I sat through the interview with a combination of stunned silence and nervous laughter. I had been a fan of Ming Tsai’s cooking, restaurants, cookbook and TV shows for a long time. He has always been high energy and very talkative and I don’t believe his intentions were to be so crass, disrespectful and out of touch with reality. The thing is intention does not matter. Impact matters. Ideally, when you are in a position of power, which Ming Tsai is on many levels from being a male chef, to being a person of great seniority in his field, to being male period, not to mention well off, you use that power for change. Ming Tsai did so in the realm of food allergies which has been a huge gift to the food industry. On February 6th at WBUR Cityspace Ming Tsai sat down to be interviewed by Irene Shiang Li of Mei Mei Dumpling Factory (among other things) to promote his Ming’s Bings and chat. The conversation was interesting at some points and then extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant at others. The problem is you can’t change what you don’t understand and you don’t see. It was made clear from the conversation that Ming Tsai operates, again as a person in power, in an insular world that allows him to speak freely, unedited, and without concern with anything beyond his perceived reality.
I’m an extremely forgiving person, who has the fatal flaw of seeing the best in people. My interpretation of the interview was that Ming Tsai truly believed that we have dealt with the Me Too movement and problems of abuse in the industry in Boston. Anyone working in restaurants right now should know that isn’t true, but maybe Ming Tsai is so far removed from that he actually doesn’t know (this is me giving the over generous benefit of the doubt.). WBUR has a team that oversees the interview, the recording of the interview and Ming Tsai has a team of his own. I find it hard to believe that none of the people on either side of the interview spoke to Ming Tsai after to raise a few issues about the interview. If they didn’t that’s a whole other problem. Assuming that at least one person either involved with the interview, or someone who saw the interview in person or virtually pointed out to Ming Tsai that the interview had several problematic moments, and nothing was done about it until weeks later after two more public posts raises the red flag, and in my mind is unforgivable. Does that mean I want him to fail in his ventures? No. Does it mean that he has to work like hell to redeem himself and do better. Absolutely. As I mentioned before intent DOESN’T MATTER only impact does. I know the intent was not harm and embarassement, but when you are handed the gift of feedback from someone highly intelligent, well respected, and well connected in the industry collected by some people in the audience who felt the impact of your ignorant words and misguided approach to levity and “fun” and you dismiss it, then there is a greater problem.
I have teenage children and so does Ming Tsai. I see posters every week in bathrooms about the very real danger of having a drink roofied. It scares the hell out of me. I walked home every day from classes under a bridge that was known to be a place where women would be raped. I spent a huge part of my life being out in the world in fear because as a woman I had no choice if I still wanted to live my life out and about and independent. We’re not even talking about the food industry here, we’re just talking about the real world. I know, from its reputation, that the food industry is a boiled down, concentrated version of all the misogyny, abuse of power, racism and more of the “regular world”.
Ming Tsai did send out an “apology” which in my opinion took too long to come (again knowing that he had gotten feedback privately much earlier). The problem with saying:
“It was not my intention to be insensitive or dismissive of the experiences of those who have been affected by sexual misconduct.”
Is that at this point nobody cares what your intentions were, and it actually doesn’t matter what your intentions were. This is no longer about you and your ego, but it is now about the audience and the greater community that you deeply offended or hurt. Again, what matter is the impact not the intention. Until that is embraced nothing will change. A person who truly believed they did no real wrong because it was not their intention is the same person who will remain blind to the big picture, and that is the greater struggle.
That’s not to say that, in Boston, we don’t have some wonderful people and places to work or that we don’t have supportive chefs working hard to change the landscape of the food industry within their own restaurants and beyond, but it’s only a tiny slice of the landscape.
This public display of complete tone-deafness to what is going on, again not just in the food industry, but in society in general is an opportunity to start the conversation more widely and loudly than we have thus far. Irene Shiang Li has put in the effort and stepped out into the vulnerabile position of getting the ball rolling and it will be a tragedy if it stops here.
For a short follow up please listen to The Common follow up conversation with Irene Shiang Li.