Local chef Ming Tsai has joined a broadening effort to help the families affected by the partial government shutdown. Tsai's downtown restaurant Blue Dragon is offering free dumplings and rice bowls to federal workers. Tsai joined WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu to talk about how this effort is going and why he thinks it's important. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: You've been giving free dumplings at your restaurant Blue Dragon to federal workers every afternoon this week. How's it going?
Ming Tsai: It's going well. You know, this is what chefs do. We feed people in any circumstance. You know, I was so proud to go down the Gulf Port, Mississippi during Katrina, and we set up shop and fed people. That was a horrible crisis. It's in our DNA. I mean, I'm Chinese, but you could be Jewish, you could be Mexican, you could be Italian. We always want to bring people to the table to eat. And I just can't imagine the pressure some of these people are feeling, because 80 percent of this country lives paycheck to paycheck. Think about that. So now right now February,1 second paycheck — I work so closely to this, this financial toxicity, we call it. I'm segueing a little bit, but my charity is called Family Reach. So I've been in this space. We financially help families that have children with cancer. The same thing's happening — they can't pay rent, they can't get food on the table, those things are happening now to 800,000 people in this country that didn't want this, didn't vote for this, are wondering why am I doing this, and why am I still working and still not being paid? It's a brutal situation to be in.
Mathieu: So, you're carving out a couple of hours each afternoon to serve free dumplings to those with a federal ID. Where do you come up with the idea and how did it start?
Tsai: My whole team thought of it. I go back to the Boston Marathon bombing — it's not, if we're gonna do something, it's, what are we going to do? So there was the best thing ever — Boston Bites Back — my wife thought of the name. We fed all these people, we raised a million dollars in Fenway.
So here we were like, 'Okay what can we do? Well, let's give free food.' And I'm known for dumplings. Jose's team — Jose Andres, my buddy — reached out like four days after I started and says, 'Look we're gonna start offering more.' And so now starting Monday we're doing rice bowls — chicken beef or pork rice bowls — plus dumplings. But we also realized that the 2pm- 4pm or 2pm-5pm time frame doesn't really work for people that are working. So, please go to Blue Dragon anytime. Please don't even think about not leaving a tip. Someone mentioned that to me, 'I can't sit down, I don't have money for a tip.'
We are being thanked because we can do this. I have an opportunity. So I'm the one that's blessed here. So I thank everyone that we have this opportunity. All youTSAers, come by, we'll pack up rice bowls to go and some dumplings, because parents want to feed their children first. So it's so much easier if they can take it to go and take it home. We're trying to make it as easy as possible, and as you know, chefs don't do this alone. I certainly reached out to my friends in the business so John Kinnealey at T.F. Kinnealey is giving us the free protein. My buddy's down in Florida sending up free watercress. That's how this is done. Because everyone should put a part into this. And it's karma — it's going to come back to us one day, too.
Mathieu: The way you started our conversation, talking about the nature of chefs to nurture, to nourish, there's no one better for this than you guys.
Tsai: It's why we're chefs. I mean the, the reason we're chefs, the reason I'm a chef, is I can make people happy through food. That's the top line, but the base need is you need food to survive. How are you supposed to be checking bags going through TSA and you're supposed to be protecting me from flying, or the air traffic controllers, if you're hungry? Or if you're worried about that your children may not have a meal, or worse, if you're going to be evicted Feb. 1? You are not focused on those 700,000 planes flying in the air. You're focused on, 'I'm being evicted tomorrow.' That is a big deal for us. We just want to avoid a disaster.
Mathieu: Have you had a big turnout?
Tsai: Not yet. It's been slow, because again, 2pm-5pm was the time frame, that was while people were working, which is why we decided, let's open it up. And I bet you by Monday when we're starting to do these rice bowls, we're going to get a lot of people.
Mathieu: Find him at Blue Dragon, in Fort Point, the great restaurant owned and operated by Chef Ming Tsai. How long does this go on for? Are you in this for the long haul?
Tsai: I'm in it until it's done. We don't even have USDA inspectors right now. Think about that. I mean just think about — USDA inspectors protect us from all the things they can go wrong with food. So that's a really basic need that we have. So we're gonna do it until until it's over. We have to. People need to eat. It's just the most basic — and we're Americans. This is the greatest country, still, in the world today. So we have to prove that. And we do it best through a bowl of rice.
Mathieu: He's a force of nature here in the Boston dining scene, and, of course, part of the WGBH family. Ming Tsai, thank you for coming to see us.