They called me a chigger.”
Eddie Huang, the gleefully iconoclastic chef-cum-troublemaker, was in a back room at the Ace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, remembering high school. He’d just finished serving as the host of a New York Knicks viewing party for a crowd of the chef’s friends and “three random girls from Twitter.” The wax paper-wrapped bao—the signature Asian bun sandwiches that have been drawing crowds to his restaurant, Baohaus, since December 2009—were long since emptied of their pork-packed glories.
Earlier that day, he had published a post on his widely read blog, Fresh Off the Boat. The post examined the spectacle of an Asian-American such as Knicks star Jeremy Lin exploding as a pop-culture force. It was a cutting, personal indictment of stereotypes and racism. By that evening, it had racked up more than 32,000 unique views.
“It was mainly Asian kids that really hated on me,” he remembered. “They thought that there was one face to being Asian, and I was different.”
Huang was wearing a hybrid of high fashion and street wear. The look was finished with large glasses not unlike the kind made popular by Kim Jong-Il, giving him the appearance of the lost Beastie Boy who’d finally taken Pyongyang.
If Huang has made a splash with his re-inventions of quick-serve, high-end Asian eats, he is perhaps better known for his outspokenness. In a way, he admitted, cooking has always been more of a means than an end for him. “I went into the food world because I realized that no other place in America would let me break through and speak the way I speak. They will listen to us”—he pointed to himself, meaning Asian-Americans—“because they want Combo No. 5. You know what I mean? We’re cute. We’re Hello Kitty-like.”
Huang noted that Asian stereotypes were a double-edged sword. “At the end of the day, people would rather put me in a conference room”—sitting in on a business meeting—“than one of the dudes who works for me from [Queens], just because of the way I look and the way I smile,” he said. “I recognize that it’s an advantage. But it’s also a disadvantage.”
On the horizon for Huang—who before opening his own restaurant had stints as a street-wear retailer, a journalist, a weed dealer, a stand-up comic and an attorney—is a memoir and a television show.
“There’s a lot of good things in place,” Huang said. “The show, the book—those things are gonna happen. It’s just like: Don’t fuck it up Eddie. Do not. Fuck. This. Up.”
In March, while negotiations were under way with the Cooking Channel—the Food Network’s younger spinoff—over the fate of Huang’s first national TV show, he took to Twitter to verbally fricassee one of the company’s top celebrities, Anne Burrell.
After the frosty-haired host of Worst Cooks in America, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef and The Next Iron Chef derided him to another chef, Huang fired back: “you host WORST COOKS IN AMERICA, dress like Guy Fieri, and snitch to networks when you’re not happy. I tell it like it is.” And, yes, Fieri is also a major Food Network star.
Huang admitted that network executives were not especially appreciative of his particular preparation of beef.
“They were pissed,” he said.
As a negotiating tactic, trashing your would-be colleagues seems counterintuitive, but Huang can’t seem to help himself. “I just love that,” laughed his friend and mentor Anthony Bourdain. “Here’s a guy on his way to getting a show on the Cooking Channel, and he’s out there just mercilessly beating up on their stable of stars,” he chuckled. “A guy with a vocabulary like that, who’s that fast, and that funny? That’s a dangerous entity to have. Especially in a target-rich environment like the Cooking Channel.”
Bourdain, the bad-boy former chef, author of Kitchen Confidential and Travel Channel regular, recently started his own literary imprint at Harper Collins. “I’m heartbroken that I didn’t have my imprint up and running in time to publish him,” he noted of Huang’s forthcoming book with Random House.
A few weeks later—just days after his 30th birthday—Huang explained his Cooking Channel dilemma over lunch. He talked about weighing two alternative routes to video stardom: his planned basic-cable show versus a project to be produced and distributed independently online. Despite the recent publication of a press release by the channel’s parent company heralding Huang’s arrival, his contract had not actually been signed yet. By him.
Huang declined to discuss the nuances of the deal, but it seemed clear that joining an established network would mean sheathing his paring knife, learning to be a team player, going along to get along.
“They told me straight up: ‘Look, you can’t make fun of anyone on this network anymore,’” he recalled. “‘They’re all family. You’re part of the family now.’” At this, he threw his hands up. “I was like, ‘I didn’t choose to be part of this family.’ Like, ‘You’re buying a show, I’m fulfilling my services on the show.’”
The eldest of three brothers, Huang grew up Orlando, Fla. His mother was just out of high school when she met his father, now a restaurateur whom Huang said had been affiliated with Taiwan’s Bamboo Union gang. “He ran shit,” Huang said.
Eventually, the elder Huang settled with his brother in Washington, D.C., where he met Eddie’s mother. As Huang put it, “He couldn’t keep his dick in his pants, got my mom pregnant, and my mom’s grandma made my dad marry her.”
The family then relocated to Orlando, where they ended up launching a steak house called Cattleman’s, and the Black Olive, a Mediterranean restaurant—where Huang and his two brothers were exposed to the business at an early age.
Still, the Huangs pushed their sons toward academics. “They wanted us to be straight-laced and overachieving,” remembered Huang’s 24-year-old brother, Evan, who in addition to living with Eddie is a co-owner of Baohaus.
While Huang was a decent student, he had a tendency to get into trouble. In high school, someone broke his middle brother Emery’s nose, so Eddie earned his first assault charge for fighting. The second came when he was a film and English major at Orlando’s Rollins College. He was then making extra money by selling weed to frat houses, and he got into a fight with some fraternity types. The two offenses earned him felony probation.
Forced to clean up his act, Huang threw himself into his schoolwork, winning departmental awards in African-American and feminist studies, and trying his hand at sports journalism.
In early 2005, Huang enrolled in law school at Cardozo in Manhattan. While there, he maintained a number of side jobs: He printed his own tees and hawked them online. He became friendly with 50 Cent and G-Unit emcee DJ Whoo-Kid, and began promoting parties for him. He took freelance writing jobs with XXL, Rotowire, NBA.com and Law.com. He also continued selling marijuana, though “not, like, serious weight,” he noted.
In September 2008, Huang was hired as an associate at white-shoe law firm Chadbourne & Parke. The economy tanked immediately thereafter. On March 10, 2009, on what Huang described as “one of the best days of my life,” he was laid off. He tried his hand at stand-up comedy, hosting open-mic nights, but soon sensed he wasn’t gaining traction. What did seem to be winning him fans was the food he often brought along for club owners and fellow comics.
After answering a Craigslist post, he landed a spot on the Fieri-hosted Ultimate Recipe Showdown. He lost the competition, but by the time he went home for the holidays, plans for Baohaus were well under way.
Huang’s parents, already unhappy with their son’s rudderless streak, offered no financial help with the restaurant. The relationship worsened when Eddie managed to get Evan—then a single semester away from graduating college in Orlando—to join him in his new endeavor. “’My parents hated Eddie for a while,” Evan laughed. “They thought he was going to ruin my future.”
But Baohaus was a hit. So much so that barely half a year later, Huang decided to open another restaurant on the Lower East Side, Xiao Ye, in July 2010. Whereas Baohaus was a tiny, counter-based quick-serve restaurant, Xiao Ye typified the middle-class family restaurants his parents had run. Without the family part.
Hip-hop blasted from the speakers. A sign painted above the kitchen door screamed: “DERICIOUS.” The menu read like any Tiger Mom’s worst nightmare: “Cheeto Fried Chicken,” “General Poke-Her-Face Prawns,” “Robster Rice” and “Poontang Pot Stickers” were signature dishes. Only three months after opening, the restaurant earned a New York Times review.
In it, Sam Sifton slammed Xiao Ye as an “artful misfire,” calling the food “dishonest” and gave the eatery a goose egg.
Oftentimes, restaurant owners respond to a bad review by taking up arms in the press against the critic in question. Huang took a different tack: wholeheartedly agreeing with Sifton, and posting a hysterically withering e-mail from his mother, encouraging him to keep his law license active so he could potentially go back to being a lawyer.
“YOU MUST GET BURNT BEFORE YOU WILL HEAR YOUR MOM,” she wrote. “You have a lot of potential, but you must make good choice and stick to it with the best choice. With all the staff, and your Korean friend, no one was able to point out or warn you the mistakes, or problems you have???????????????????”
He added that part of the original vision was that “customers could come in every night and know that it was going to be fun.” That part, he definitely managed. That summer, a caffeinated malt liquor drink called Four Loko began to gain popularity. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., launched a war on the beverage, and Huang saw an opening. He changed his Twitter handle to “General Loko” and instituted an all-you-can-drink Four Loko dinner. After the plan was deemed illicit, he tacked on a $3-per-can charge. According to his Tweets the morning after, the dinner was a great success.
But that night, the State Liquor Authority raided Xiao Ye and destroyed all the Four Loko. Over the next few weeks, the restaurant was raided by the SLA on three separate occasions after citations for serving underage drinkers (in the form of undercover SLA agents). Under threat of losing his liquor license—which would have made selling the space more difficult—Huang and his partners shut Xiao Ye down.
In July, a second Baohaus was opened on 14th Street. On a recent Friday night, a line snaked around the door as Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” pumped through the restaurant.
Huang has collaborated on a few one-off Chinese New Year’s dinners, one of which received a glowing review from Sifton. Plans to open other Baohaus locations are in the works. And the book deal—which Huang considers the best thing he’s ever done with his life—has been signed.
Just a few weeks after our lunch, Huang was sitting in the lobby of the Museum of Chinese in America, having delivered a speech on the topic of whether Asians are black or not. Later, sitting with The Observer in the lobby, he was still mulling over the contract from the Cooking Channel.
He wanted success, but at what price? A few days later, he made it clear where he stood, while DJing music on an Internet radio station. “My next song is for Anne Burrell and Guy Fieri,” he wrote, Tweeting out the link to a YouTube page. Those who clicked through found a G-Unit video: “I Smell Pussy.”
The contract has yet to be signed, and negotiations are still ongoing.
During our interview, Huang recalled the posters he put up in his room as a child: basketball players such as Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley.
“There were no posters I could buy of Asian people besides Bruce Lee. And—I mean, no one’s ever going to put up a poster of me, but I hope that, to some kid”—he paused, looking up. “I get e-mails from Asian kids, and it means the world to me, that they’re like: Yo, man, you’re doing your thing, you’re saying what I want to say and you make me feel like I can walk around with my head up.
“People have sent me e-mails like that,” he grinned. “I won.”