking alongside his mother and father at Mandarin Kitchen, their family-owned restaurant in Dayton, Ohio.
Throughout his college career (he studied mechanical engineering), Tsai spent the summers attending Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and apprenticing at restaurants in Paris.
Realizing his true passion was food, Ming moved to Paris after graduation and trained under celebrated pastry chef Pierre Hermé. Then, he moved to Osaka, Japan, to train with sushi master Koji Kobayashi. Upon his return to the United States, Ming enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University, earning a master’s degree in Hotel Administration and Hospitality Marketing.
Tsai opened Blue Ginger in 1998 to critical acclaim. In its first year, the restaurant was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as “Best New Restaurant 1998.” That same year, Esquire Magazine named Tsai “Chef of the Year.”
The restaurant garnered recognition for nearly two decades, until Tsai closed it in 2019 to pursue new opportunities.
In the meantime, however, he opened up a second restaurant, Blue Dragon, in 2013. The Asian gastro pub was named one of Esquire Magazine’s “Best New Restaurants 2013” and one of Zagat’s “24 New Restaurants You Need to Know About Around the U.S.”
Throughout this time, Tsai was also working on several TV shows. In 1998, the same year he opened Blue Ginger, Tsai’s Food Network program “East Meets West with Ming Tsai” won an Emmy Award.
The public television cooking show “Simply Ming,” debuted in 2003, and Tsai, who executive produces and hosts it, just finished filming its 18th season. In 2009, “Simply Ming” was nominated for two Emmy Awards, in the categories of “Outstanding Culinary Program” and “Outstanding Lifestyle/Culinary Host.”
And, in the summer of 2008, Ming traveled to the Beijing Olympics with NBC’s Today Show to provide viewers with insight into food customs and traditions that define his Chinese heritage.
Tsai’s address in November won’t be his first introduction to Northeastern—an avid squash player, Tsai supported the expansion of SquashBusters to the university’s Boston campus in the early 2000s.
“You hear it all the time, but the best advice I have is to follow your dream, follow your passion,” Tsai said. “That’s what I’ve done throughout my entire career.”