As the pandemic devastated the food industry across America, celebrity chef Ming Tsai watched with concern as many small Chinese and BIPOC-owned restaurants struggled to stay alive. Countless family-run businesses shuttered permanently due to the drastically reduced foot traffic and tourism. Although cities opened up sidewalks for outdoor seating, many of these small immigrant-run restaurants do not have the space to utilize those benefits. For most restaurants, a lack of indoor dining is a death sentence.
But there was another scourge that emerged during the pandemic, one that specifically targeted Chinese and Asian Americans — racism. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been countless incidents of hate crimes and attacks on Asian Americans. These incidents horrified Tsai, compelling him to act.
“You can’t stand and watch. If you stand and watch, you’re complicit,” Tsai tells The Manual. “You have to intervene. Get as many people with you to intervene immediately. Because if a black guy, an Asian guy, or a woman is getting beat up for no stupid reason other than for the color of their skin … its unbelievable. Its infuriating. We have to do something. We don’t have a choice.”
Tsai is a busy man. A serial restauranteur, entrepreneur, and food media personality with multiple television shows, the 57-year-old is a man in constant motion. But there’s a common element at the center of his projects — a focus on making an impact. With the recent Asian attacks and Stop Asian Hate movement Tsai knew he needed to leverage his extensive food industry background to help the community.
For Tsai, one solution to safe indoor restaurant dining is clean air. Recently, he has partnered with Rensair, a portable hospital-grade air purification system originally developed for Scandinavian hospitals. The company claims their system cleans up to 20,000 cubic feet per hour and eliminates 99% of airborne viruses (including coronavirus). But at $3,500 each, the Rensair system is too expensive for the majority of already struggling immigrant-run businesses. For Tsai, this meant that his ability to work with Renair would require a partnership focused on responsible and socially conscious entrepreneurship.
“This is my DNA,” said Tsai. “Sure I’ll work with you, but you need to let me make an impact. I’ll work with you guys (Rensair) but we need to give a lot of these units out. I want fifty of these units. And not just for the Asian community, tons of those in BIPOC community also need help. Give them a unit so they can safely reopen. Its a lifeline.”
Tsai’s energy on these Asian community issues is palpable. But even before the pandemic, Tsai maintained a strong focus on projects that showcased his Chinese American heritage. Tsai’s current culinary project is MingsBings, a plant-based take on traditional Chinese jianbing. A popular street food breakfast in China, traditional jianbings are a thin crepe consisting of wheat and mung bean flour, filled with egg, sheets of fried wonton crisps, and pickled vegetables, all slathered in chili sauce and tian mian jiang (sweet bean sauce).
Read more: Chinese Cuisine Guide
The decision to make a healthier and fully plant-based version of this beloved Chinese breakfast item was deeply personal for Tsai. In 2017, his wife Polly was diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully, she has since made a full recovery. But during the whole ordeal, his wife transitioned to a plant-based diet. Because of this dietary change, Tsai dove headfirst into making vegan meals. However, he was disappointed by the vegan selection at grocery stores as many options were lacking in both taste and variety.
Galvanized by this cause, Tsai created MingsBings, his attempt at changing the unexciting narrative of plant-based products. His goal was to make a vegan product that was delicious and healthy. But he also wanted to showcase his background and heritage. “I’m American. I was born in Newport Beach. But I’m also Chinese American and very proud to be Chinese American,” said Tsai. Because of Tsai’s Chinese American heritage, the flavors of MingBings are very different from the traditional Chinese version, including interesting choices like vegan sausage and peppers and a Mexican-influenced Fiesta flavor. Currently, MingsBings are available at select Whole Foods markets and Dave’s Fresh Marketplace.
This combination of Tsai’s Chinese American heritage, personal experiences, and social entrepreneurship is the key to the success of his various endeavors. Its also what fuels his thinking on the future of the Asian American community. In Tsai’s opinion, Asian Americans can no longer afford to turn away, keep their heads down, and stay quiet about their struggles and stories.
“We can’t be the silent majority,” Tsai says. “We can’t just say ‘that’s OK’ and walk away. We can’t. We have to act.”
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