Friday, April 25, 2014 · 12:37 a.m.
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Chefs Ming Tsai and Erik Neil cooked up a trout and shrimp dish and a roast pork chop for a casual lunch at Easy Bistro & Bar. (Photo: Staff)

Chattanooga just gained another devotee to its local food movement: Boston’s television chef Ming Tsai.

Tsai filmed two episodes for his Emmy-nominated WGBH Boston television series “Simply Ming” in Chattanooga this Thursday, spending the morning with Erik Neil at Easy Bistro & Bar and the afternoon with Daniel Lindley at St. John’s Restaurant.

“I love what I see,” Tsai said. “I’m a huge proponent of local foods, and if Easy [Bistro & Bar] is indicative of the restaurants in Chattanooga, you guys get it.”

The Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau pitched Chattanooga as a location for the cooking show roughly three months ago as part of a larger focus on the city’s growing food scene, which includes a network of farms and farmers markets, chefs who plan their menus around the farm-to-table concept, and organizations like Gaining Ground and guides like Taste Buds.

“We have amazing food and amazing farms,” said Candace Davis, marketing and public relations manager at the CVB. “There are places that people will travel to for the culinary scene, and we’re trying to become a culinary destination.”

As for the choice of St. John’s Restaurant and Easy Bistro & Bar, Ming and his producers did their due diligence when it came to researching their future locations. They were surprised and further drawn to the Scenic City after learning it ranked 25th on the New York Times' list of spots to vacation in 2012.

Chattanooga also fit into what producer Melissa Martin explained is part of the widening map of cities “Simply Ming” has featured—which until Thursday had never included a city in the Southeast region of the U.S. The show’s last two seasons expanded the traditional field trip segments within episodes set primarily in the Boston-area studio into full episodes on the road.

Chefs Neil and Tsai posed after lunch. (Photo: Staff)

The 10th anniversary season—during which the two Chattanooga chefs and restaurants will appear—also stops in San Antonio and the island chain Azores in the North Atlantic Ocean, due west of Portugal. Though the locations vary, Tsai sticks to the on-the-fly, spontaneous approach to cooking and only uses materials at his disposal at the same time that the audience learns they exist in the kitchen.

Tsai directed bartender Laura Kelton before the cameras began rolling. (Photo: Staff)

“I had only known [Ming] from TV land, but in person, he’s exactly like he is on the show—super down to earth and excited about food,” said Erik Neil, who owns Easy Bistro & Bar with his wife, Amanda. “For someone who’s been doing this for so long, it’s great to see him really excited about food.”

At Easy Bistro & Bar, that excitement was peaked by pork from Rossville’s Cloudcrest Farm, heirloom tomatoes from Dunlap’s Brown Dirt Farm, and regional items like Gulf shrimp and farm-raised trout, as well as the extraordinary find of kimchi—a traditional Korean recipe of fermented vegetables—in the walk-in cooler.

The morning’s shoot began in the kitchen, pantry and refrigerators. The cameras followed the ingredients from the cutting boards to the frying pans. The crew wrapped with the two chefs at the bar enjoying the fruits of their labor. The menu included a roast pork cooked with a kuri squash pancake and pickled celery and spice cornmeal-crusted trout with Easy kimchi-shrimp choucroute paired with a rhubarb-infused gin cocktail, prepared by bartender Laura Kelton. 

The Chattanooga episodes of “Simply Ming” will air on WGBH Boston on Jan. 5—featuring St. John’s Restaurant—and Feb. 9—featuring Easy Bistro & Bar. Local affiliates can choose when to broadcast the program’s season and the individual episodes. Martin advised Chattanoogans to check the local WTCI listings for the exact airdate.

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