Eddie Huang in front of his restaurant, Baohaus, in New York. (Atisha Paulson )
In his new memoir, “Fresh Off the Boat” (Spiegel & Grau, $26), Eddie Huang describes life as a first-generation American determined to hold onto his Taiwanese culture.
The 30-year-old chef and proprietor of Baohaus, a New York City hangout serving Taiwanese street food, reveals the crucial role food played in not only determining Huang’s career but also in establishing his relationship with his family, his community and American and Taiwanese cultures.
A self-proclaimed weirdo, Huang graduated from law school and also worked as a stand-up comedian and pot dealer. He has hosted “Cheap Eats” on the Cooking Channel, appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” and hosts his own series on Vice TV, also called “Fresh Off the Boat."
Just a few minutes after Huang landed in Los Angeles, we caught up with him to discuss his Taiwanese family’s hysterical antics, his struggle as a kid making his way through American culture and his anchor through it all: food.
Huang will be reading and signing at Book Soup at 7 tonight.
What inspired you to write a memoir?
I’ve wanted to write this book since I was 18. The day I was leaving home to go to college, I just sat in my neighborhood in Orlando -- we lived by the lake and I thought, "Yo, I gotta write this story about what it’s like to grow up in an American suburb as an Asian American and as pretty much one of only three families of color." One of them being [baseball player] Barry Larkin, who lived down the street from me.
It really was such a weird thing to grow up in the mid-'90s, in a city like Orlando that was kind of like a modern gold rush town. My mom came over here when she was 17, my dad came over here in his mid-20s after he served in the Taiwanese military -- and we kind of all figured out America together. It’s just so funny for people like us to come to America and end up in tiny, weird, suburban towns that we have no connection to. And then you have to develop your own identity to create your own place in America.
I wanted to write the book because I just felt really alone a lot of the time. Growing up, my biggest role models were people I hadn’t met before or were dead -- like Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Charles Barkley and Tupac. I wanted to write this book because maybe there’s a kid in Wisconsin or Phoenix or Tucson who feels the same way I did and there’s nothing that really speaks to him or her.
What role did Taiwanese culture play in piquing your interest in food?
In my book, I mention tons of moments where I was made fun of for the food I ate. Growing up as an '80s baby in America, every kid at every turn wanted to make fun of me for eating dog. It’s only recently that most Americans will say, "That’s an ignorant and stupid joke." I remember that food was very stigmatic and it was one of the first times that I learned, "Hey, these kids keep making fun of me for bringing my stinky lunch to school, but I really like it. It’s delicious to me. I think they’re wrong." Over time, that’s what made me hang onto my culture from home because I started to see that these kids were picking on me just because I was different. It wasn’t because there was anything objectively wrong with me -- it was entirely just majority rules and I saw the mob mentality of children.
When you’re a kid here, everybody just wants to be the same, everybody just wants to be cool, you just want to have friends, you want to have video games, you want to be invited to people’s houses -- but I think in those early years, it’s important to recognize the value of being an immigrant here and of having that duality of the outside American world and the world inside your home. I really benefited from having that because the world is so interconnected now -- from Internet to cable to digital media. I would hate to be someone who only knows one culture; it’s a real advantage to have that duality.
As you stepped more into the world of food and made a career out of it, how did your parents react?
Because of Confucian ideals and Asian American values, my parents were very ignorant to the fact that I could do more positive things for myself, my family and my community through food than I could through the law or medicine or accounting. When I decided to give up being an attorney to open a restaurant, my parents could not understand it for the life of them. They would not talk to me for three to six months. Even after I got my New York Times review and even after the restaurant started doing well, my mom would keep saying, "Well, keep your Bar license active." It wasn’t until recently that she said, "You know, I don’t think Eddie’s going to be an attorney."