Baohaus in New York’s East Village is a hole in the wall. When you walk in, a couple of cooks and a cashier dole out meat-filled steamed buns and taro fries to the left of a narrow passage. Mobb Deep and Dipset blare out of the speakers, bouncing off graffiti- and sticker-stained walls. Not much has changed about the place since it opened—it's still a charmingly stripped-down hangout for the type of New York misfits and ne'er-do-wells who appreciate the pairing of braised pork belly and Cam’ron’s “Wet Wipes.”
For the restaurant's proprietor, Eddie Huang, the world looks a lot different than it did a few years ago. His memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, turned into a popular ABC sitcom of the same name. He moved to L.A. for two years and dabbled in the trappings of the Hollywood lifestyle ("I leased a Boxster S—I’m still cheap," he assures me). And now, he's shaking up publishing and TV for a second time. His food-travel show, Huang's World, airs Thursdays at 10pm EST on Viceland, and a brand-new book, Double Cup Love, details his experiences living and cooking in Chengdu.
Still, Huang is in his element at Baohaus, where I found him testing a meatball bao—a new menu item he jokingly claims “will take out the chopped cheese.” The bao buns were fluffy-soft like a stripper with a real butt, and the meatballs were made of chicken and pork belly, and sprinkled with sweet crushed peanuts. It’s hard to take out a NYC institution like the chopped cheese—a.k.a., the Yankees of bodega sandwiches—but Baohaus is definitely onto something with these, and it was refreshing to see Huang back in his natural habitat, slanging baos and talking shit.
We kicked off our discussion at the restaurant, where we talked about the new book with our mouths full, just like our mothers taught us. We then took it to the East Village streets for the second half, when I got to see a newer side of Huang: a star who gets stopped on every block by passersby wanting to snap a picture of the Human Panda in the flesh, or just show him their gratitude. Most of the fans who interrupted us were minorities, and each one thanked him for putting on for their people. People of color don’t usually host major food shows on American television, and Eddie’s contribution to the game is much needed. The people recognize that. Huang has been a trailblazer in terms of making sure the Asian community—and minorities in general—are repped correctly in the white-washed food world. He’s been a consistent voice of dissent in that arena, most recently unpacking the implications of an Eater editor’s skinhead past.
As we ate and strolled around Eddie's stomping grounds, we talked about his new book, his gripes with the food scene, bad wine advice from rappers, and much more. (Tip: When you read Eddie quoting types of people he doesn’t like, read it with a mocking tone.)
In the new book, Double Cup Love, you weave relationships, food, and family into one. Why do those things interconnect for you?
I think a lot of times when you want to talk about relationships, it’s a very heated thing. Wherever you’re from in life—your city, your neighborhood, your race, your parents—has a huge impact on how you love people and the values that you have in relationships. A really good way to get into things is through food, or music, or fashion. Who you are is manifested in the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and the music you listen to. You can ease a person into a discussion about fashion, music, and food, then get to the core of what it is that really separates us.
Look at Orthodox-Jewish people, or Muslim people, or Christian people. A lot of it is: Women have to wear these clothes, this is what a wedding is like, this is what you’re supposed to do if you want to holler at somebody. I don’t like that there’s so much control over how we should holler at somebody, or the clothes women have to wear. Love is different for everyone and I think you have to figure out how you want to love, and the values you have for family, and what you want to have in your life. Romance is the best game in town.
Why was it important for you to go to China and serve your rendition of Chinese food?
I had never cooked in China until this trip. I’d always gone back and people were always like, “He’s the funny American kid.” And on my trips they were always curious about what it’s like to be American. But this time I was curious about being Chinese, and I wanted them to try my food and tell me, does this feel like Chinese food to them? Food is something that is very telling of who you are. From the food they can tell who I am, my experiences, where I’m from, and to a certain extent, how I’m living in America.
Why did you want to have this experience with your two brothers, Evan and Emery?
I felt like this was a journey the three of us had to take. It was cool not to go with my parents because they provide cover and they give you the road map. But for the three of us to go back on our own on some city-slicker shit, to figure out if we’re still Chinese or have we already assimilated—it was cool to go back and figure that out.
Did you feel Chinese when you were there, or did you feel like a fish out of water?
You definitely realize you’re different when you first get there and then you start to pick up on all the habits. You start to eat like them, you start to walk outside with sandals. I brought mad shoes and outfits; by the second week, I was wearing basketball shorts, a white t-shirt, and chanclas everywhere. You might catch yourself clipping your toenails outside, doing wild grimy shit. [Laughs.] When my girl came she was like, “Yo, you look and sound and feel different.” You absorb it and it becomes a part of you. At the end of the trip I felt like I didn’t need to be cosigned by Chinese people—this is who I am, it’s in my blood. What I have to say and the way I finesse is very important to this culture, history, and identity.
In the book, you compared Old Jesse’s red-cooked pork—basically, the traditional recipe you grew up with—to your father never letting you win a game of basketball. Why do you feel it's important to compete with your elders?
I loved Old Jesse’s because that’s the red-cooked pork you hear about. That’s the red-cooked pork people told you to strive to be. But you can’t want to be someone else in life. You set your goals while looking up to role models, but once you get close you realize that you have to be yourself. The final step is, “What makes me different? How do I take this to the next level? How do I become the next most powerful Jedi?”
It’s like rappers. They’ll talk about their idols in their first couple albums, then by the third they’re like, “I’m coming for you, I got the red dot on your head.” The lessons from the OGs got me this far, but I gotta take the last step on my own. You have to beat your pops in a way. You have to beat your heroes. My brother Evan is good with that. He tells me not to worry about tradition. You have to lean in on who you are, not keep thinking about what makes you different.
You talk of cultural appropriation in the book when you met Chinese hip-hop heads who seemed like they were trying too hard. How does it feel when you get accused of the same thing?
The only people that ask about appropriation are white kids and Asian kids. A lot of them don’t really get it. I always thought I was a kindred spirit to [hip-hop] culture. I listened to it, I understood it, and I felt like I had a connection to it. I never woke up and thought, “Yo, I’m gonna be into hip-hop.” I just heard it when I was eight or nine. I remember listening to [Tupac's] Me Against the World and thinking it sounded like my crib. There’s an interlude with that woman yelling at the dad, “All you do is stand there with that fucking AK.” My dad had an AK and he would walk around the house in his underwear with the fucking AK. I witnessed domestic violence growing up. I related to that whole album.
Before Anthony bourdain, [food TV] was, “Hi, I’m so-and-so fucking asshole, I’m at this best restaurant in this city, eating this food...cut to commercial."
People want me to justify my love for hip-hop, or justify my love for black culture, and I stopped doing it because I don’t feel like I have to. I was a high school kid in Orlando listening to Tony Touch tapes. You had to work to get that shit. Jay Electronica had a good quote on Exhibit C where he rapped, “You play the part well / But you the energy you giving off is so unfamiliar."
Do you see Anthony Bourdain as a someone who set the mold for you?
I think Bourdain laid the groundwork for food travel shows. He brought a narrative to it. Before it was, “Hi, I’m so-and-so fucking asshole, I’m at this best restaurant in this city, eating this food...cut to commercial." They’re not talking about the deeper aspects that food has. Food touches so many things; it’s a complicated subject. Bourdain was the first one to recognize that on TV. He started speaking about it in that way, and created a line which allowed us to tell our stories.
How do you feel your show differs from his?
We’re different people. I have a different voice than he does. It’s not one is better than the other—he does his thing. When he did his book event in Barnes & Noble in 2010, I was playing hoops in the Lower East Side and he called me and was like, “Yo, I need a moderator.” I literally rolled up there stinkin’, I came off the basketball court to help him host his event. That my first time really hanging out with him. He put me on his show The Layover; he put me on the last episode of No Reservation; he blurbed my first book. So, I got a lot of respect for Tony. He’s the gold standard.
I think Tony knew [what I could do] because game recognizes game. People in the food industry didn’t understand what I was doing, they didn’t understand the stories I was trying to tell. Tony’s a really sophisticated motherfucker—he’s super smart. He took me out to dinner, he told me everything, he showed me the ropes. He wants me to be the best that I can be. I hope when another kid comes along that I’m generous enough to put them on the game. The world needs more Jedi. I look at Tony and see how I can be better. And Action used to come to Baohaus, so I like to see Action shine.
What are you trying to achieve with Huang’s World?
I just want to put on for people and give them a way to speak through me. I’m just a microphone for the people we meet. I hope people see this show as kind of like the people’s champ show. I’m not going to see chefs, I’m not going to see the most famous person in the city. I’m trying to go see what it is on the day-to-day. I want to understand their identities and their problems, because what I feel like what creates community is shared problems. I want go to communities and be like, “Yo, what’s going on in Jamaica, why y’all mad?” I want to help these people project their real identities. I want know how they see themselves and project that into the world. The hour-long format allows us to do that. I’m sick and tired of news people telling me what to think of these people. We never get to the source; they’re always taking their quotes and twisting them.
Speaking of whitewashing, can you touch on the Grub Street piece? How do you try to avoid the same shortcomings you see in food media?
What I do on the show that I think is different from these other food blogs is I go to the hood and act like I don’t know anything. You tell me where to go, you tell me what’s good, you tell me what to pay attention to eating this dish. I think people really like that because I pay them respect. I don’t go in there telling them, “Oh, this is how this dish is supposed to be made.”
The biased, white-washed narrative isn’t the whole truth.
I’ll tell you what’s funny about a lot of food writers. I sit down with food writers—I’ll take them to a Chinese restaurant, a Korean restaurant, or a Thai one—and as soon as we sit down or order something they’re very excited to tell me everything they know. “Oh, yes, kalbi, this is great. Some people use Asian pears to marinate it. Some people will use Dr. Pepper. I know somebody who does it this way.” They’re trying to show off what they’ve heard from a couple Korean people of how to make this dish. If I hang with Korean cats, I’m not telling [them] about Korean food. I’m letting [them] tell me. We go somewhere Korean, I can give you my opinion and tell you what I would like to try, but you order.
Some people aren’t into soaking up game.
No, they’re not. They’re into letting you know they’re already on it, and they’re not. It’s rude. If you go to someone’s house and they cook for you, and you tell them, “Oh, I know everything about this dish. You can do it this way, or I had it this way...why don’t you do it that way?” Shut up, man. When I’m cooking someone always brings a foodie, or a writer, or a photographer, and they think they can come into my kitchen and stand next to me and talk to me like, “So, what are you doing here; oh, I’ve seen this technique.”
A LOT OF [FOOD] WEBSITES MAKE IT TOO EASY FOR PEOPLE. “IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT, LET ME LOOK AT THE 38 MOST POPPIN’ RESTAURANTS, GET A TABLE FOR TWO, AND SMASH IN THREE HOURS." THERE’S NOT MUCH SOUL To IT.
No, you haven’t. Get the fuck outta here. [Laughs.] Sit your ass down. I’m going to give a pair of chopsticks so you could put food in your mouth and stop talking. On the show, I’m not there to impress you with my mediocre knowledge of your country or your food. This is what people gotta realize: When you’re dealing with a culture that’s not your own, give the home team final cut.
Why do you hate food blogs like Eater so much?
I wouldn’t say I hate Eater. I just think they’re unnecessary. We need people to question why certain things exist. I think it’s great that if someone tells me about a restaurant, I can go on Google and look up the menu, like, “Cool, I’m going to check this out.” But I liked when I didn’t know anything about a restaurant—I would take the train to a neighborhood, walk around, collect menus, and then pick one to eat at. I remember going to Brighton Beach, going to Flushing, the Heights. Like, “Okay, this Malecon place looks poppin’. Everybody’s coming in and out, that chicken looks crazy, the mofongo is crazy.” And I just plop my fat ass down and I try it. [Laughs.] It was a lot of fun, there was discovery, and then restaurants could survive because there weren’t websites saying, “Fuck everything in the neighborhood, this is the one.”
A lot of those websites make it too easy for people. “It’s Friday night, let me look at the 38 most poppin’ restaurants, get a table for two, and smash in three hours.” There’s not much soul to it. There’s not much exploration or discovery. Anytime something is too easy, you have to question it. Sites like that have made gentrification much easier and faster. There are a lot of restaurants opening and closing. I think you see trends proliferating too fast because it’s a hype machine. Look at what websites did to sneaker culture. As soon as you make it easy for people to get into your culture, you’ve sold it. The sneaker culture is sold. Before it was a culture created by insiders. Now it’s a culture created by outsiders for outsiders. Where’s the narrative?
That’s a good correlation. You don’t feel special anymore. Everybody seems to be up on the latest kicks and the latest fusion restaurant. Food and kick game getting played out.
It is played out. The '90s for kids like us was all about being left out, not being fly, just thirsting. I was the thirstiest cat ever in middle school. I felt physical pain because I didn’t have Raptors or the Bugs Bunnys. In the early 2000s, [the sneaker scene was] like that fly chick in high school that didn’t want nothing to do with you and then you became a man after college, and she started fucking with you. But then by '07, she laced the whole neighborhood. You don’t feel special anymore. I feel like restaurants are like that too now. Played out.
Last question: Can you elaborate on a quote you had about rappers giving bad wine advice on the “Burgundy” episode?
Most things in life I learned from rap music, but it’s led me to some really bad wines. [Laughs.] I love Future, but you know in that song “Lowlife”? He says something like, “Woke up, took a sip of Ace of Spades like it’s water.” Yo, Future—let’s talk about Ace of Spades, because it really does taste like water. That’s not fire champagne. You go to the club and see the hustlers buy bottles of Moët Imperial Rose; that shit is terrible. It tastes like strawberry juice. Moscato, too. As a kid I remember a rapper shouting out Mad Dog 20/20...shit’s disgusting. Wu-Tang shouting out St. Ides? Terrible. Prodigy with the E&G? Oh, god. Rappers shout out the worst drinks. Even Hennessy. Everyone drink VSOP when XO is where it’s at. As a community we need to put the youth onto some better alcohol. This is an epidemic in the culture. [Laughs.]