Love or hate, rip or rep, Eddie Huang doesn’t lose much sleep over public opinion. That’s not to say the outspoken entrepreneur lacks compassion. On the contrary, his conversation with legendary radio host Miss Info (AKA Minya Oh) of HOT 97 shows that he’s as thoughtful as he is opinionated.
The pair sat down at Eddie’s restaurant, BaoHaus, in downtown NYC to discuss his memoir Fresh Off the Boat, growing up Asian-American in the US, eating soap, sports fucking, and not letting your work define you.
I know you pretty well at this point and a lot of people know you—infamously—but for those who are uninitiated, who are you and where do you come from?
I can’t even answer that straight ’cause it’s like, by blood Chinese, by way of Taiwan, born in America. But just getting race out of the way, I cook food and I own BaoHaus, I write—got the memoir out—and then I host Fresh Off the Boat on VICE.
You know that question though! “So what are you?” Sometimes they’ll ask you that question and you’ll give the whole spiel and at the end of it they’re like, “I just meant, are you from Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Manhattan?”
Yo, for me, it’s never like that. They’ll be like, “Where are you from?” “I live in Stuy Town,” and they’re like, “No, no, no! Where are you really from?” I fuck with them. “I was born right outside of DC, my parents had me in college, lived there nine years, lived in Orlando ten years, lived in Pittsburgh a year, and I’ve been in New York for eight years.” And then they’re like, “No, no, no! Where are your parents from?” “Oh, they’re from Taiwan.” They’re like, “Oh, you’re Taiwanese?” “No, I’m Chinese.”
I fuck with them over and over ’cause I just want them to be like, “What is your ethnicity? What is your race, motherfucker?!”
I’m sure it has changed over the years, but what part of that do you relate to the most right now?
This is what a lot of the book and the show are about: finding the similarities in people as opposed to the differences. My thing with the book was that I was always struggling with: What is it to be American? What is it to be Chinese? What is it to be Taiwanese? and, Who am I? It was a question I couldn’t answer myself for a while. But after all the trials and tribulations and then inventing and reinventing yourself multiple times, and the way you struggle with identity, I realized I’m not defined by my race. I love who I am, I attribute a lot of my character and culture and values and the way I run my life to my race and to my parents, but at the end of the day, we’re individuals. I want people to look at themselves outside of where they’re from and what they look like. You can be whoever you want to be. Really. Not in some cheesy, romantic way, but don’t let anything limit who you think you can be one day.
You’re second generation, right?
It’s funny ’cause my mom came here when she was 17 and my dad came here when he was about 25. My mom had me here when she was 20, so she’d only been here three years. I was, I guess, second generation, but my parents had only been in the States three years when they had me.
So your environment was absolutely Taiwanese.
Yeah! Our house, we had chicken feet hangin’ out of the pot. People came and it was just heads and bones on everything, no toys on Christmas. My mom got me Kumon homework one year for Christmas. I was like, “You’re a dick!” It was funny.
The funniest thing I remember was, I saw this kid’s house and he had the leg lamp. I was like, “Yo, what’s up with your dad and that leg lamp?” He’s like, “You haven’t seen A Christmas Story?” I said, “What’s A Christmas Story?” and they’re like, “Where do you live?”
You didn’t have those references.
I didn’t know. They were always having me eat soap in class ’cause they thought I was trying to be funny, but I didn’t know what was going on.
I remember they were telling us about Adam and Eve and I was like, “Yo, if Adam and Eve are both White”—’cause in the photo they were both White—“why do I look like this?” I was the only non-White kid in this Christian school. And they were like, “Go to the principal’s office right now,” and they made me eat soap.
How did eating all that soap either help, or hurt, your palate?! [Laughs]
I was just like, “Yo, I hate these Christian motherfuckers right now! I hate you so much!” [Laughs] And there’s a lot of Christian Koreans. I would just be like, “What’s goin’ on?!”
You had such a negative association.
I had such a bad association. I’m naturally left-handed. They made me write right-handed. So I was always like, “I don’t fuck with them.” I don’t have that now, but growing up you just associate, “Those are the people that made me eat soap!”
Were you a rebel growing up?
Yeah, I always was. I swear, initially I just wanted to be friends with people and I really didn’t want to be in trouble. I wasn’t looking for it, but just because of my race, where I was, the schools I was in, and my outspoken nature, I would get into trouble. Kids would try to throw rocks at me at recess all the time. So me and my cousins would fight these other White kids. We would have, during recess, WWF-style battles, right? Kids would form a square and you’d wrestle, even in second grade. I always just DDTed the shit out of kids. Me and my cousin were like, “That’s the easiest move. Just get their head and drop their head on the concrete!” I was always fighting.
Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough!
Yeah! [Laughs] For real. But it wasn’t like I was looking for it; it was more they were like, “He’s a non-believer!” or, “He brought funny lunch to school. Let’s fight him at recess.”
Do you think you would have come out differently if you’d grown up in a very nurturing Asian-American community?…But you might be tougher now because you were one-of-one!
Most definitely. I was in public school up until third grade, and then my parents switched me to private. And then I went back to public school in ninth grade ’cause I’d gone to seven schools in five years and I got in trouble at all the private schools. My parents were like, “We’re not paying money for you to keep fuckin’ around in private school,” so I went to public. I remember they had Asian Club, and they had like 15 or 20 other Asian people, but it was a 4,000-student school.
So it’s still just a drop in the bucket.
Yeah. I went to Asian Club after school once or twice and I was like, “This is the corniest shit ever.” I went to Chinese school on Sundays, but I didn’t relate to those kids either.I remember basketball was a big thing. We would play basketball, the Chinese kids, and when we played White kids or Black kids or Spanish kids, we would always lose! And I was just like, “I don’t really wanna run with this squad any more!” [Laughs]
[Laughs] So for you it became, Why do I have to associate with people just because they look like me if I feel more kindred with somebody else?
I remember when I played with the Chinese-school kids they’d always call fouls, but then when I played with other kids—Spanish, Black kids, whatever—there was no fouls. I could go beast. There were second- and thirdgeneration Asian kids and because my mom and dad had been here only three years before me, there was a gap too between me and those kids. Identity is so weird, race is so weird, and the generation is weird.
And it’s so subjective. There’s no clear definition anymore. My family came up in a very immigrant-type story where they were established on the South Side of Chicago when they had me. Later on as they worked 28 hours a day and made more money they moved to a White suburb, and that’s when my sister was born.
Yeah, your sister’s mad different.
Right. So I’m like the Black Korean and she’s like the White Korean, and I think in the end you just start feeling like, Where do I fit in? On both sides you’re sort of an outcast. And maybe other Asian Americans would look at you and think that you’re too “urban” or whatever the tag word they want to use is.
Yeah. I’m rough around the edges. The employees here will even tell you. My parents had money when my youngest brother, Evan, grew up. By that time, by ninth grade, my parents were good. When I was growing up it was tougher. We weren’t ever in a PJ, but it was low– middle class. And when you’re Asian you always feel like you’re broker than you really are because your parents hide everything and they saran wrap your fucking couch! So you’re like, “I must be broke!”
And don’t earn any interest because everything is under the bed, or in gold.
Exactly! They hide it in a safe in gold. They’re like, “They can’t take this from us!” [Laughs] It’s really funny shit, how we save money.
Let’s talk about how the Eddie empire came about. You were originally working in the music industry, right?
Definitely. And all my work really dealt with identity and dominant culture and things like that. The first thing I made was a shirt that said, “Chicago ’08” with “Obama ’08” on the back, and it looked like a Michael Jordan Bulls jersey. I had little businesses when I was a kid, selling Transformers or whatever, but that was the first thing I ever designed and made.
So it wasn’t food.
No. It was basketball, hip-hop, and politics rolled into one.
You just had an entrepreneurial spirit?
But do you consider yourself a chef, or an entrepreneur?
I never call myself a chef. Out of necessity, sometimes when I do interviews they’ll call me a chef and I’m like, “Alright, cool. I’m not gonna be annoying and fight you on it.”
That’s not what you think you are? Is it because you don’t feel like you have the training?
No. I think I’m more. I think for someone to claim, “I’m a chef,” it’s like, “Alright, cool. That’s all you want to do?” Like, [Sukiyabashi] Jiro’s cool. Jiro dedicated himself to sushi. I watch Jiro [Dreams of Sushi] and I really respect the shit out of him, and I love that movie, but I couldn’t stand in one place and cut fish for people my entire life. I wanna do more. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Now the food game is just like any other form of entertainment—like Hollywood and music. There are a lot of celebrities and there are a lot of endorsements and there’s a lot of money on the table. So how does that play into the interpersonal relationships between you and other celebrity chefs?
You’ve gotten into beef. It’s been well documented!
Yeah. I could give a fuck less. But I have chef friends who claim they are “Chefs.” But, I do the cooking. I do things; things don’t do me. That’s just the mentality I’ve always had. I think a lot of it comes from being a kid, like, “You’re Chinese? This is what Chinese people do. You’re Taiwanese? This is what you do. You’re from Orlando? This is where you’re supposed to be,” and I was like, “No. I already know what you’re gonna try to do to me: you’re gonna label me a chef, you’re gonna limit the things I can do with the rest of my life, you’re gonna force me into certain expectations, and force me into a certain mode of communication and culture.” I will never do that again.
Did you go to a culinary institute like other chefs?
And do you feel like other chefs are mad that you’ve blown up?
There are always haters. But to be honest, in the community in New York, a lot of chefs show me love, a lot of restaurants show me love, a lot of people that write show me love. A lot of people hate me, too. But I think the people that know me and meet me up close and personal, they can tell I’m very genuine and that I’m really trying to use my brain and think about things, then pass that on to other people.
I talk to chefs all the time. They have lots of other pursuits, lots of other things that make them happy, and I’m like, “Do something with that. This isn’t the only story you can tell.” A lot of times chefs do well and the initial inclination is, “I should go open another restaurant,” which I did. But I regret opening that second restaurant so fast.
I really had to write the book. The book is my life’s work. And I have such a better, clearer sense of my life and myself and what I wanna do after writing the book, because writing’s therapeutic.
So rather than just follow the normal script of franchising your business, you wanted to diversify?
Yeah. Eventually I’m gonna open BaoHauses, but I was like, “I’m in no rush. I wanna complete the story. I wanna fully communicate what I wanna say.” Because if everything that people know about me is from bits of interviews and if they have to piece it together, it’s not gonna be right. So I wrote these 300 pages, and now you know.
I was lucky enough to get an early copy of the book, and one part that really struck me was the uniqueness of your upbringing, even though I think a lot of people would tag it as, “An immigrant story of growing up in an Asian-American community.” But you clearly have very unique parents. Your dad at one point gives you advice about why coming to America is so important and…did he really use the term “sports fuck?”
Yes. In front of my mom. We were talking to my dad about America and why he came, and he’s literally like, “Eddie, Emery, Evan, you gotta take advantage of being Americans because in this country women will have sex with you even if they don’t love you,” and he’s like, “for sport. It’s like sports fucking. It’s like playing games.” He’s like, “You guys should take advantage. Evan, you’re too young.” Because Evan at the time was literally eight years old. Emery was 11! He was like, “Sports…fuck?”
My mom’s making us scallion pancakes with eggs, I remember, and she’s like, “Yeah! Yeah! Sports fuck! Don’t love them, don’t marry them, don’t get them pregnant!” ’Cause my mom was always like, “Women are gonna take all your bread!” My mom still thinks all women are gold diggers. I remember my mom found girls’ bras in my room, and she was like, “They’re gonna take your money!”
[Laughs] Oh my God!
It was funny shit.
Like, “Pin that up on the wall! This is where your money’s gonna go!”
She was like, “What are you doing? You’re gonna lose all your money soon!” I was like, “I have no money, Mom.”
Besides your parents, who else would you say was formative in your life?
My professors in college were big. It was the first time that they were like, “You’re a talented kid.” I would always tell jokes in high school or whatever, and teachers just thought I was a bum and a troublemaker. But for some reason I would write satires or parodies and tell jokes in college and my teachers were like, “It takes a lot of intelligence to tell these jokes. They show a level of understanding and it shows that you’re actually reading the books.”
They saw that you were not just taking in and spewing out; you were interpreting.
Yeah, I was flipping it on them every day in class. My parents were always like, “You could be a doctor, you could be a lawyer, you could be an engineer.” But my teachers were like, “You could be who you want to be, and be happy.”
That, and then Taiwan—the country and the people—taught me a lot. When I went back to Taiwan for the first time as a 19 year old, I really reconnected with my culture. Growing up I was kind of ashamed of it, then shunned it, then was like, “Alright. I accept it. It’s a part of me.”
It made us aliens, not fitting into what everybody else is doing.
I saw it as a weakness. I would go play ball and people would be like, “Pick the Chinese kid last.” A lot of times I wouldn’t even get to play. Or people would make fun of my eyes. I just saw being Chinese as like…a flaw.
A handicap to get over.
A handicap. Everybody called me out on it. I was mad at being Chinese because I felt like it prevented me from doing the things I wanted to do with my life. But when I went back to Taiwan, I remember I got into the airport, and it’s a whole country of people that look like me, walk like me, smell like me. I was like, there’s doctors here, there’s police here, there’s artists here, there’s skateboarders here…there’s all types of people here. We don’t have to just sit around and do Kumon and drink bubble tea.
You know what’s also very freeing, is seeing people who are fuck-ups that look like you.
Yeah, exactly! It’s like, I’m not a model minority. People can’t understand how much of a handicap that is, when you always have to live up to your cousin that got a 1600. That’s a bitch.
And those are the only ones that you’re gonna hear about from your family.
Every Asian has a cousin with a 1600.
Seriously. It’s wack.
So you were able to take that same mentality when you came back.
Yeah. When I went to Taiwan I reconnected and I was like, “You know what? I’m not ashamed of this. This is an ill culture I come from. I love who I am. This is my blood. I will never let anyone make me ashamed of it again, and I’ll own it. If anybody tries to get in my way, it’s not because of my race, and it’s not because of where I’m from; it’s because they’re ignorant. I will never let my race or environment be a hindrance to me doing something.”
Do you feel that the Asian community has been less supportive than the White community or other communities?
I’m lucky. For someone that owns a Chinese / Taiwanese restaurant that serves authentic Taiwanese street food in a more modern setting, I don’t get much hate. There’s always the occasional bro that’s like, “They’re bigger in Taiwan, and they’re cheaper!” I’m like, “Well buy a $900 plane ticket and go get one.”
What about your colleagues? Do you feel like you have a bond with other Asian-American chefs? It feels like your closest friends in the business are not Asian.
Interesting…. Because I really fuck with Dale Talde, and I’m very good friends with Danny Bowein—
From Mission Chinese.
And then Andy Ricker I think is an honorable Asian.
I think we gave him an honorary degree. A card.
For me, as a Korean-American woman who’s working in hip-hop, I was shunned and ignored by the Asian-American community. I was not a leader, I was not a role model. I think that it’s interesting that our own people are the ones sitting back and watching and are skeptical. Meanwhile, the rest of our colleagues and audience are the first ones to say, “Cool. I really love what you’re doing and I love how you represent your ethnicity” or “your culture.”
From talking to a lot of Chinese or Taiwanese or even Korean kids, it’s like, when you see somebody repping but they are so similar to you, some people hate out of jealousy. “That should be me.” When it’s that close to home, it’s like, “I could do it better.”
I remember, growing up, it was always you and SuChin Pak, the only two really visible Asians. I’ve always repped both of you guys. But I would say this to my boys: “They only let Asian women on TV; they won’t let Asian dudes on TV.
That’s the Trisha Takanawa stereotype, on Family Guy. But things have changed, and I definitely feel like you’re a role model for that.
Well Jin was the first one. And then when those Korean boys shot him…!
Shot at him.
Yeah, they shot at him.
We don’t rep for any Asian-on-Asian crime.
No! No Asian-on-Asian crime, man. Come on! Stop the beef [laughs]!
“I don’t give a fuck about critics, really. I don’t give a fuck about old people coming in here. I made this shit for kids.”
Do you feel a responsibility to mentor kids now?
Mad kids email me, they DM me, they leave me Facebook messages. I am always in the YouTube comments responding to people on the show. I used to have a publicist manager—I don’t have one anymore—and he’d be like, “You shouldn’t be in the comments! That’s not for the host of the show!” I was like, “Those are the people that I want to talk to.” There was even a kid talking about opening restaurants, asking advice. I’ll give you advice right in the YouTube comments. I’m very accessible. There are kids, all the time like, “I’m a 15-year-old Asian kid in the middle of nowhere. I had my parents bring me here to eat your food and see the restaurant, and it really means a lot to me.” Every single day.
The feeling that brings me the most joy now is on a weekend afternoon there’s a lot of kids coming in—they always have Supreme or ONLY hats and they got their kicks on—and they’re with their parents. They’re like, “Dad, I want the Chairman Bao!” They come to New York, they want sneakers, they want shirts, and they want to come to BaoHaus. That means a lot to me because I remember when I’d be like, “Mom, come on! I want that Punisher comic! Take me to the comic-book shop!” Or I remember when Ghostface Ironman came out, I was like, “Yo, Mom, I gotta get Ironman! You gotta hold me down!” And then she wouldn’t get it, so we’d steal it.
But the point is, it was something you needed for your identity.
Yeah. It means a lot that the kid is treating the baos how I was fiending for Jordans.
That’s incredible! The hyper-stripe baos!
For real!I don’t give a fuck about critics, really. I don’t give a fuck about old people coming in here. I made this shit for kids. I want people to come here and feel welcome, because I feel most restaurants are not welcoming to youth culture.
You want it to be a place where they can feel at home and hang out.
We have high-school kids who will come in after school like, “I don’t got much. Just hold me down, man!” I’m like, “Yo! You came yesterday!” It’s funny though.
But I want to be clear: it’s not a money thing. I could’ve made more money and stayed on the Cooking Channel. My thing is, I want to be in the place where I have the most freedom to create.
On the cover of the book, Fresh Off the Boat, there’s a quote from [Anthony] Bourdain, and it says, Eddie is “bigger than food.” Everything that we talked about really brings that to life.
I think my life is bigger than food, but I don’t want to disparage chefs in the food industry. I love restaurants and I love food and I love a lot of these other chefs. I hope people understand that I don’t want to be called a chef, and I also want to transcend my work. I don’t want my work to be the sole thing that defines me. I define me.