For years I’ve wanted to devise a new way to present how-to cooking information on a show. There’s a reason why they’ve been dubbed dump-and-stir; because they’re inherently rote. Given that there are only about twenty things you need to know to cook just about anything, it’s inevitable that presenting a few of those techniques is going repetitive after oh, 40 or 50,000 shows.  Yes, people are pushing the format.  Michael Symon does a good job with Cook Like an Iron Chef. Others are trying to put cooking info in the framework of a story, adding layers of media.

My old friend from Cooking Under Fire, Ming Tsai, invited me out to be part of his ninth season of “Simply Ming,” a how-to, yes, but always interesting, always informative, with travel, and knowledgeable guest chefs (look for Jacques Pepin in this season). This season, he’s changed the premise of the show; it’s a subtle change—if you watched the show without sound you wouldn’t know it had changed, but it simplifies the format while making it more interesting and informative. I’ve told him I won’t reveal specifics, but it basically allows Ming and his guest to cook whatever they want, which is what all cooks like to do (it begins to air on PBS this fall).

There’s still a teaching element (my personal love), there’s still travel, guest chefs, but with a simple flip the urgency and the meaning bring it closer to home cooking, to what really happens in a kitchen, to how chefs really cook at home.

And provided my Boston-Cleveland flight is on time—gray and rainy here in Boston this morning—it’s an easy and fun excursion. I got to Ming’s studio in Milford, MA, at 2:30 yesterday; Kim Do—who shot these pix, thanks Kim!— took the shine off my face and covered up a pimple on my nose that appeared as if to show itself off just for TV. Ming lead me thorough the various acts of the show, we got rolling, I got to talk about one of my obsessions: salt, and the many ways it alters food, and the show was done in an hour and a half.  All food cooked in real time.

The only thing I hate about TV is all the stuff there isn’t time for.  Salt is so complex, there’s so much that didn’t get said about it.  There was no time to talk about America’s salt fear (too much salt can be bad for you, but you’re not likely to over salt food you cook for yourself; the bad quantities tend to be in our processed food).  Also, in the unnatural situation of cooking in front of cameras in an unfamiliar studio kitchen (a truly unique skill, different from regular cooking), I forgot to add the fish sauce I said I wanted to in my zucchini salad.  Damn. Another point not made: adding salty ingredients to your food to season the dish.

But that’s exactly the kind of thing that can happen at home as well.

After the show, Ming signed copies of his latest book for a couple dozen fans who had watched, then headed to a wrap party (they conclude this afternoon) at his restaurant, and he treated me, two of my friends and another guest, Houston Chef Brian Caswell, to dinner at his restaurant.  One errand in a busy schedule but it sure is fun.


If you liked this post on Behind the Scenes with Ming Tsai (he’s plating his final dish above for the beauty shots), check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved



28 Wonderful responses to “Simply Ming: Revising the Dump-and-Stir Format”

  • Drew @ How To Cook Like Your Grandmother

    You aren’t kidding about studio cooking being a different skill. My first TV appearance, I had 10 minutes to my segment and started the double boiler to melt the chocolate. Things were going slow, so I checked with a producer, who told me the cooktop didn’t get very hot. Hey, thanks for the heads up!

    Oh, and the sink was display-only, so I had to fill a pitcher of water in the bathroom down the hall. And don’t get me started on what was available for plating samples. “Full kitchen” my ass.

  • Howard Q. Bikeman

    Given that there are only about twenty things you need to know to cook just about anything…

    So… what are these twenty things?

  • Chris S.

    There’s your next app Michael!
    Twenty Things You Need to Know to Cook Just About Anything

  • Howard Q. Bikeman

    …there are only about twenty things you need to know to cook just about anything…

    So… what are these twenty things? Are they in one of your books?

  • Mantonat

    I’ve always enjoyed Ming’s show and the format where he and the guest chef prepare different dishes from the same main ingredient – and then sit down with a couple of well-paired wines.

    I think “dump and stir” is a pejorative term best left for shows that teach people to “cook” using processed foods as main ingredients; shows like the infamous Rachel Ray episode where she made a lasagna-type dish using frozen ravioli and jarred sauce. It’s not really cooking, it’s just dumping pre-made ingredients and stirring them. Chefs like Ming showcase fresh ingredients, good technique, and interesting flavor combinations. The basic show format may be the same, but the only thing dump-and-stir about his show is that some of the mis-en-place is done ahead of time so we may not see him chopping onions.

  • Karin

    Always enjoyed watching him as far back as “East meets West” days. Now we get to watch East meets Mid-West!

    • brad barnett

      Mark Bitterman pretty much buried that subject in his book “Salted”. I might be mistaken, but I remember seeing that Ruhlman wrote some kind of foreword or a blurb/review in it.

      • Kristine

        Thanks, Brad. I hadn’t heard of that one. He does seem a little “bitter.” (I assume you mean Mark Bittman…since everyone seems to like to correct other posters. 🙂 )

        • brad barnett

          Not the NYT writer Mark Bittman. It’s another guy…his name is Bitterman. Don’t know anything about him other than he apparently knows more about salt than the rest of humanity combined.

          • Tags

            Mark Bitterman has a short profile in Wikipedia, and his book “Salted” is available on Amazon (be sure to click through one of Michael’s book links so he gets his share )

  • rockandroller

    I’ve really been liking Eric Ripert’s show lately (we don’t get the channel that Symon’s show is on, boo) as the first half of the show is about the food that’s going to be prepared – sourcing, visit to a farm, etc. Gives more meaning to the ingredient when he proceeds to cook with it, and more of a mental flavor, I think it brings the recipe closer to the viewer. Plus everything is very simple and easy, which I never expected from such a high-end chef.

    Look forward to hearing more about your new book! You are cranking!

  • Earl Schiffke

    Tell Mr. Tsai to stop referring to his viewers as “guys” . He needs to break that bad habit.

    • Robin Bayley

      Exactly. Everyone on these types of shows needs to stop using the word “guys” especially when they are addressing women.

  • allen

    I have a lot of good recipes from Ming Tsai that I make on a regular basis: shrimp lolly pops on lemongrass stalks, Thai beef salad with warm lemongrass vinaigrette, and beef carpaccio pho soup to name just a few. East Meets West and Simply Ming are two great shows.

    One of my favorite episodes of Simply Ming was when he had a guest on showing how to cure pork belly, made it look so easy: just rub it, let it sit and give it a quick rinse apply gentle heat – “that’s all there is to it”. I then had to try and do it myself and put the book that was being pumped in my library que.

    Then I had to buy the book because it was so damn useful, and a lot of other books by the same author who has a great online blog that I frequent, sometimes adding my own blathering (occasionally drunken nonsensical rants), but I digress….

  • Natalie Sztern

    I am proud to say that Blogher chose to feature my post on Ken Oringer’s Lacquered Pork Belly which I got off of an episode of Ming’s show…

  • lawsontl

    Ohio gets a bad rap, but, wow, can we make people who make great food: you, Ming, Anne Kearney, Michael Symon…

  • Kent

    You said something about salt that got me thinking… I think the most common dining association with salt is from salting food at the table after it has already been prepared and cooked. When I watch people cook on shows I admit that I am often surprised at the amount of salt going into dishes (granted, these are either large pots of water or dishes meant for multiple servings). I suspect we would all be appalled if a comparison were made between the amount of salt put into a pre-made/processed dish and the same dish made at home. Any thoughts on the matter?

  • Natalie Sztern

    For those who happen to have any of Kyocera’s Ceramic knives, especially the ones we paid bigger bucks for if it has Ming’s signature (ahem, it was around 8 yrs ago in my ‘fan’ days…) I have discovered that Kyocera now sells a ceramic knife sharpener especially made for their ceramic knives which Ming Tsai should be selling but is not…KY3050 …it is available at Golda’

  • Lingbo Li

    Did you try Ming’s butterfish? That’s my favorite dish on his menu!

    Nice analysis of cooking shows. And definitely tough to cook in an unfamiliar kitchen with unfamiliar tools, although I’m wondering if your lack of fish sauce was cleverly glossed over in post-production, or if you just ended up reshooting it…?

    Thanks for the link! I’m super flattered. 🙂