Eddie Huang has done a lot in his 30 years. He’s been a lawyer and designed streetwear; he owns a New York City restaurant, BaoHaus, writes a blog, hosts a Web show, and has now written a memoir, Fresh Off the Boat (Spiegel & Grau).
I’ve always known I would write this book,” Huang says of his latest accomplishment. He started writing in the ninth grade after being assigned to read Julius Caesar. He had trouble making sense of it, which motivated him—and adversity has continued to motivate him. About Fresh, he says, “I felt like this Asian-American story had to be told. No one was telling it, and there is no one I can relate to.” Huang compares his adolescence to the comic book character Professor X: “You know you’re a mutant, but you also know there are others out there, you can’t be the only one. That’s why I wanted to write.”
His passion and enthusiasm are obvious upon first meeting. Huang, known for his outspokenness, has a sharp sense of humor. He’s also sweet and charming and smiles easily, excited about what he’s accomplished, especially with his book, and always looking forward to what’s coming next.
A first-generation American, Huang was born in 1982 in Washington, D.C., to young immigrant parents from Taiwan and grew up the eldest of three boys (he has two brothers, Evan and Emory) in a large, extended family with two sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Huang struggled throughout his childhood on many levels. Money was tight, and his parents “had a lot of trouble with each other, and split up for a while.” The family moved to Orlando, Fla., in 1989, after his father got a job as a restaurant cook. In his book, Huang says, “those first few years in Orlando, I hated being Chinese.”
He constantly felt like “the other,” attending both public and private school, neither of which had many, if any, Asian students and he was constantly getting into trouble. Feeling like an alien shaped his early years, and he says he inhabited two different worlds, which was confusing: the outside world, where everyone was white, and his home, which was very traditional Chinese. “It wasn’t that I totally didn’t want to be Chinese, but I was curious. I wanted to figure out what it meant to be Chinese, Taiwanese, the names felt very hollow to me.” His house “felt like being in China, with pictures hanging of my grandfather, jade dragons, and bamboo.” The family watched Chinese television. Huang loved basketball, football, and hip-hop music, which he and his brother listened to “because there wasn’t anything else that welcomed us in, made us feel like home.”
Rap music had “a lot about family drama, domestic violence, being picked on, and I lived that. There was a lot I could relate to in the music.” One of the first persuasive, argumentative essays Huang ever wrote was in 1997, comparing the band Nirvana to rappers Tupac and Easy E, and discussing the double standard Huang believed existed, where things could be said in rock and roll, but not in hip-hop. “Black culture has been a huge influence in my life,” he says. Huang often got into physical fights at school, lashing out, tired of being taunted. In one of the most emotional chapters in the book Huang describes being teased about the Chinese food he brought to school for lunch. “A kid threw me down on the ground and I lost it. It was a huge, pivotal time in my life because I thought, we’re trying; you have these things brought from home, and they’re being made fun of.” The experience, Huang says, was extremely painful, but set his life on a different course. “I’m giving up my food, trying to be like you, buying your cultural products, and you throw me on the floor? It took me almost 20 years to be able to give people the benefit of the doubt again, and to see that, yes, there are good people out there.”
Despite his disciplinary problems, in ninth grade Huang was put in a gifted program, and during the summers he took college courses. That’s where he discovered Jonathan Swift and says the first time he read A Modest Proposal, “it wasn’t writing anymore, it was live.” He related to the author who he felt “told his story in the most raw, real, and personal way possible.” Reading Swift, Huang says, helped him find his voice and gave him the confidence to use it. Meanwhile, Huang’s father got him a job working at his restaurant.
He attended the University of Pittsburgh for a year and then Rollins College in Orlando, but after being arrested (for aggravated assault with a motor vehicle) Huang’s parents sent him to Taiwan as “part of a program that officially went by the name of Study Tour.” He hadn’t been in Taiwan since he was 12, and the trip had a profound effect. Without his American friends watching over him, Huang says, “I allowed myself to encounter a part of myself I’d lost, shunned, and cast aside years ago. I had to shed my skin in America if I ever wanted to reclaim it on my own terms that summer in Taiwan.”
Taiwan made Huang look at food in a whole new way. Feeling happy and reconciled, he returned to the states determined to find a place for himself. Next was Cardozo Law School: “I wasn’t meant to be an attorney, but I was meant to go to law school.” Huang focused on the discipline and logic of the law and at the same time launched a streetwear company, Hoodman. After graduating in 2009, he worked as a lawyer and as a standup comedian. Yet food was still a huge part of Huang’s life, and after sending a recipe for skirt steak to the Food Network, he was cast for the show Ultimate Recipe Showdown. He lost the competition, but decided to open a restaurant. Food, he realized, was a unifying force. It was what mattered most.
And moving to New York in 2005 was an important step. From his first day here, Huang says, he was happy. “New York felt to me like what America should be, a representation of the world in this small pocket.”
The trauma he recounts in his book was not without benefit, Huang says. “Suffering made me who I am.” If he hadn’t spent so much time feeling like “the other,” he explains, “I wouldn’t be as passionate, I wouldn’t care as much, I wouldn’t have wanted to write.” He’s comfortable in his own skin now, identifying himself as a Taiwanese-Chinese person. “I don’t care what people think of me, if they know the real me,” he says, and labels are a huge source of contention. He doesn’t like his book being called a “food memoir.” “It’s inaccurate because I think the book is a reflection of the 21st century, what America is, what it means to be American, what it means to be Chinese, Taiwanese.”
People often accuse him of being fame-hungry, and of not being a real chef. “This book was not written to get famous” is his answer to those criticisms. “It was painful, and very personal. There are much easier ways to get famous.” The book served as a kind of therapy for Huang; he believes he’s on a mission, and that he speaks through food, and through his writing, his blog, and his Internet show Fresh off the Boat, for which he travels the world exploring other cultures through their cuisine. “I like being on camera, performing, seeing what people have in common.” As for not being a real chef, Huang says, he doesn’t need to be in his restaurant kitchen all day to be considered a real chef. (He co-owns BaoHaus on East 14th Street with his brother.) “I go in, I create new dishes, I train people how to make them, I innovate, I taste, and I trust.” He says he would like to write another book and open another restaurant eventually. But for the moment, his plate is, as they say, full.