By Shelly Seale
Photography by Marks Moore
Ming Qian was a young girl in China, working closely alongside her mother in their kitchen, when a love for cooking blossomed. “That’s where it started,” she says. “[Mom] put in a little of this…a little of that.” In fact, it was a yearning for her mother’s home cooking that started Qian on a food journey in San Antonio, and to the eventual opening of Ming’s Thing—her farmers market stand and catering business.
“I really started cooking by trying to re-create that taste of home,” she says. “My mom wasn’t here, so I had to do it. I would call and ask her things, but she was half a world away and I had to figure it out for myself.”
The path that brought Qian to San Antonio was a circuitous one. Her first job in Beijing was in hospitality management at the China World Hotel, which exposed her to all types of dishes from around the globe. Her father also worked internationally, and brought back many exotic edibles from different parts of the world. “I also had a lot of contact at work with international travelers,” Qian says, “and I wished that I could travel like them one day. I started traveling throughout China, visiting small hole-in-the-wall restaurants and street food carts. Things were so different from my mom’s food! All the different flavor profiles were amazing. I wanted to try it all!”
Qian’s chance to travel internationally came when she met her future husband, Hinnerk Von Bargen, a chef at the Kempinski Hotel in Beijing, where Qian also worked. After their 1998 marriage, the couple moved to his native Germany, but Qian was unprepared for the way she felt living in a foreign land. “I really missed home and family,” she says. “Things from China, I missed, and couldn’t get them in Germany. But I told myself, you have to deal with it and change your attitude. If you open your mind to see the positive, you can see the beauty in anything. That’s when Germany became my home.”
The next year, when Von Bargen was offered a teaching job at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, the couple moved to the U.S. After 10 years at that location, the CIA transferred Von Bargen to the newly-opened San Antonio location in 2009.
There, Qian began to re-create her favorite childhood dishes. She also made new Chinese and American friends, and learned new cooking techniques from them. With her daughter now in elementary school, Qian wanted something new to do with her time. “I wanted to be in the food business, but the hotel and restaurant business has very long hours. You don’t really have your own life, and I wanted time with my family.”
Qian’s friends had been enjoying her Chinese snack foods and suggested she sell the creations at the farmers market. In November 2011, the Ming’s Thing booth opened at the Quarry Farmers & Ranchers Market. Von Bargen says he feels blessed that his wife shares his passion for food. “We are a very food-centric family,” he says. “The market is like our family time; our daughter comes with us every Sunday.”
The culinary philosophy of Ming’s Thing, Von Bargen says, is to take existing taste profiles and incorporate them into Qian’s type of food. “I’m not a fine-dining type of guy; I love casual comfort food,” he says. “Our charcuterie and the kimchi and barley sausage are examples of something we have evolved—they aren’t traditional, [and] have other influences such as Thai.”
Von Bargen adds that the farmers market is a great way to introduce these new flavors, through tastings and samples that offer a useful tool in raising awareness. “We want to provide something different, and Asian cuisines offer a great variety,” he notes. “We’ve grown with the evolving San Antonio food scene—being part of the developing trends.”
They admit that the creative risks they enjoy incorporating into their foods take some customers aback. The cold Szechuan noodle salad on the summer menu is one example, as well as the smoked pork-belly steak and their most popular dish: the Sloopy Wang—a tangy, Asian-style pulled-pork spin-off of the sloppy joe. “People will ask, What is this?” Qian says. “I suggest they just try it. I love to see that reaction…when they discover something new and they love it. It’s very rewarding.”
Currently, Qian has recently expanded to Pearl Farmers Market on Saturdays, and has been doing more catering jobs. Her daughter now comes into the kitchen with her sometimes, and when asked if that brings back memories of her own childhood, Qian seems awash with emotion and says, “I hadn’t ever thought of it before…but yes, it is the same. A new legacy.”
For more information, visit mingsthing.com and find the Ming’s Thing booth every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Quarry Farmers & Ranchers Market, and Saturdays at Pearl Farmers Market.