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Eddie Huang Talks “New BaoHaus” and Race vs. Culture
“But before there was a memoir or radio shows denouncing what Huang describes as the “cult-like atmosphere of TED Talks,” there was BaoHaus, Huang’s now legendary Taiwanese restaurant.”
If he isn’t already, then Eddie Huang is certainly on his way to becoming a ubiquitous figure in the world of “celebrity chefs.” Through the release of his memoir Fresh Off The Boat, his online series of the same name, and his unrelenting knack for controversy, Huang has captured the attention of both the food and larger internet community.
But before there was a memoir or radio shows denouncing what Huang describes as the “cult-like atmosphere of TED Talks,” there was BaoHaus, Huang’s now legendary Taiwanese restaurant. While the original BaoHaus was a fixture on the Lower East Side, last year Huang moved the shop to a slightly larger location in New York’s East Village. That in mind, it wasn’t until now that Huang was able to recreate the space in a way he thought was on par with the quality of the offerings.
Our interview with Huang begins with us discussing these renovations as well as his executive decision to return the menu to its OG status, instead relying on monthly specials to bring loyal customers exciting new dishes that inform diners of Eddie’s past and inspire them to try new things. From there, we dive into much of what has made Eddie Huang a name to remember — his views on the appropriation of various foreign cultures in American restaurants, the Barclays Center, even Bon Appetit Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapaport, whom Huang claims wrote “one of the worst articles” he’s ever read.
Read our interview with Eddie Huang in its entirety below.
About the BaoHaus renovations & the wooden graffiti wall panels…
Well, with the old BaoHaus and with this new location, we never had any money. So now that I could afford to make these changes I wanted to. We’ve always wanted to do this with the spot. We went all-black and things like that, because it’s dope to have this look without having to go to the Barclays Center. It’s like Barclays, but it’s great because the Nets aren’t here. I like Deron Williams though.
The new wooden graffiti wall panels…
What happened in the bathroom [here] was just natural. People just bombed the shit out of it. It kind of was dope, so I just thought, “Why don’t we integrate that into the rest of the restaurant?” It’s very played out to have featured artists [in a restaurant] and I don’t really like the featured artist thing. This is more like a restaurant that is the people’s champ, so I wanted to let people to contribute to the restaurant itself, so we kind of gave them the space to do it. We’re going to actually keep these and save this. I like these a lot. People asked me you know, “Why’d you make it so high? You could have made them smaller.” And I just told them that real bombers will get up there.
So when they fill up you’re going to change them out?
Yeah once they get full we’re going to change them out and save them. Then you can like look at them over time, seeing all the new people who are coming in.
The original BaoHaus menu & what makes it to the menu…
Going back to the original BaoHaus menu…
I realized that this is still only 475 square feet. It’s very small. I always like specials, and when I did the Monday night specials at the original BaoHaus [on Rivington Street], it was dope. Like the Loco Moko chicken, people loved that. When we came here, we thought we could commit to a larger full-time menu. But by committing to the larger standard menu, we never had the room or space to do specials. I felt like it kind of got stagnant, and that a lot of our guys got stagnant when we didn’t have specials and we didn’t have things changing. The energy in the restaurant, and the energy among cooks is always better when they have specials – if anything just to keep them sharper, and keep their skills sharper. I was like, now that I’ve finished the book, now that I have the time, let’s go back to the original menu with four baos. We’re also going to do six to eight specials month. Those specials will switch every month. That way, people are really trying new things. But, most of the things we’re going to do are going to be things I grew up eating. The main-through line of this restaurant will continue to be to introduce people to food that parents schooled me on. The other thing is going to be something new like the coffin bao fried chicken. It’s kind of that funky, late-night, American, munchies, stoner shit. You know, I always liked my Cheetoh fried chicken [at the now closed Xiao Ye]. That’s what I think young people want to eat, like some crazy drunken stoner food. And that’s not what our entire restaurant is about, but once a month we want to put that out for people.
Most of what you do and what you preach is sort of about being “authentic” to the things you grew up with, but you’re also OK with things like Cheetoh fried chicken. How do you decide what is an acceptable form of American culture that can make it to the BaoHaus menu?
It’s really more of a reflection of me. I’ve really tried to stop arguing about the word ‘authentic.’ It’s more about power and the cultural dynamics, who is owning it and who is controlling the conversation, who is directing the culture, and where is it coming from?
With the specials, a lot of the things are about where I’m from, so I’d say about 80 percent of the specials are education, and then 20 percent of the specials are like, the mixtape. You’re experimenting, but you’re trying out new things because you want to respect the past but you also need to remember to innovate. Also I’m very influenced by like, going to Taiwan, and seeing that those people aren’t stuck in the past. They’re constantly creating things for that palette, and for that kind of culture. In Taiwan I realized they’re not caught up about authenticity, they’re not caught up about who it’s for, because they’re not insecure about it. In America undoubtedly, as a person of color or as an immigrant here, you kind of have to fight it a little because the things you do are so easily co-opted. So you have to be aware, and you have to always question what you’re doing.
Food from other cultures & repurposing them for the American palette…
So has your experience in Taiwan shifted your opinion on people in America taking foods from other cultures and repurposing them for the American palette?
It hasn’t shifted my opinion. It’s reminded me that for the past three years of my life, I’ve devoted myself to speaking about people owning their own cultures that they’ve created, that they came over with, and educating people about the foundational values in culture. For instance, Chinese food is about Chinese values. But going back to Taiwan reminds me to innovate. My life is not about just emulating what I grew up on. I’ve always been that way I think though, like I’ve never been the Confucian kid doing exactly what my parents say. I think that I very much have always been this split, like a 70/30 split, where the food is always for me and me, my brother and my family. It’s for our palette. In terms of the environment, and the ambiance, and the music, that’s clearly very American.
“It hasn’t shifted my opinion. It’s reminded me that for the past three years of my life, I’ve devoted myself to speaking about people owning their own cultures that they’ve created, that they came over with, and educating people about the foundational values in culture.”
Is there a proper way to co-opt or appropriate another culture as an American of dominant culture, particularly in terms of opening a restaurant?
No I think you should go create your own shit. Like why can’t you just go make your own shit? Like why don’t people who grew up in America make American food? Like there’s Taiwanese food [in America], but no one has tried to be like, “What is American food?” Like Thanksgiving is dope. Thanksgiving is amazing. Southern American food is amazing. These things were influenced a lot by African techniques, but I think a large backbone of American food culture is from Africa. There have been movements in American food. If you go to India, or you go to Thailand, or you go to China, and you live there for a while and you want to come back and share with people, that’s cool. There’s Korean dishes I want to make. But the thing is that if I were to do that I would make it very clear that I’m Chinese, this a Korean dish, and I probably don’t do it as well as other people. That’s a tough question for me to answer for the HYPEBEAST community. That’s more of a question for The Atlantic or something.
There was a funny moment when you were on Alex Wagner [on MSNBC] and you sort of had it out with [Bon Appetit Editor-In-Chief] Adam Rapaport when he said you had “appropriated” African-American culture. I just want to bring up the example of [the Mario Batali restaurant] Babo again which Rapaport cited as a restaurant that’s aware of its own inauthenticity and doesn’t seem to care.
For the record, that dude Adam Rapaport is also the one, and you should look up this article, who pitched and was the primary foundation for this article about “duditors” — Dude-Editors. It was hands down one of the worst articles I’ve ever seen. You should definitely peep that shit. Just to see what’s between that dude’s legs.
Is the mainstream introduced to another non-American culture by a white person fair, will people know and respond to what’s real & respecting the source and culture…
Is it fair if a white person in America introduces the mainstream to another non-American culture?
Well let’s go back to the original white boy, Marco Polo. Marco Polo got gunpowder from China, which was only being used for things like fireworks and look what happened. Look what happened, B. I’m not an arbiter, I’m not a judge, I’m just saying like look at history. This is what I want people of color to know. And the thing that I think you’re doing that is unproductive is trying to draw lines and make rules and I don’t think rules are very productive. But the thing I want people of color to know is that you don’t need a white man to cross you over [to the mainstream]. You can cross you over from start to finish. That’s why when I came out with BaoHaus I had the Twitter, I had the blog, and if you had any questions about the message then hit me. And I respond to individuals all the time. It’s not about if it’s OK for white people or whatever, it’s not about white people. It’s about dominant culture, because dominant culture will always try to appropriate your shit. It’s going to happen. Some “Great White Hope” is going to come around like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai and do this shit. There are already people out there trying to do specialized baos and shit and you can see how corny it is. This, here, this is the real. You’ve seen how many brands [that] have tried to jack Supreme and shit, but there’s only one Supreme, and there’s only one BaoHaus.
“I don’t think rules are very productive. But the thing I want people of color to know is that you don’t need a white man to cross you over [to the mainstream]. You can cross you over from start to finish.”
And ultimately you think people know and will respond to what’s real?
Yeah. And at the end of the day, it’s not about black versus white or whatever. It’s more about The Man and the individual. Like you’re down. If you wanted to come work here, I’d teach you, because you would have that heart and soul and the values I have. And that’s the important thing, is the respect for it. Like Andy Ricker [of Pok Pok] got the respect for it. The thing is, when shit starts to pop off and you start to become an enabler and you start to open the flood gates to the shiny suits, you’ve got to know when to close that gate. If you’re going to enable it, then you better know when to turn the faucet off. I think Jay-Z is a good example. Like I hate the Barclays Center. I think it’s Brooklyn Epcot. I feel like if you want to rep Brooklyn, don’t rep the most obvious thing, which is Biggie on the voice over in the arena. Like Biggie is so obvious. And what is that like Brooklyn knight astronaut looking shit you have? That shit is disgusting. I think the best song to play for the opening is like, you turn the lights down, get Barclays to look like the theater, like [how they do it] at Madison Square Garden, and play fuckin’ Smif-N-Wessun’s “Bucktown.” Play “Bucktown.” That shit would be ill. That “Brooklyn We Go Hard” shit is so corny and obvious. That’s the type of shit that made Dave Chappelle stop doing Chappelle’s Show, where people are cheering the wrong way, people are laughing the wrong way. Like, you have upper-middle class MFA holders with cats in the stands yelling like, “Where Brooklyn at?! Where Brooklyn at?!” That ruined my childhood. That raped my childhood.
So it’s about respect to the source and respect to the culture. Hence that’s why you think Pok Pok is great and P.F. Chang’s isn’t. But is someone not allowed to eat some $30 square plate dish that co-opts another culture and think it’s delicious? Should they feel bad about that?
You want to eat tasty food but you have to remember the advantages dominant culture affords you. You may want and can have everything, but should you? Is it worth making [Americanized] baos that people of your reference group appreciate if it really comes off disrespectful to people who brought it over or schooled you on the culture? I don’t know. Dominant culture already has “everything,” does it also need to rape baos? That’s my thing. I think it’s funny how white people want the freedom to do everything and forget how it infringes on other peoples’ opportunity to exercise their freedom and enjoy the things the way they’re used to. This is gentrification, co-optation, and “The Social Contract” all in one question. Peep John Locke.