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People 2 minutes 19 August 2018

The First Day I Got My Michelin Star: Man Tse of Ya Ge In Taipei

We get the world's most celebrated chefs to spill what it was like when they got their first Michelin stars.

First Day I Got My Stars Taipei Cantonese

No matter how famous you are, or what exceptional cooking skill you have under your belt, a person can’t cook for all the diners. Just as a general can’t go without his army, a chef has to build his own team. It happens frequently in Chinese eateries that when the chef quits the job, his whole crew follows suit. Restaurant Ya Ge at Mandarin Oriental, Taipei won its first Michelin star one year after the arrival of chef Man Tse. He took the cooks there as his ride or die, leading the team to great success.
Barbecued honey-glazed Kagoshima black pork
Barbecued honey-glazed Kagoshima black pork
Mouth and Heart Take the Charge

Tse has joined the industry for almost 50 years. He learned his chops and climbed through the ranks at Fook Lam Moon in Hong Kong, before moving on to work in the Netherlands, Nanjing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Whenever he landed on a new place, he needed to draft a game plan quickly to direct a team of tens of or even a hundred people. At the same time, he was required to learn the dining habits and customer demographic, and acquaint himself with the menu. This star at Ya Ge seems to come in such a short time, but behind it is half a century of experience.

Tasting items from the steamer, Chinese barbecue and soups is a part of Tse’s daily routine to ensure the dishes maintain the consistency.

“I just need to bring the chopsticks and spoon to work and I’ll be well fed,” he joked. The veteran chef understands there’s a person behind every dish. If he tastes a difference in the cooking, he’d first get to know if the staff was preoccupied by their personal life. “You’re more heavy-handed with the use of salt today. Is there anything that’s troubling you recently?” “Your cooking is on point today. I can tell you’re getting better.” These are the words that make the cooks feel valued and being taken care of, lighting up the fire in them to bring their A-game to the kitchen.
Over-baked crab meat with onion
Over-baked crab meat with onion
Balancing the Five Tastes

Tse believes the most basic of cooking is the balance of the five tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty. “When one picks up an ingredient, they should think how to present its original flavour,” he said.

In his view, sugar is the most aggressive condiment. A little of it could overwhelm the whole dish. For this reason, you’ll see sugar almost never used across the menu at Ya Ge. But that’s not a blanket rejection. He knows full well how to get the most challenging ingredient work for him.

“You need to put salt into stir-fries to draw out the vegetables’ natural sweetness. Chinese kale is the only exception. Salt makes it tough and bitter. Instead, blanching it in water with sugar helps to soften the stem and highlights its green colour,” Tse explained. As for salt, he adds, “A pinch of salt gives more dimensions to sweet soups.”

These wisdoms all demonstrate the chef’s perceptiveness to the ingredients’ true nature and his command to the five tastes.

Below are Tse’s thoughts to winning the Michelin star.
Ya Ge Crispy Chicken
Ya Ge Crispy Chicken

When was your first encounter with the Michelin Guide?

It was in 2009 when the Michelin Guide first launched in Hong Kong. Some of my colleagues in the industry got the award. As a chef, I wanted the same happening to me too. But sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time.

What was running through your mind when you first heard Ya Ge won the stars?

I wanted to make the dishes even better, and let more customers taste the good stuff.

How did you celebrate?

My wife and son came from Hong Kong to Taiwan celebrate with me. I also went to have hotpot with the staff after work.

How will the stars influence your career?

It gives me more pressure at work, and the diners have higher demands too. I only think about how to improve a little bit from yesterday. If I cook something that deserves 95 points out of 100, I can’t be content with it. There’s more to be done to get to 96, 97. I have to keep moving forward.

Do you have any advice for young chefs aiming for Michelin stars?

You have to love eating to be a chef, and practise immensely to perfect the basic cooking skills. Only if you love eating you’d analyse, eat, look and think. Maintain your standard. Be motivated to better yourself every day, even if it’s just a small step ahead.

Photos courtesy of Mandarin Oriental, Taipei

RELATED: Click here to read more First Day I Got My Michelin Stars articles

This article was written by Chen Ching-yi and translated by Vincent Leung. Click here to read the original version of this story.

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