When Minh Tsai decided to give up his job as an investment banker at Charles Schwab to make really good tofu — like what he remembered getting with his grandfather as a kid in Vietnam — most people didn’t applaud his daring. In fact, nobody did.
“Everybody thought I was kind of nuts,” Tsai says. “I was pretty dogged, and I decided I’m going to do this and do it really well, and I was lucky that some people could taste the difference and cared enough to pay a premium.”
Tsai didn’t leave his job immediately. He kept it for a while, selling his tofu at the farmers market in Palo Alto on weekends. After a couple years, he was able to open Hodo Soy in Oakland, and now its products can be found at Whole Foods, Safeway, and Costco as well as independent stores. He has more than 100 employees and no regrets.
A lot of Bay Area chefs use Tsai’s products. Thursday evening at Reclaiming Tofu at the Asian Art Museum, he’ll be joined by some of them — Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s, Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions and The Progress, and Annie Somerville of Greens. The chefs will offer tastes of some of their tofu dishes, and Jennifer 8 Lee, producer of The Search for General Tso, will be there as well, to discuss the traditions and art of tofu.
And it’s a delicate art. About 15 years ago, Tsai started looking around the Bay Area for fresh tofu. He particularly remembered the smell of soybeans, which he describes as buttery and delicious. What he found was bland and dull, and it didn’t smell good. But when he tried to make his own, he ran into some trouble.
“I tried to make tofu and failed,” he said. “Most of the soy milk is made for drinking, not coagulating. It’s like trying to make cheese from supermarket milk.”
Finally, Tsai located a shop out near Cupertino that let him use their production facilities. He worked hard to make a delicious product, but he says luck had a lot to do with it.
“So many great products die because of poor timing,” he says. “When I started, it was just the beginning of people caring about organic and non-GMO products, and farmers markets were just starting.”
Tsai says these people who cared about their food were attracted to his product, much of which is sold as nuggets, ready to eat without cooking.
“They love it,” he says. “It’s sweeter and more creamy and rich. It’s like making cheese with skim milk versus cream.”
Tsai looks forward to the event at the Asian, which he points out has a piece of art from Taiwan depicting tofu. He appreciates what the museum is trying to do.
“It’s taking something traditional, and saying, ‘Yes, it came from here, but it has a life of its own,’ ” he says.
Tasting Menu: Reclaiming Tofu, Thursday, May 18, 6:30-9 p.m., at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. $15, plus general admission for the talk and samples from the chefs, asianart.org