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Networking: Ming Tsai
By James Wright
December 05, 2011
Ming Tsai knows the power of the media — glowing reviews and word-of-mouth have propelled his Japanese restaurant Blue Ginger to prominence. After a whirlwind week of unexpected media attention questioning the integrity of his business in late October, the chef is now an expert on the subject. Blue Ginger was implicated in a Oct. 23 Boston Sunday Globe exposé about seafood fraud titled “On the Menu, But Not On Your Plate,” simply because a popular dish he serves using Alaska sablefish uses the vernacular (but not federally approved) name “butterfish” on the menu.
Aside from using the chef’s well-earned reputation and name as draw for readers (he and his restaurant were mentioned in the second paragraph), Tsai says the newspaper itself got its facts mixed up, describing the fish he serves as a locally caught fish typically sold as bait for $2 a pound. Tsai pays up to $20 a pound for Alaska sablefish fillets, but that was not mentioned in the original story. In a series of articles that focused on species substitution and DNA tests used to uncover such fraud, Tsai was suddenly associated with criminals. Cue the onslaught of negative reaction for a chef who says he’s the “most careful person in the world when it comes to what’s on the plate.”
What was your initial reaction to the story?
When I first read it, I said to myself, ‘She didn’t get it right or hear everything I said.’ There was an angle to the story. By placement and who I am, the sensationalism made it look like I was one of the people who was deceitful and was cheating. I agree with the premise of the article; it’s absolutely wrong to cheat. I told [the reporter] all of this. Why would I serve a $20-a-pound fillet and call it by a baitfish name? It was the exact opposite of what the point of the article was.
At the end of the day, the good news is the Globe did exonerate me. It didn’t come in the Sunday Globe, first page, second paragraph. People take for gospel what they read in the newspaper. I’ve been a chef for 25 years; I’ve never had bad press. Some tough food critiques, but something like this?
What was the reaction from readers like?
The amazing negative social media response I got — I was so flabbergasted. People called me a criminal. They said they’d call the Attorney General to press charges. A priest where I went to school at Yale wrote to me, ‘You realize that when you graduated from Yale you agreed to adhere to a code of ethics?’ That was a doozy, and I look forward to calling him back. There were literally hundreds [of responses]. I had to get my name cleared. No lawsuits — no one wins in a lawsuit. I’m a brand, I do TV, books — to get tarnished like that is just crazy. But I got tons of support from chefs and fans.
What suppliers do you place your trust in?
Captain Marden’s (Boston) is awesome; used them since Day 1. Eco-fish (Dover, N.H.) I love to death as well. [Company owners] Henry and Lisa [Lovejoy] are the ones who found sablefish for me. I now call my dish Sake-Miso Marinated Sablefish (aka Butterfish). People tell me I could call it “dirtfish” and it’d be the best fish ever.
Does seafood need more oversight?
It’s clear that, compared to the meat industry, which is much tighter, there’s not enough money to enforce inspection in the seafood industry. If [the government] could have 1,000 more inspectors, they would; it’s been way too lax. But do you know how many Kobe beef burgers are out there that don’t have Kobe? C’mon.