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Ming Tsai, celebrity chef: From the kitchen to the golf course

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

It's difficult to turn on the TV these days or go into a bookstore without coming across the smiling mug of a celebrity chef. These guys — and they're almost always guys — can pack dining rooms from New York to Las Vegas.

Ming Tsai - celebrity chef - Blue Ginger - Iron Chef
Ming Tsai is one celebrity chef who doesn't feel the need to scream.
Ming Tsai - celebrity chef - Blue Ginger - Iron ChefIron Chef - Food Network show - celebrity chefs - cult classicMing Tsai - celebrity chef - Blue Ginger - Iron Chef - cookbook

They're rock stars in white smocks who create sauces and draw foodie devotees to follow them around the country like sheep with well-developed palates.

It's no surprise that celebrity chefs are starting to find their way into celebrity golf.

Ming Tsai is one of those chefs. This former mechanical engineering major at Yale boasts the requisite TV shows (once three at one time on the Food Network and now "Simply Ming" on PBS), the glossy hip cookbooks and the actual highly-regarded restaurant (Blue Ginger in the greater Boston area). Maybe even more importantly for the foodies, he also has the win on the cult classic "Iron Chef" show (dueling chefs in a gleaming stadium kitchen that would have made the old Montreal Expos jealous).

Only Tsai seems to have forgotten the expected arrogance ... and well, loudness. Most of these celebrity chefs tend to yell on TV. Whether it's at their employees or their sauces.

Tsai just cooks with a low-key self assurance. When TravelGolf.com caught up to him before his first celebrity golf tournament with a prize purse, Tsai mingled easily with all the big name athletes and actors in the field. A few of the football players, including Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, adopted Tsai as a running mate for the week in Lake Tahoe.

It turns out the fastest way to cool may be through the stomach.

It certainly doesn't hurt with the ladies. More than a few times, a woman breathlessly exclaimed, "Is that Ming Tsai?" as the husband or boyfriend shot back a befuddled, "Who?"

Not that Tsai is likely to rub his status into anyone's face. The guy from Dayton, Ohio, who started cooking at his family's Chinese restaurant as a kid, still acts a lot like you'd expect a guy from Dayton, Ohio, would.

One who's clearly having the time of his life. A lot of chefs go off on soulful rants about the stresses of the high-profile kitchen. Ming Tsai downplays it and jokes about golf.

A celebrity chef you'd actually want to hang with? Who knew?

Q: What brings you out to play in a celebrity golf tournament?

A: This is my first quote unquote pro event in which there's actually money to be won. Which is exciting. Not, for the record, that I think I'm going to win any. I play in a lot of celebrity pro-ams and do a lot of things that are related. I actually do food and beverage. Bon Appetite has a great one in Scottsdale. We just came from the Maui Wine & Food Festival literally last week.

This is the crème de la crème for seeing some of the best athletes that I grew up watching. I'm playing with (Baltimore Ravens tight end) Todd Heap here who's obviously a current athlete. But you've got the Jerry Rices and all those other people here, too. And the Elways.

It's just an honor to be on the same golf course. I get to play with Scott Hamilton and Brandi Chastain tomorrow. There's some two superstar athletes. And I'm a decent golfer, but I'm not an athlete like those guys.

So that's sweet for me.

Q: When do you first start taking golf seriously?

A: Actually three years ago. I took my first lesson, joined a country club near where I live. Played twice a year all through high school and college. But I played squash. I played couple of years pro in France. So I played that and soccer. So golf came on later.

Q: What do you enjoy about golf?

A: It's like the other vices in life. You really get hooked into it. And I love it because you can go out by yourself and still have a great time. Or a horrible time as the case may be. The other thing I love about this is that just like a lot of us give back I have an opportunity to show my wares to everyone that's here.

So I'm actually going to cook a dish Saturday night to let them try what I do. I've been watching these guys play tennis, golf, squash, football, basketball. They've given me such thrills watching them and here's an opportunity for me to give back. So I'm kind of psyched about that.

Q: Does the stress in golf at all compare to the stress in the kitchen?

A: Cooking's so much easier than golf. Are you kidding me? I've never taken my knife and hit it 60 feet to the left. That doesn't happen. But I like pressure. I'm good under pressure. The best thing I ever did was "Iron Chef." And that pressure's awesome.

So we'll see. I just hope I don't kill a bird or kill a kid or kill a camera man. I think we'll be all right.

Q: What do you think of the trend cooking's going with chefs becoming celebrities who are in some ways more well-known than some of the lesser pro athletes in America?

A: It's great if it brings makes more people appreciate good food and get to experience dishes they might not otherwise have. As a chef you can't forget where you came from and what got you there though.

Q: Do you ever forget where you came from?

A: Not if I'm playing golf. That little white ball doesn't care what you can do in the kitchen.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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