Ming Cao came to Boston from China at 13, getting his start as a dishwasher working for his cousin Jimmy Liang of the Quincy-based JP Fuji Group. Under Liang’s tutelage — “I was his student; he was my sensei,” Liang says — Cao rose to become the group’s executive chef, specializing in sushi. Now, there are restaurants in Quincy Center, North Quincy, Assembly Row, Ink Block, Kendall Square, and soon, the upcoming High Street Place food hall downtown.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever visited in Boston? China Pearl for dim sum. I moved here when I was 13 from Taishan, China. At the time, I didn’t go out anywhere in Chinatown. My cousin Jimmy, my partner now, brought me out there, and I was super-psyched. I loved the chicken feet, spare ribs, and shumai — the shrimp dumplings.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I would say it’s the passion. I think there’s a difference between a cook and a chef, knowing everything about your dish versus just making a dish. I wish more people put their hearts into cooking and learning everything about the food. I think passion is important. When you taste food from someone who puts their heart into it, you can definitely taste it.
What other restaurants do you visit? I love Boston Chops. I love their ribeye on the bone. I love Toro. And I love my own restaurant!
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? The earliest memory I have is in China, where my dad owned two restaurants. I knew how to cook perfect rice when I was 8! My dad literally let me go to the kitchen and play. I was a busser. I would bus tables, learn how to make rice, do little side jobs. I fell in love with it without even knowing it.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I’m not going to give the name; I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus. I went to this restaurant, ordered something on the menu, and they gave me something different. I called the server over: “This isn’t what I ordered.” The server said, “Why don’t you try it? I’m sure you’ll like it.” I said, “I don’t care. This is not what I ordered.” She tried to push me to eat whatever the dish was. It wasn’t good. I had ordered a dumpling dish, and they gave me a noodle dish. Two different things. I had to fight with the server for a long time, and they gave me attitude and stuff. Why? It’s not free; I’m paying for it!
How could the Boston food scene improve? If we had even more talented chefs — someone who is caring, talented, who will do more and challenge more.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Nice, fussy, and adventurous.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Towels for cleaning tables. Sometimes they smell, too! A lot of restaurants do it.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing? A high-end dessert shop. I used to love Finale. You just want to go somewhere at the end of the day that serves tea and drinks, and just relax.
What are you reading? I have to say I’m doing a lot of menus and contracts, because we’re still expanding.
How’s your commute? It really depends on which location I work at. I live in Braintree. If I work in Quincy, it’s like seven minutes. To Kendall [Square], in morning traffic, it takes me an hour and 15 minutes. I drive. You know how it goes; it’s crazy.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Stinky tofu. I can’t stand the smell of it. They use tofu and ferment it for a long time, and it really is stinky.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Finale!
Who was your most memorable customer? I’ve been doing sushi since I was 15. There’s one couple, where the wife passed away a few years ago. They treated me like family since I started. The husband still comes in every week. We talk. He’s taken me out fishing a few times, too. I met them at the first restaurant in Quincy. Even when I graduated from high school, they wrote me a check — not much, but they just wanted to celebrate.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I’ve been eating Fuji food for so long, and you always know what you’re getting. I would order a spicy tuna roll, avocado salad, and a clay pot dish: stir-fried rice with tobiko — flying fish roe — and roast duck on top. It’s so delicious.