05/08/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
DURING A TRAINING SESSION TO LEARN HOW TO BE A TV CHEF, MING Tsai was advised to seduce the camera by imagining someone sexy. "I told the media coach, 'I have a picture of someone I think is absolutely gorgeous,' " says Tsai (pronounced Sigh), who taped a snapshot of his mixed-breed puppy Jasmine to the camera. "It made me more relaxed. Every time I looked at her, I'd smile." It's that playful smile—in addition to his five-peppercorn grilled steak, Asian gazpacho and Jasmine tea soufflé—that leaves fans of the Food Network's Emmy-winning East Meets West with Ming Tsai
hungry for more. "He's tall and handsome, and his manner is very appealing," says fellow TV chef Sara Moulton, host of Cooking Live
. Food Network exec Heidi Diamond calls the 6-ft. Tsai a "chunk"—her term for "chef as hunk," Tsai, 36, says he once wore that label less flatteringly, as a pudgy kid growing up in Dayton. "When I was 10 years old, I put myself on a diet," says the first-generation Chinese-American, who began his culinary training at a Chinese restaurant owned by his mother, Iris, 65. But it was the engineering career of his father, Stephen, 70, that influenced Tsai to earn a mechanical-engineering degree from Yale in 1986. A summer studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before his senior year made him change course. In 1998 he opened his own restaurant, Blue Ginger, in Wellesley, Mass.; that same year he was named Chef of the Year by Esquire
magazine. Tsai's only beauty balm for slaving over a hot stove is to keep a small tin of shea butter in his pocket to soothe dry lips. Never allowed in his kitchen: cologne, since it interferes with the aroma of the cooking. To tape his show, Tsai shuttles to New York City for two weeks every three months from his home in Needham, Mass. Balancing work and family (wife Polly, 36, a former nurse, helps run the restaurant; son David was born in February) "is my biggest challenge right now," he says, And while the chef finds fame easy to stomach, "I don't think of myself as a true celebrity, like Ricky Martin or George Clooney
," he says. Perhaps not. But Tsai can do something neither of those guys can: deliver both the sizzle and the steak.