Blue Ginger, the East-meets-West restaurant that has made Wellesley a destination for foodies since 1998, is closing on June 3. Such news spells utter catastrophe for those in town who have become regulars, practically making the place a line item in their monthly budget, and for others like ourselves, who relied on Blue Ginger for special occasions.
Owner and celebrity chef Ming Tsai took time out of the craziness that is is life right now to grant me an exit interview. Our phone conversation, which was supposed to last 15 minutes ended up extending to more that twice that, because when it comes to talking about food Ming just can’t rush.
The following is a condensed version of our conversation, with my words in parentheses. The rest is all Ming.
In the beginning…
My brother lived in Wellesley and I visited him and stayed at the Wellesley Inn. He said the Wellesley Market (a grocery store formerly located in the Blue Ginger space) was for rent. I’d shopped there and knew this place. I knew it would have good infrastructure and room for refrigeration in the basement. Also, Todd English, who is a good friend, said “I’m crushing it here selling pizza on upside-down sheet trays. You’ll do great here.” Plus my research on the demographics told me great things. But basically, I don’t care if you’re rich. I care if you’re well travelled and if your palate is expanded.
That’s how I ended up in Wellesley. I liked that it wasn’t in the city.
We are family
We are truly a family at Blue Ginger. It’s more than a pace to come to work. We help people celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays. We make them happy through food and service and wine. Back when the funeral home was across the street, people used to walk right over to us afterwards. We helped people get through those times, too.
The one and only time I’ve been nervous at Blue Ginger is the first time Julia Child came in. It was a huge honor and I was nervous as anything, and I’m not a nervous person. About halfway through the meal I’m told Julia wants to see me. She says, “You don’t have one woman line cook.” One of the things I loved about her, on her way out she went up to the line and thanked everybody for the meal.
A lot of celebrities have come in. Big Papi has been in. All the great athletes — (Kevin) Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, (Rajon) Rondo, Isaiah (Thomas). Madeleine Albright has been in. But honestly it’s the regular people who have been coming in for 19 years that make this bittersweet.
It wasn’t just business. It was personal
We had a woman come in, her daughter had brought her in, and her mom had cancer. The staff could tell that the mom wasn’t well and took extra-special care of this lady. She was here for her last outing with her daughter. It was the last time the mom was able to go out before she passed. (At this point, Ming became teary and emotional.) When she heard I was closing, the daughter wrote me a letter about her mom. She said as she was writing the letter, she was crying. I can’t believe I’m crying over the phone to a reporter about this, but it was just so meaningful. (The charity that Ming is most directly involved in is Family Reach, which provides financial relief and heartfelt support to families fighting cancer.)
(Ming grew up in Dayton, Ohio learning the restaurant business from his parents at Mandarin Kitchen, the family-owned restaurant. I asked him if he cooks any dishes from those days.) No, there’s no particular dish that I cook. Hmm. Interesting. No there’s no particular dish that’s made it into my repertoire. But there is a dish I created that’s no longer on the menu that I called Mom’s Shrimp. It’s the classic Mediterranean combo of 3 vinegar, 2 soy, 1 sugar. Hmm. In honor of my mom I’m going to bring that dish back for the last week. My mom is coming and I’m going to put that dish on the menu.
I did it my way
Blue Ginger made me. Period. It was before everything. Before TV (Ming’s award-winning cooking show, Simply Ming, is currently in its 14th season and is expected to tape Season 15 this summer), before the awards, before any other restaurant. And Wellesley welcomed us from day one.
I wanted to close on top. Not when I had to close but when I wanted it to close. The owners of the space did not jack the rent up. But with the lease ending, it just seemed like the right time, and I really wanted to be able to focus on ChowStirs (a quick-service stir-fry restaurant set to open in 2018). It’s a place where I can do something with my motivation to help fight obesity through healthy, affordable food. The new place will be entirely peanut free and it will be gluten-free friendly. This will be authentic Chinese with a little twist. I’ll include all the good tweaks to make it all healthier.
The first location will be in Boston (but he wouldn’t tell me where). We will continue to be very sensitive to all food allergies. It will be food that’s good for your body, and it will be good for Family Reach because a portion of all proceeds will go there. If we go national, that will be awesome.
Get a piece of Wellesley history
I encourage everyone to come on Sunday, June 4 to the Blue Ginger yard sale. We’ll have saute pans, food processors, chefs’ coats, cutting boards, plates. Seriously, we’ve got more stuff than Target. Every new season of the TV show meant all new everything, and all that stuff I boxed up and now it will be out at the yard sale. It will be in the back parking lot, 9am – noon.
Some of the proceeds from the yard sale will benefit Family Reach. I’ve raised over 5 million in seven years for them. I meet these families who are going through so much, and I do it for the hugs from the kids.