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My Thursday Thing: Inspirational Chefs

Yesterday was National Culinarian's Day, so for My Thursday Thing this week, I figured I would take the opportunity to share with you three TV chefs that inspired me to cook when I was younger and the most important thing I learned from watching each one of them. Those chefs were the Frugal Gourmet Jeff Smith, Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook and Ming Tsai who hosted East Meets West.

Jeff Smith

In 1986, my parents got divorced and I became a latchkey kid. That meant learning to take on more responsibilities around the house. Cooking became an immediate interest for me and I began to watch lots of cooking shows on PBS because we didn't have cable at that time. The show that I watched most was The Frugal Gourmet with Jeff Smith. Smith's focus wasn't necessarily on using cheap ingredients, but rather on making sure he used his ingredients to the fullest. Today, people refer to this as "head to tail" cooking. His recipes were based primarily in American cuisine and his shows demonstrated many different cooking techniques and were extremely educational for me. Sadly, in the 1990's, Smith faced serious allegations of sexual abuse and he passed away of heart disease in 2004 at the age of 65. While his actions have obviously tainted my view of the man and his legacy, his impact on my cooking is still undeniable.

Lesson Learned: Jeff Smith always had a recipe on the counter, and he consulted it frequently throughout the show to make sure he had the measurements correct. The lesson I learned is that no matter how good a cook you are, it's perfectly fine to consult recipes, whether they are your own or someone else's. There's no reason to always just wing it, especially when you are just learning how to cook, like I was back then.

Martin Yan

At the same time I was learning to cook from The Frugal Gourmet, I was also learning that "If Yan Can Cook, So Can You!" Martin Yan was the host of the PBS show Yan Can Cook which focused on preparing traditional Chinese dishes. At the time, I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, so Chinese takeout was a weekly dinner staple for my family. So the idea of cooking those same dishes at home really intrigued me, and Yan educated me on a wide variety of unique and authentic Chinese ingredients and techniques. And his love and enjoyment of cooking was intoxicating to watch. At the age of 69, Martin Yan is still very involved in the cooking scene and on TV.

Lesson Learned: Two actually. The first is organization. Preparing all the ingredients you need before you start cooking keeps you organized and brings the meal together faster. And for a new cook, this greatly reduces the stress of following a lengthy recipe. In cooking terms, this technique is called "mise en place". The second is more a safety lesson. Knowing my love for Chinese food, my mom bought us a new wok when I was twelve. While she was out one night, my grandma was watching me when I decided to "season the wok". That's a technique of oiling a wok and heating it until lightly smoking to seal the wok coating. I may have let the smoking go a little too far, as the smoke turned to flames, setting of the smoke detector off and nearly burning down our apartment. I guess I should have let my mom do that. Oops!

Ming Tsai

While Jeff Smith and Martin Yan inspired me as a child when I was just learning how to cook, Ming Tsai's East Meets West show on the Food Network inspired me as a young adult in 1998. At that time, I was fresh out of college and living on my own in Boston. At the same time, Tsai's show was new on the network and he was just opening his first restaurant, Blue Ginger, nearby in Wellsley, MA. East Meets West was based on Asian cuisines which, as I said above, I love. But it fused those cuisines with Western cuisines, such as France and American. The combinations of ingredients Tsai would use was different to me and really interesting and raised the level of creativity in my own cooking to new levels. I began to visit Asian markets in Cambridge, MA to find new ingredients and even tried my hand at sushi-making a few times. I had the pleasure of meeting Ming Tsai in person at his restaurant in 2002 and enjoyed a brief conversation on my love for his show. Blue Ginger closed last year, but he has a new restaurant, Blue Dragon, located in Boston. I haven't been yet as I don't live in Boston anymore, but as a parent of a child with severe nut allergies, I was thrilled to learn they have a nut-free kitchen. We'll absolutely be visiting next time we are up there and maybe I can chat with Ming again!

Lesson Learned: Don't be afraid to get creative in the kitchen. Take things you love from different cuisines and mix them up. That's when cooking gets really fun, but be prepared for some disasters. It's totally ok to toss something in the trash when it fails miserably and grab dinner out. Just ask my wife, I've done that a time or two. Just hop right back on the proverbial horse the next night and try again. Nothing tastes better then preparing something you've "cooked up" in your head and seeing it on the plate!

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