Celebrity chef Ming Tsai is facing public backlash after comments that he made during an on-stage interview at public radio company WBUR’s CitySpace stirred up controversy online.
Tsai sat for an interview with restaurateur Irene Li of Mei Mei Dumpling Factory on February 6 as part of WBUR’s “Curated Cuisine,” a monthly event in which the media company invites chefs, cookbook authors, and other people from the food world to do on-stage interviews and talk about their work. On March 12, Li posted a reel on Instagram highlighting some of the particularly eyebrow-raising comments that Tsai made during their interview, including presumedly joking about whether Li had “roofied” him, and then joking that he had drugged her.
At one point, about twenty minutes into the interview, Tsai paused to take a sip from his drink before answering the next question, and said to Li, “Did you roofie me? You should have. I roofied you.” A roofie is a name for a tasteless, odorless drug that can be mixed into drinks and is commonly referred to as a date-rape drug. Boston’s nightlife scene is currently experiencing a drink-spiking crisis at bars around the city, as Boston Magazine reported in February.
“Nothing like watching a grown man who is old enough to be my dad make a joke about slipping my wife a [roofie] during a public interview,” Li’s husband Chris Ward commented on Li’s video.
Later on, Li brought up local chef Tiffani Faison’s WBUR interview from a few weeks prior, also for the “Curated Cuisine” series, in which she had noted that Boston’s restaurant industry seemingly side-stepped the larger #MeToo movement that was sweeping the industry on a national level.
The city hasn’t been wholly untouched by the national outcry: many in the industry, for example, denounced the news of chef Michael Scelfo’s forthcoming restaurant after multiple staff members spoke out during summer 2020 alleging misconduct at his Cambridge restaurants.
Li asked Tsai if he thought that Boston would have its #MeToo moment, referring to how chefs in other cities across the country have experienced public reckonings over sexual harassment and abuse in the industry, including New York City restaurateur Ken Friedman, celebrity chef Mario Batali, and chef Dan Barber at Blue Hills at Stone Barns in New York.
“Have we not? Have we not been talking about it enough?” Tsai asks. “[...] Are you saying, like, is there going to be another gigantic fiasco?”
“Yeah, or anybody held accountable for, like, anything,” Li says.
“Yeah, I mean, I hope every day,” Tsai says. “I could probably say all my chef buddies around the country — I was just on the phone with Daniel Boulud; and Thomas Keller, we were just in Lyon — none of us are like that. It’s like social media, the bad boys get the press. It’s not [that] the whole industry is a bunch of SOB’s. It’s not.”
In an emailed response to Eater after this story was published, Tsai apologized for his on-stage comments.
“During that interview, I made some comments I regret and for that I am sorry,” Tsai said in the statement. “I said things that underplayed the importance of these issues in our society and the role that we as culinary leaders play in fixing them. In regards to my comment about the Me Too movement, the truth is we should, and will, continue talking about it until it doesn’t exist anymore. It was not my intention to be insensitive or dismissive of the experiences of those who have been affected by sexual misconduct.”
In addition, Tsai said that the “best chefs in the country today are women” and that he’s maintained a “zero tolerance police” for harassment at his businesses. He also noted that 65 percent of his team at his packaged goods company Mings Bings are women, including his executive chef and chief marketing officer.
“Moving forward, I commit to being more mindful and respectful of the topics that are important to others, and to approach all conversations more empathetically,” Tsai said.
Online, commenters immediately started calling out Tsai’s responses after they were posted. “‘None of us are like that’ said the guy who made a joke about drugging someone,” @shannonmatloob commented on Li’s video.
“Feels like something I’ve heard in a Boston kitchen before,” @bjorn_jarnsida wrote. “They want to keep their little ‘boys club’ and blame everyone else for the toxicity.”
Within 24 hours of Li posting the video on Instagram, it had been viewed over 21,000 times, according to a screenshot of the analytics that Li provided to Eater. Li declined to comment further for this story.
Biplaw Rai, a well-known restaurateur behind daytime spot Dudley Cafe in Roxbury’s Nubian Square and Comfort Kitchen in Dorchester, also spoke out against Tsai’s comments. “I hate to believe this is [a] generational thing. This happens when celebrities get away with everything and anything and no one checks it,” Rai wrote on Li’s post.
The full, hour-long video with Tsai and Li is available on WBUR’s website.
Tsai has been a prominent figure in Boston’s dining scene for decades. He owned the acclaimed restaurant Blue Ginger in Wellesley, and is also behind the long-running PBS cooking show Simply Ming and former Food Network show East Meets West. He’s also a cookbook author and appeared on the recent Netflix reboot of Iron Chef.
Update: March 14, 2023, 1:35 p.m.: This article was updated to include a response from Ming Tsai.