Eddie Huang can be a tough guy to wrap your head around. The New York-based chef who went to law school, passed the bar, then dropped out of law to cook and eventually opened Baohaus is now a bona fide food celebrity and, to many observers, full of contradictions.
Huang's new show with VICE, Fresh Off The Boat (the same title as his forthcoming memoir), is no different. One minute he's reciting Shakespeare, the next he's spouting the easy misogyny of street culture. His San Francisco episode starts with him saying he "can't wait to fuck some bitches in sweatpants" and ends with him bemoaning his own "moral inconsistency" when it comes to meat eating after watching a rabbit killed for his dinner.
His most recent episodes focus on L.A., a town that Huang admits is hard to tackle. In episode 1, he visits Little Tehran. In episode 2, he hangs out in East L.A. with Roy Choi, and in episode 3 he goes to a Techniques Car Club barbecue (you can watch both these episodes below). We spoke with him recently about approaching L.A. for the show, who his core audience is, and the controversy surrounding a piece he wrote for the New York Observer about chef Marcus Samuelsson. Turn the page for the full interview, plus episodes 2 and 3 of Fresh Off The Boat's L.A. installment.
Besha Rodell: I get the feeling that L.A. is very hard to approach to people who aren't from here and haven't spent much time in L.A., so I guess I want to know how you approached it when you were thinking about making the show.
Eddie Huang: I loved L.A. when I was a kid. My cousins grew up in Anaheim and Pasedena, so I'd always see the Taiwanese neighborhood. My cousin would always bring home butterfly knives and brass knuckles from the Compton swap meet. I remember growing up and visiting my cousins and playing football in their front yards. I loved that, I liked that part of L.A.
As I got older though, you go to L.A. for business. And you meet these people who stay in Hollywood. In the episode with Roy Choi the cold open for the show, it shows me talking about how no one in L.A. will tell you you have a bad idea. Like when you go out to L.A. for business, everyone is always like, "Oh my god, that's a great idea, that's amazing!" And sometimes I'll even test people with a purposefully bad idea, and they're still like, "oh my god, that's so smart!" And I'm like, "are you serious? I just made up a fake idea to see if you would like it, and it's a horrible idea and you liked it." For me, I feel like in L.A. it's a lot of sunshine up your ass.
New York has transplants too, but in New York it's like there's shame if you're not from New York. But in L.A. there's no shame. There's no shame in anybody's game in L.A., it's just a game. I hate to compare L.A. and New York because it's such a tired old thing to do, but I just don't think there's any shame in L.A.'s game.
Watch Fresh Off The Boat, L.A., episode 2:
BR: It's funny because, if you live here, I don't interact with anyone in Hollywood. That's not part of my life, at all. And I feel like that's why the city is hard to approach. Because people know two things about L.A. Well, three things if you're into food. You know Hollywood and what that stands for. You know Jonathan Gold, so you know there's a crazy variety of food in San Gabriel Valley and Koreatown and places like that. And you know Compton. And I feel like that's what happens when people come to do shows about L.A., they feel like you gotta go to Hollywood, or do that glam thing, or you gotta go to SGV or you gotta go to Compton. And all of those things are important here, no doubt, but if they're all you see you don't really see how a lot of people who live here and love it here really live.
EH: That's what I mean -- when I visited my family, I loved it. We're chilling, it's like, yo, you got grass. We don't have grass out here. There's some of the best Taiwanese food out there, like you said. But it's hard if you don't have a way in, through someone, to one of the neighborhoods. The one neighborhood I really liked was East L.A. I sat at a bus stop in East L.A. for, like, two hours. Just smoking and chillin'. The weed culture in particular in L.A. is great. You can smoke weed all day.
I would never leave my neighborhood if I lived in L.A. I like a walking culture, I need to be in a city where you can walk everywhere. L.A. is definitely a weird place to get into. When I say it, I don't mean any disrespect to the people who live and breathe and grew up in L.A. Because I think people who have adopted it ... like, Koreatown is cool, and Boyle Heights ... I really do like the Ranch 99 areas. East L.A. is cool and we went to Baldwin Park. I've never hit Silver Lake. I have no desire to go to Silver Lake.
BR: People are like that, but Silver Lake isn't Williamsburg. I know that's how people think of it. Parts of it could be seen that way I guess, but it's not all like that. Echo Park, all that ... you might like it. There's definitely the hipster contingent, but there's more to it than that.
EH: People think I'm a hipster, so I don't even know what that is anymore. People try to define it, but my thing, what bothers me is, are there young white people trying too hard? And that's what I want to avoid.
BR: Who do you think of as your core audience? And who do you want it to be -- who do you want to reach out to? I feel like we all surround ourselves with people who are into food and sometimes it's easy to think of the world as being that way, and it isn't. I'm assuming you want to reach beyond that.
EH: When we do the show, I think the audience I want to reach is an audience that has not yet been defined and hasn't yet been packaged for cable, mainstream culture. I know it's out there. I always tell people, I feel like Professor X going to find the mutants. I like to speak to young weirdos. I think that our audience is just a lot of young weirdos. People of my generation who want to see something real. Have a show that's not overly conceived, not overly targeted and just off the cuff. I think it's possible people that some of the garbage networks are gonna see the show and say, "hey, let's do something like that. Let's find someone who can target this audience."
I feel like it's like when Kanye came out and everyone was like, "Wait ... there's people that want a rapper who talks more about Polo than gats and glocks? That's out there?" So it sucks because people see it and then they want to go after that dollar again. But I think the people who have really made a difference on art and culture have been people who were like, "look. I'm gonna make this for myself. Because I believe there are other people like me." And that's how we approach this. Me and my producer, every single show we get together and we're like, we get $50,000 to go to a city for three days with two shooters, what are we gonna do? And we never think about "what will the audience like?" We go for what we like.
The one thing I do do though, is I read every single YouTube comment. So we take the feedback. We respond. I respond to commenters who piss me off. On most shows they want to control the flow of information, we want to do the opposite. I don't have a publicist any more. I no longer work with a publicist. What I really believe in is giving access to me. If you want to ask me something, ask me. There's no question I want to avoid, there's nothing I don't want to talk about. People think you need a publicist to create a barrier -- I'm like, why? The show is about me, all my flaws are in there. We really want to have a show that people can touch.