Eddie Huang wants some purple rice. It’s not that the 31-year-old chef and iconoclast has anything against white rice, but we’re in New York City’s Koreatown, where anyone with gastronomic chops should know what’s up when it comes to that dish. So when Huang sees lily-white grains delivered to the table in little melamine bowls, he interrupts the discussion about his reputation as a culinary badass – “I have times I go crazy and times I don’t” – to, well, go a bit crazy.
“Uh, purple rice, purple rice, please,” he says to a waiter. “I want the purple rice.”
“Purple rice?” the man asks in wobbly English.
Huang nods emphatically. “The other rice. Purple rice. It’s better.”
The man hurries off to locate the purple rice, and Huang turns back to his steaming seafood hot pot. “When there’s American people, they assume that you want the white rice. It’s fucked up,” he says with righteous indignation. “It’s fucked up, dude.”
In fact, there are quite a lot of things that Huang thinks are fucked up. He’s just come from a session with his personal trainer, and one thing that is definitely wack is his trainer’s sense of timing. (“You added an extra 10 seconds,” Huang had panted while lunging repeatedly on and off a tall wooden box. “Yo, this motherfucker can’t count for shit!”) Then there’s the fact that he needs personal training to counteract the occupational hazards of his job. (“The lifestyle is so unhealthy. A lot of these chefs, they look like they’re just sweating food. Dude, you’re killing yourself!”) And then there are the expectations, the “stupid stereotypes,” of how a chef should be. (“Oh, chefs have bad tempers, chefs are crazy, chefs have weird hours. I’m just so sick of the labels.”)
With a toboggan cap that reads uptown wildlife, a hulking Star of David pinkie ring (he’s not Jewish, just likes the look of it), and a hip-hop inflection (“I don’t know another way to talk. If I did, I’d be parroting white people”), Huang certainly isn’t playing the part of the pretentious chef in the toque blanche – though he is part of a movement that’s bringing high-end, well-sourced ingredients to what has traditionally been considered low-end cuisine. BaoHaus, the East Village restaurant Huang co-owns with his brother, steams its bao, or stuffed buns, on lotus leaves, and gets its meat from swanky purveyor Pat LaFrieda; but it has the pared-down feel of a college hangout and courts rowdy, late-night carousers over banker types. “I want people to know I’m serving kind of an anti-establishment customer,” Huang says. “I need them to feel that.” The counter takes up half the restaurant, the hip-hop soundtrack plays loud enough to beckon those passing on the street, and the menu consists mainly of Taiwanese street food. The restaurant’s signature item, its famous $4 pork bun, came about because, as Huang once said, he “did what every culture does when Americans can’t understand something: I put it on bread.”
Huang’s edginess has been a large part of his appeal. He’s friends with star chefs Tom Colicchio and Anthony Bourdain (who has called him a “very, very sharp, funny guy”). According to Sam Sifton, former restaurant critic at the ‘New York Times’, he’s “a classic inside-outsider in the food world” who may have a “tricked-out fast-food joint” more than a serious culinary offering, but who still resonates: “He’s a personality. He’s an ambassador of the delicious.” If he’s known as much for his outspokenness as he is for his cuisine, that’s by design. The oldest son of Taiwanese immigrants, Huang admits that what he wanted more than a restaurant was a platform. “I’m interested in the culture of eating,” he’s written on his blog. “I am not a chef.” Though his father was a restaurateur in Orlando, Florida – and a former member of a Taiwanese street gang – Huang learned to cook in his mother’s kitchen and never considered attending culinary school. “I don’t want to go to school. There’s not anything that any of these chefs in school know that you can’t find out from [the seminal cookbook by] Harold McGee.” Believing the kitchen to be one of the few places where American culture allows Asians to shine, he simply wanted to exploit that stereotype in order to debunk it.
And in a lot of ways, he has. His best-selling memoir, ‘Fresh Off The Boat,’ has less to do with cooking than it does with following Huang on a roundabout quest for identity: He’s worked as a drug dealer and a stand-up comic, and earned both a law degree and a felony conviction for aggravated assault. (A second book, which will track Huang and his brother as they attempt to become food vendors in Beijing, is in the works.) In his Web series on Vice.com – billed as a “genre-bending venture into subculture through the lens of food” – the food takes a major backseat to the subculture and allows Huang to riff on and explore whatever happens to be of interest to him. In one episode, he hunts rabbits with the East Bay Rats, a biker gang from Oakland; in another, he debates the merits of Taiwanese independence.
His interest in food resides in its ability to be a gateway to culture, a marker of race and identity – the topics that interest him most. His pet peeve is when chefs try to “refine” or “redefine” the cuisine of a culture they don’t understand – when Jean-Georges Vongerichten uses Asian flavors to spice up his French techniques or Swedish-raised Marcus Samuelsson tackles soul food. In such cases, Huang calls it like he sees it: “imperialism in a sauté pan.”
His views, and his willingness to splay them out publicly over the internet and in print, have not always endeared him to a culinary establishment that he refuses to pussyfoot around: “I just think it’s kind of bullshit – ‘best chef for this, best chef for that.’ It costs money to submit for a James Beard Award. So those guys are kind of competing among this little fraternity.” Certainly, Huang’s career has had some highs – even literally, as when he and his friends hot-boxed BaoHaus’ original location (shutting the doors and smoking pot until the air was hazy enough to give a contact high), or threw a Four Loko party to protest that drink’s ban. It’s also had some lows. Xiao Ye, his attempt at a sit-down restaurant, closed after lackluster reviews (including a goose egg from Sifton, to which Huang responded in agreement and with good humor). He also gave up a show on the Cooking Channel when it became clear that the producers expected him to tone down his swaggering style and play nice with their other culinary celebrities. “I could have been like Asian Guy Fieri, but when I did the first pilot, I wanted to go to Styles P’s juice bar in the Bronx, and they were like, ‘No, we don’t want you to have any hip-hop acts on the show. We don’t want you to be that far over there.'”
Huang walked. If the whole point was to be authentic – to his culture, his cuisine, and himself – he wasn’t going to jeopardize that for network executives. And anyway, he’s not sure if his future is even in the kitchen. “I would love to be a professor or a teacher or the mayor of Chinatown. I think that would be cool, you know? I definitely don’t see myself being like, ‘Uh, I’m gonna redefine food in this country.’ I could give a fuck less.”