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.
BR: Has there ever been one of those YouTube comments that made you reconsider something? Or made you think about something in a different way or affected you more than just pissed you off?
EH: Yeah. When people call me black-aping or call me a chigger, that really really bothers me. There's a ton of comments that are like, “why does a chink talk this way, why does a Chinaman talk this way?” And my thing is, look man, there's nothing more offensive than someone telling me I ought to talk, look or act a certain way because of my skin. I'm like, do you realize how ridiculous this is? White people get to be anyone they wanna be, I have to be this chinky-eyed delivery boy? It just upsets me. It's like, Asians can't be dangerous, and black people can't be upstanding. It's so ridiculous to me. I don't think people in America understand race, and how deep the hooks of whiteness there are in our consciousness. So I love to read YouTube comments to remind me of the temperature of our country and the world. But it really upsets me.
BR: You've obviously waded into these conversations that are happening now, some of them for the first time publicly. You say America doesn't understand race but America is also a racial experiment that has never been done before, right? There's all this stuff that is still developing. I think that's the thing that people find the most interesting about you in general is that, A) You're willing to have those conversations, and B) You're willing to be fairly controversial about it and not care what the repercussions are. When you wrote about Marcus Samuelsson and his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster, for instance, it must have been a double edged sword because it obviously made you more famous than you were. And a lot of people were talking about it. But I feel like you weren't expecting the backlash and I wonder if you regret it at all, or if you feel like you were misunderstood?
EH: I definitely don't regret that article in the least bit. I think it's one of the best things I ever wrote, I think it's one of the most important things I ever wrote. And I think that, love me or hate me, I just hope that people appreciate that there's someone who risks, for lack of a better term, their fanbase and respect in the industry … I don't benefit in any way bringing Marcus Samuelsson down. I don't benefit monetarily, in fact it hurt me in some ways. A lot of people make a lot of money with Marcus Samuelsson, and those people will not do business with me. I knew going into it it would hurt me financially but I didn't care because I had something I felt was very important to say.
I always say, you should not let your race limit who you are. And Marcus does all these things and he kind of in many ways transcends race, but … I don't want to misrepresent what I was saying in the article because the point I was making was very very nuanced, and any time you try to shorten or condense it, it comes off wrong. But my girl lives in Harlem, I stay up there a lot, my first neighborhood I lived in when I moved to New York was up there. I was running around, hanging out with those guys selling mixtapes on the street. In a lot of ways Marcus doesn't acknowledge enough the difference between the global black experience and the American black experience. And I also think that you're on very very shaky ground when you make yourself the speaker for an entire neighborhood or race and be like, “I'm reviving Harlem.” He was very very presumptuous in doing that.
People don't realize — these writers, these food writers, they don't want to go into the 'hood. Unless it's going somewhere you already know it's white acceptable and the Food Network has already been there, these food writers don't really want to be the pioneer and go in there. For the most part, Marcus makes these food writers' jobs easier. Like, here's a guy with a publicist and a smart phone. A lot of these people, the real people selling food in Harlem, they're not media savvy, and it's much harder to get the story. It's much harder to understand it. And these food writers, they're lazy.
You look at the quality of this internet food journalism, and the quality is not there. It's not well researched, it's a lot of borrowing and he-said-she-said. So that article I think had to be written. I'm sure you've been in meetings before where you're talking about some article and your editor will be like, “So we've got three chefs, they're all white. We need a black person, let's call Marcus.” Marcus made everyone's job easier. And there's not enough black voices. There's not enough writers of color in this industry, people of color are not represented well.
When I was sitting in [Red Rooster] it was literally, all the people sitting around me had watched Top Chef and came as tourists to Harlem. It was like, “I'm so happy to be in Harlem, this is so amazing!” And I'm like, I'm telling you, this is not Harlem. That's what I really got upset about.
People were like, “You brought a rapper with you, you're trying to say that Harlem is just about rappers,” but I'm like, No, the guy that I brought, he grew up on 116th, his dad is like an accountant for Colombia, he grew up down the block and I brought him, he just happens to be a rapper. And people tried to discredit me for that. And it just showed the racism that a rapper could not be a credible source for that article. And someone else in the article was hip-hop affiliated and people were like “You need to find someone not hip-hop affiliated,” and I'm like, why? Does being hip-hop affiliated mean they're like, mouth-breathers? I don't know what you're trying to tell me.
So, no, I loved that article, I loved how people got mad, I loved how people thought I was trying to take down a black man and not support him when in actuality I was calling for people to look deeper, dig deeper and find the other voices in Harlem that are cooking and that are serving the community. Who pays for $28 fried chicken? You already know who pays for that. When I went to the restaurant, too, they asked me if I was the DJ. It was ridiculous. They were stereotyping me because I didn't look like the other people in that restaurant. It was hilarious.
BR: Do you still think of yourself primarily as a chef? Or a TV personality? Or a writer? I guess I mean — what do you want to do when you grow up?
EH: I've never said I was a chef, I think I make great food. I will never open a restaurant to do, like, tasting courses. I kinda just want to be … like I remember growing up my grandma would go to the same place every day for hot soy milk and dumplings. I don't want to own super restaurants. I just want to be that guy who sold 8-10 items really well, and you can always count on it. You can go, listen to great music, be with my friends, $20 and you can have a great meal. That's what food is to me. I don't really remember tasting meals, they don't hit me at my core. Baohaus is who I am. Sometimes I do pop up dinners to flex my muscles just so people know there's other things I can do, but this is what I choose to do. I choose to own this item and this type of dining.
But what I'm very interested in, whether it's writing, whether it's hosting a show, whether it's cooking food, I'm just into the discussions of identity, culture and the politics of culture. Gentrification is something I'm interested in. Appropriation, how to defend your culture and maintain your identity in America. Food was my way in because I tried to do it through writing, I tried to do it though other jobs, I worked at the Innocence Project and do it though the law, but I really used food as a way for me to start exploring these ideas.
And I think I've been successful in that, I think I've stayed very true to myself, I don't think I've ever curbed anything I've ever wanted to say for the sake of my business. And I'm proud of me and my brother for that. I'm proud of what Baohaus stands for. We'll never get a Michelin star or whatever, but I'm proud of what it means to customers, and especially young people.
BR: You can't possibly want a Michelin star.
EH: Yeah. No. I don't.
Watch Fresh Off The Boat, L.A. episode 3:
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