Chef Ming Tsai is getting into the supermarket game. This week he launches MingsBings, vegan, gluten-free frozen patties packed healthy ingredients: brown rice, edamame, garlic, ginger, pepitas, red onion, shiitake mushrooms, watercress. They’re a nutritious take on traditional Chinese flatbread, folded into a brown rice wrapper and sauteed — an easy meal for remote workers looking for healthy diversions.
Proceeds benefit Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where Tsai’s wife, Polly, was treated for stage four lung cancer three years ago (she’s doing well now). They also go toward Family Reach, a Boston-based organization that provides financial support for families coping with cancer.
It’s a change of direction for a chef once renowned for big restaurants like Blue Ginger in Wellesley and Blue Dragon in Fort Point. In fact, he was on the brink of opening a new spot before Polly was diagnosed.
“It’s not a great time to own a restaurant. I can tell you that,” he says.
Blue Ginger shuttered in 2017. Blue Dragon, on the Seaport’s fringes, has been dark since May 30.
“It’s a dead zone. There’s no lunch, no happy hour. You can’t gather at the bar, and booze is profit, so it’s a real dilemma for me, and anyone in my shoes, which is millions and millions of restaurant owners and chefs,” he says. He won’t eat indoors at a restaurant until after the pandemic.
On the plus side? These savory, sandwich-sized patties go on sale online Nov. 17 at www.mingsbings.com for $59.99 per dozen, including shipping. And they will hit supermarket shelves throughout New England soon, too.
“And then, ideally, we’d like to take over the United States — but baby steps, baby steps,” he says.
When Polly Tsai was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years ago, it was a shock. At 53, she was a fit non-smoker.
“She had a seizure out of the blue; three days later, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer,” Tsai says. The family sought treatment at Dana-Farber, where Tsai had done charity cooking work for years. She began taking Tagrisso, an oral therapy that worked.
“It saved her life,” Tsai says.
He saw it as a chance to change his life, too. He pulled out of a fast-casual chain deal to focus on family and nutritious eating.
“The lease was ripped up. We decided that Polly needed to reduce the stress. Opening a chain is not a way to reduce stress, obviously. I needed to be around. So I put that on hold, and she turned vegan,” he says. “And we eliminated sugar because cancer feeds on sugar, again, from all the research we’d done, and [to be] gluten-free as much as possible. Gluten is sugar. Bread is sugar.”
Tsai also wanted to create something easy for her to eat while he traveled, but he wasn’t impressed with veggie patties on the market.
“They’re hard, dry discs that maybe have good protein but aren’t very delicious. You have to cover it with sauce to make it go down,” he says.
MingsBings have a crispy, gluten-free brown rice wrapper that trap oil; sauté and pat with a paper towel for maximum crunch. Inside? Watercress —"[one of] only two green vegetables that bat a thousand," he says, plus antioxidants from garlic, ginger, and onions, as well as fat and fiber from pepitas and edamame. As an outspoken proponent of allergy-friendly dining, this was a natural continuation.
“I’ve always believed that food is medicine, right? In the Chinese world, in the Asian world, we’ve always eaten herbs and spices and certain ingredients to prevent cancer, to prevent diseases. You don’t have to be a triathlete,” he says.
Speaking of medicine: Tsai thinks restaurants will make a comeback once the pandemic abates.
“In 18 months, I see the [restaurants] that got through opening with a bang. I don’t know if it’s going to be like the Roaring Twenties after the Spanish Flu, but so many people are going to be ready to go out and party and spend money — and the restaurants that are around, I think, are going to do really well,” he says.
In the meantime, he’s content to focus on life’s smaller pleasures.
“It’s so weird to say that you’re grateful your wife got cancer. I’m not saying that directly, but it did get me to smell the coffee. It did get me to look in her eyes every morning. I’m 56. You start taking things for granted, like your wife and family, right? Life is precious. Live one day at a time, and live it well.”
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.