It seems like a hip young chef is born every hour to jolt the jaded city palate with an inventive olio of Asian-ish street food: the kimchi burrito, the cumin lamb burger, the kung pao pastrami. The last living purist in the game might be Eddie Huang, 30, who holds the keys to BaoHaus, an unassuming East Village bun shop that serves Taiwanese street food and the ever-trendy pork belly. Huang’s M.O., though, has little to do with reinterpreting original flavors, but rather brings it back old school—all the way to, say, an Asian grandmother’s kitchen: nostalgic, authentic, with a soupçon of crazy.
You may be surprised to learn of the circuitous path that took a Taiwanese-American boy out of the suburbs of Orlando and onto the streets of New York, a picaresque journey that earned him two stints in jail, a law degree, and a defunct streetwear label—all before the age of 25. Live and learn, as they say. Huang is a fearless raconteur, a talent that has gained him a strong social media following through platforms like his food blog and VICE show, “Fresh Off The Boat,” and now the multi-hyphenate can add 2013 TED Fellow and published author to his CV with the newly released Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir (Spiegel & Grau), a coming-of-age tale of identity and assimilation told in a flambéed and unorthodox vernacular all his own. Huang’s writing is at once hilarious and provocative; his incisive wit pulls through like a perfect plate of dan dan noodles.
We recently Skyped with the chef to chat about shaking off stereotypes, green juicing, and his last meal on earth.
JEANINE CELESTE PANG: [To a blank screen] Eddie? Hi, it’s Jeanine.
EDDIE HUANG: Cool—just give me one second, I’ve got to put a shirt on. I just got out of the gym, and I’m like, “What am I wearing?” I’m just going to wear my robe. [Laughs and turns on the screen.]
PANG: So you’re in your bedroom in New York right now?
HUANG: Yeah, yeah. I went out super hard last night, and woke up at like 10 or 11. It was a disaster.
PANG: Well, you’ve got a reason to celebrate! Barnes & Noble just put you on their Spring 2013 Discover Great New Writers list. But I have to ask—writing a memoir at 30 can seem a little premature or presumptuous. What was the big draw to publish now?
HUANG: I remember talking to an agent who thought my pursuit was crazy and laughable. I told her point-blank, “I’ve lived five times over what you’ve done already—I can just look at your shoes and tell.” [laughs] I’ve lived a very, very full life so far. Growing up an ’80s baby, things moved so fast: 30-year-olds are like 50-year-olds now. The midlife crisis happens when you’re 25, two years out of college, and realizing that all you do is go to work and have sex. I wanted to write the book just getting out of that period of my life when I had figured something out, when things were fresh. I mean, I remember what color shirt I wore, or the shoes I wore, when a lot of the things in the book happened.
PANG: That’s what I found striking; you have very strong memories from your childhood and teen years, with references to the fashion and the music and the books.
HUANG: I literally went back through my emails, through yearbooks and letters to see what I was saying and doing at that time. The thing is, I really felt that this was the time to write it. I’m sure I’ll read it in five years and be like, Damn, man, did you have to go that hard? People talk about perfect timing, but I think everything is perfect in its moment; you just want to capture that. I think that if I wrote this in five or 10 years, I would be fat and jaded.
PANG: How do you want to affect your readers?
HUANG: I’m so sick of people misunderstanding Asians in America and what we’re about. I don’t fit into a lot of the silos that America has created, so by being such an outlier, I think people will naturally think that there exist other weirdos that break the mold and are a new archetype. I hope people will say, “You know what? When that kid Eddie came out, when he dropped, that was some different shit.” Like Charles Barkley when he came out and everyone said he was too short to play power forward, but then were like, “Yo, but you can have a shorter power forward—if he’s explosive.” I just want to be that dude that opens that door for others to be the individuals they are.
PANG: You’ve made up a lot of pseudonyms for yourself: Rotten Banana, Bang Bros. Connoisseur, Sars Blackmon, The Human Panda. What’s wrong with just Eddie Huang?
HUANG: I think as an ’80s baby, you grew up with ’90s hip-hop. Everybody had nicknames; all the Wu-Tang cats had aliases. You’re constantly reinventing yourself and playing around. Wordplay was really big for me; I’d always flip things on people. Kids used to make fun of me and say, “Eddie Huang, sitting on a jumbo gong.” And I would say, “Nah, fuck that, I’m Magic Don Huang.” It was a way of owning my identity.
PANG: The food blogs peg you as the rabble-rouser and the chef who doesn’t play nice with others. Demystify us—is the bad-boy thing just a ruse?
HUANG: Yeah, you know, the food blogs need to create daily headlines. When Grub Street wrote that Eddie can’t get along with chefs and that he hates Danny Bowien [of Mission Chinese], he and I were literally at BrisketTown, eating barbecue together and just totally laughing about it. I’m good friends with Danny. But my thing is, I’m not an ass patter. I treat the culinary world like I do sports. I hate it when people tell you “good game” when you know you didn’t have one, so I like to talk X’s and O’s with the chefs like they’re players and give constructive criticism. I might say, “Yo, step out more on the pick and roll.” Also, the blogs like to paint me as the hip-hop chef, which I hate. I was born in ’82—if you weren’t listening to hip-hop, you were an idiot.
PANG: Speaking of hip-hop, your love for that genre is stamped all over the book. You’re constantly quoting rappers, and then you flip it and write about your love for literature, so that Jonathan Swift is referenced in the same graph as Dr. Dre. Where does that dichotomy come from?
HUANG: I think it comes from having parents that weren’t immersed in American culture. It was a blessing and a curse—which is a dichotomy in itself. I didn’t even know how to use a semicolon until my senior year of college. But it was also a blessing, because I didn’t have someone handing me a syllabus for life and telling me about the cultural things I needed to watch, worship and hold high. So I went and found Cam’ron. I thought, “I fuck with Killa—but I also like this guy Mark Twain.” It was all genius to me. I was able to make my own call, so I think the things that I found inspirational are because I got to go out on that scavenger hunt by myself, with no guide.
PANG: What do you find inspiring these days?
HUANG: Right now, I’m definitely on a health kick. The thing is, I feel disgusting eating all that food on the VICE show, so I’ve gotten very interested in cold-pressed juices. You feel great after drinking it. I’ve been working on a juice project and teaching kids in Harlem how to juice. Look at this. [Holds up a plastic tumbler of green juice.] I made it myself.
PANG: That’s very green! What’s in it?
HUANG: I put kale, spinach, lemon, ginger, Fujiyama apples and Chinese herbal supplements. I wake up in the morning and make myself a green juice for breakfast. I go to the gym, and after I work out, I can have fat, protein and carbs, so that’s when I go eat at BaoHaus. For me, juicing isn’t about binging and cleansing; I try to incorporate it into a balanced diet.
PANG: And is it true you nix carbs after 3 pm?
HUANG: Yeah, I try to just eat protein and fiber after 3 pm. I think chefs have a societal responsibility—similar to bartenders—you’ve got to cut people off when they’ve had a little too much. So I may end up opening more juice bars. I wonder how people will respond, they might say, “How do you go from pork belly to this?”
PANG: Probably the biggest fans of pork belly are the ones who will need the juice.
HUANG: Well, for the next BaoHaus, my brother and I are retooling the menu based on our lifestyle—we’re never going to live one life and sell you another. Our pork belly bao will always be there if you want to indulge—we’re not the government—but we’ll give you healthier options too, and try delivering the same flavors with lean poultry and tofu.
PANG: If you were to plan your last meal, what would be on the menu?
HUANG: I would definitely have soup dumplings. I would also love a good Cantonese sticky rice in lotus leaf, Lion’s Head meatballs, hong shao rou (red cooked pork shank), some stir-fried chili cabbage, stir-fried snow pea shoots, eight-treasure glutinous rice dessert, the KFC egg tarts from China, a slice of pizza, fried chicken, and Jamaican ox tail. Oh—and Peking duck from Da Dong and maybe two slices of Peter Luger’s steak and bacon. Just two. And three pieces of sushi—kinmedai, shimmaji and kanpachi. That’s the dinner; that’s a wrap.
PANG: What do you think about people calling you the new Anthony Bourdain?
HUANG: I get why they say it—in a lot of ways he’s been my career godfather—but I don’t think it’s fair to him, because I’m just a kid. When people compared me to David Chang, I was really upset and really didn’t like it. We don’t have the same goals; I thought it was more because he and I looked similar. But I feel like Tony is a kindred spirit. At the core, the thing that ties us is that we’re both very honest and incapable of not saying something. I’ve been out with him on the street and strangers will ask him very uncomfortable things, and you’ll see him stop for a second, flinch, and spit out an answer. He’s very inspiring.
PANG: In your book, you talk about being an in-betweener. There’s a line that struck me: “Forget countries and boundaries, you can call me international.”
HUANG: I’m so glad you brought up that quote, because that quote is amazing. I was reading the Tao Te Ching last night, high, and I realized it holds the same ideology. Countries and boundaries and whatever—you don’t need to announce it. If you talk about it in terms of New York real estate, you don’t need someone to tell you where the Lower East Side ends and where the Lower East Side begins. I get so disenfranchised reading the news, because global borders and lines we’ve created are completely unnecessary. That’s just another person on the other side, and it’s his bad luck that he was born there and it’s my good fortune that I was born here. It’s all kind of illogical.
FRESH OFF THE BOAT: A MEMOIR IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE AUTHOR, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.