Allergy-Friendly Celebrity Chef
Restaurateur Ming Tsai, father of a food-allergic child, pays it forward
Preparing food was part of growing up for Ming Tsai, cookbook author and host of public television’s Simply Ming. Tsai spent much of his childhood cooking alongside his parents in their Chinese restaurant in Dayton, Ohio. A graduate of Yale and Cornell, Tsai attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before opening Blue Ginger, his award-winning restaurant in the Boston area. Known for its innovative East-West cuisine, Blue Ginger is also allergy friendly, providing guests with detailed ingredient lists of every dish.
A national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylactic Network (FAAN), Tsai is one of the forces behind Massachusetts’ groundbreaking law governing allergy guidelines for restaurants.
Tsai's interest in food allergies is deeply personal. He spoke with editor Alicia Woodward about his oldest son David, now 12, who was diagnosed with multiple food allergies as an infant.
When did you first suspect that David had an issue with food?
He had horrible eczema all over his body when he was a baby. We took him to the pediatrician and he tested allergic to seven of the top eight food allergens—dairy, wheat, soy, egg, shellfish—and off-the-charts allergic to nuts and peanuts.
What was that like for you?
It was the unfunny joke from Upstairs: I’m a chef and my son has food allergies. But being a chef turned out to be a good thing. David didn’t go hungry. I’d fix things like organic rack of lamb with rice noodles and Alaskan halibut with fried rice. As any parent knows, when your child has life-threatening food allergies, it’s your number one concern. It affects everything. The most basic activities and decisions now have to be thought through carefully. The schools, the babysitters, where you go on vacation, how you travel, everything.
We’d travel with a small burner and a cooler filled with food and I’d cook for David in the hotel bathroom. The maid would ask, “Have you been cooking in here?”—there’d be rice in the sink and on the mirror—and I’d say, “Nah, who me?” [laughs]
What’s been the most difficult thing about David’s allergies?
You’re always on your toes. It’s always on your mind. You have to keep a couple EpiPens close by, in the car, wherever you go. At birthday parties, he brings his own special cupcake and we train the nanny or the mother of the birthday child how to use the EpiPen—but there’s still a lot of anxiety. No one’s going to purposely contaminate your kid but mistakes can happen. It could even be a family member. My father-in-law is in his 80s. You know, he’s just not accustomed to thinking that someone could die from eating a banana nut muffin. So you have to be on constant alert.
How did David’s diagnosis affect your work and career?
It certainly wasn’t what I asked for but it’s become my calling.
Calling? It sounds like there's spiritual signifigance for you.
I want to do everything I can to make sure my son is safe, of course. But I also think everyone is on the planet to do good and this is one of my callings. It makes perfect sense. I own a restaurant, I’m a chef, I’m on television and so I have a certain amount of celebrity status that I can use in a positive way to get the word out and educate people about this issue. Would I have chosen this? No. But life deals you cards and you’ve got to play them. So I worked on a state law that requires restaurants in Massachusetts to comply with food allergy guidelines. I did a training video for restaurant staff with the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. We have an allergy reference manual at the Blue Ginger that breaks down the ingredients of every single dish we serve.
What special diet is most requested at Blue Ginger?
The gluten-free diet, celiac disease. The biggest allergies we hear are peanuts and tree nuts. They’re usually serious, the ones that can cause anaphylaxis.
Has David ever had anaphylaxis?
Yes, he had an episode at a birthday party. The babysitter fed him the wrong milk. He was only 5 at the time.
How was that handled?
The EpiPen in his leg, the ambulance to the hospital, the epinephrine drip in the ER. It was quite dramatic. And…um....yeah....terrifying….he was….
It still bothers you, just remembering it.
Yeah…. It was brutal.
Has that been his only anaphylactic episode?
Yes. One is enough. One is plenty. He remembers the ambulance. He says it was a fun ride.
When it comes to allergies, what would you like to see change?
Education is key. People, especially restaurant owners, need to realize that a food allergy is not a choice. People are born with this condition. If you’re serving meals to people, you unequivocally have to know what’s in your food. If you don’t know 100 percent what’s in your food, change your job. Don’t be in the restaurant business. I don’t buy the attitude, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years” or whatever. Well, times have changed. Food allergies are rampant and they aren’t going away. People now have these life-threatening conditions so get educated and get trained. It used to be if you had a certain skin color, you couldn’t eat at a restaurant. Now you can. If you were in a wheelchair, you couldn’t get into a restaurant. Now you can. So if you have a food allergy, you can’t eat in a restaurant? That’s crazy! It’s got to change.
What advice would you give to parents of a child who has severe food allergies?
First, it’s not the end of the world. There are solutions and food substitutions for everything so don’t be discouraged. Second, get support from people who can help you. Join a group like FAAN and ask for advice. You don’t have to do this alone. Third, make waves. If your kid has an anaphylactic peanut allergy and the school doesn’t have a policy, you need to demand that the school become peanut free. Educate, educate, educate. Don’t make threats or go in with a chip on your shoulder. Say, look, I need your help to save my child’s life. Bring in 100 signatures from other parents and appeal to the humanity of anyone who isn’t cooperating.
Some of my greatest experiences as a kid were in restaurants so I think it’s horrible to be a kid who has never eaten in a restaurant because of food allergies. My message to parents, especially to all the super-anxious mothers, is this: Take your child out to dinner. Find an allergy-friendly place, even if it’s a fast food chain. Make sure it’s safe, call in advance. If the waiter rolls his eyes or the manager isn’t helpful, leave—but find a safe restaurant where your child can eat. I have seen a lot of mothers crying at Blue Ginger.
Yes, from relief. They tell me they haven’t taken their son or daughter out to eat for five years or for his or her entire life. They say, I can’t believe my child is eating a real meal at a real restaurant.
How nice is that for you?
It’s incredibly gratifying. It’s life changing. On those nights, I sleep really well.