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Ming Tsai’s controversial comments onstage were just the start of the conversation

Chefs Ming Tsai and Irene Li.Leanna Creel (left) and Jeff Schear/Getty Images (right)

Early in February, Ming Tsai and Irene Li — two of Boston’s most distinguished chefs — chatted before a sold-out crowd at WBUR’s CitySpace as part of the public radio station’s “Curated Cuisine” series. Li interviewed Tsai about his upbringing, restaurants post-COVID, and his current endeavor: “Mings Bings,” vegan pocket patties.

Six weeks later, Li posted an Instagram video reel of additional Tsai comments. “Did you roofie me? You should have. I roofied you,” he says, holding a water glass. And, when asked if Boston restaurants need a #MeToo reckoning, Tsai argues “bad boys get the press” but among his “chef buddies around the country … none of us are like that.”


Online backlash led Tsai to swiftly post his own Instagram statement: “I made some comments I regret, including those about the Me Too movement. … 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.” He did not address the roofie remarks.

What played out in the WBUR interview depends on your perception. Was Ming, 59, simply being Ming: the jovial, Ivy League-educated, successful restaurateur, television chef, and James Beard culinary award winner? Or was he an out-of-touch boomer? Was Li, 32, co-founder of Mei Mei dumpling cafe and factory, simply continuing the advocacy for industry employees that last year made her one of the youngest people ever to win a James Beard leadership award? Or was she an over-sensitive millennial over-reacting to Tsai’s comments?

Tsai’s comments were a “gigantic fiasco,” says Dr. Deborah A. Harris, a professor of sociology at Texas State University and co-author of “#MeToo in the Kitchen” published in Sage, a research journal. She found the #MeToo comments particularly egregious. “This is the type of thing people are still saying: ‘There’s only a handful of monsters,’” she says. “It’s a systemic issue. There can be things done even at so-called ‘good actors’ restaurants.”


Harris says the dynamic between Tsai and Li also reflects a generational shift. “We’re finally seeing younger people coming to leadership in the kitchen,” she says, who want reforms that make restaurants a more sustainable work environment. Harris adds that reform advocates “are not saying ‘cancel,’ are not saying ‘Never eat at this person’s restaurant.’”

Tsai, through representatives, declined comment beyond his Instagram statement. Li, when reached by telephone, also declined comment. But Li told WBUR’s The Common podcast on March 16 that she posted the video because it was tangible proof of comments she finds hurtful.

“While I don’t think that Ming committed any sort of criminal offense against me, I did feel like, OK, well we have this on camera and maybe we can start a conversation about it,” Li told podcast host Darryl C. Murphy. “… (W)e need to start practicing accountability. I think that Ming’s apology is an example of what accountability can look like.” Then she added: “I would ask people to keep an open mind about the difference between canceling someone and asking for accountability.”

At Juliet restaurant, owner Josh Lewin at the counter in 2017.John Tlumacki

For some, the conversation was all a bit confusing and disappointing.

“It took me 20 minutes to realize I hadn’t seen a spoof,” says Josh Lewin, 38, chef and co-owner of Juliet in Somerville and Peregrine on Beacon Hill, who watched some of the online video. “I had never seen anything like that. It was violent and scary. We’re experiencing something in the city where [spiking drinks with drugs] is a growing problem. Whether Ming Tsai was aware or not [of what’s happening in Boston] it doesn’t take away the power of the words he said.


“Then it goes onto his comments of the #MeToo movement, which were disheartening because he has fame and support. He chose to be dismissive,” says Lewin, who spoke on a call from Argentina, where he was traveling. “What’s sad is that that moment pales in comparison to the roofie comment.”

Chef/owner Tracy Chang at Pagu in Central Square. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/file

The roofie comment hit hard for Tracy Chang, 35, the chef/owner of Pagu. “We’ve had fliers and training because of the high cases of roofies in the past two years,” she said in a call from Spain, where she was on a business trip. “I don’t know if it’s more of an issue in nightclubs than restaurants, per se, but it’s problematic. As a woman chef-owner, I don’t take the roofie comment as a joke. It’s a date rape drug.”

Alex Sáenz, co-owner of Tacqueria El Barrio and Bisq Meats and Sandwiches, argues the generation gap between Tsai and Li doesn’t mitigate Tsai’s remarks. “Obviously, things have changed, but coming from a different generation is not an excuse” for careless comments, said Sáenz. “I’m not from the generation of Ming, and I’m also not from Irene’s. I’m 47, so I’m kind of in the middle ground. Ming came from the [Boston chefs] Michael Schlow and Ken Oringer era.


Chef Alex Sáenz. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“I understand people saying: ‘He was just joking, everyone. Like, chill the hell out’,” Sáenz continued. “And I can’t throw a stone without someone throwing it back to me because I’ve said my own things in the day. But in my upbringing, my parents always told me if someone’s not treated right, you say something, and that didn’t change because I was in the kitchen.”

The role of social media in this conversation can’t be ignored. The WBUR event drew 250 people. Li’s Instagram reel has been viewed more than 45,000 times. Tsai’s Instagram statement has more than 6,000 “likes” and has drawn more than 800 comments, supporting and dissenting. The entire conversation, available on YouTube, has been watched more than 3,000 times, compared with “Curated Cuisine’s” 30-plus other episodes that have ranged from 17 to 450 views.

“I think that social media is definitely making it easier for people to come forward and to share information more quickly,” Harris said about the impact of social media in general. “Posts can gain a lot of attention in a short amount of time, especially if someone has ‘receipts’ and are able to detail specific examples of negative behavior.”

#MeToo discussion is trickier because victims typically lack such “receipts” to provide tangible proof. Li introduced the topic in her conversation with Tsai by referring to the previous month’s “Curated Cuisine” event with Tiffani Faison, chef/owner of Big Heart Hospitality (including Sweet Cheeks, Tenderoni’s). “It’s so interesting in all the cultural reckoning, #MeToo movement, we’ve not had one chef go down in Boston. ‘Cause we’re perfect?” Faison told the moderator. “… (T)here are chefs that you know and love that have created, built, supported, and live in cultures of abuse in this city.” Faison declined to identify any chefs.


Names of allegedly problematic chefs were mentioned off-the-record during interviews for this article but Tsai’s name was not among them. And while displeased with his comments to Li, no one interviewed disputes Tsai’s talent and culinary contributions. They cited Tsai’s’ ground-breaking work in crafting the Food Allergy Reference Book used by restaurants nationally and his work in drafting the 2009 Massachusetts law requiring restaurants to comply with food allergy awareness guidelines. He actively participates in nonprofit events, and his MingsBings donates portions of its profits to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Repeated requests for comment from Tsai’s professional friends in New England were unsuccessful. Oringer’s representative said he was traveling with family in Costa Rica and unavailable. Jacques Pépin considered then declined comment. (Tsai is among the chefs being featured April 13 at The Jacques Pépin Foundation event in New York City.)

With frustration over Tsai’s comments, there is also a hint of sadness. “It should have been a moment on stage to see two generations of Asian Americans who have succeeded in Boston,” Lewin says. “I’m sure Irene Li looked up to Ming Tsai.”

Chang grew up watching “Simply Ming,” the PBS TV cooking show, and says viewers feel connected to Tsai. “People feel really close to him,” she says. “There are things happening in this industry that are not OK. He is in a position of power. When you have that power, you have a certain amount of responsibility to uphold, and that’s difficult.”

Sáenz, however, tempered his empathy. “The fact these comments were in his vocabulary is worrisome. Some of us are tired of sleeping on it and some people who have been abused don’t have a voice,” he says. “I’m not claiming that I was abused or what Ming said was abusive. But if this opens the door for a conversation, then it’s an opportunity to speak on it.”

Peggy Hernandez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Peggy_Hernandez.