In the spirit of true Renaissance men, Eddie Huang resists labels — even if they accurately describe what he does. Whether writing, cooking, running a business or hosting a TV show, Huang insists that he's just "living life," and that all his efforts fall under the goal of understanding and being understood by others.
His travel food show for the Viceland channel is perhaps the clearest manifestation of that mission. In "Huang's World," he travels around the world, bridging cultures through food. It's a revamped version of Huang's original series with Vice that was called "Fresh Off The Boat," not to be confused with Huang's memoir of the same title, or the ABC sitcom based on that memoir — hence the name change.
First things first: rap is clearly hugely important in your life. What has it taught you?
Well, language, and then a lot of my life lessons, too. I remember when I was in ninth grade, we got assigned "Julius Caesar" in school and I couldn't understand it. My teachers were always telling me, You're a smart kid, you do really well in math and science. But my vocabulary wasn't great. They said I was a stilted writer. My reading comprehension wasn't good. I remember having my mom take me to the library every day after school for two weeks to try to understand and read Shakespeare. I got really into it. I love Shakespeare.
But then I started realizing I haven't read any of these Shakespeare plays, I don't know a lot of the movies these kids watch. I had mad gaps in my American culture, but around 10th or 11th grade I said to myself, Stop feeling bad for not knowing what everybody else knows because you know basketball, rap music, Chinese food, Chinese culture and history more than anybody else in your school does, and you should stick to your strengths. That's what I did.
And how about wine?
[Laughter.] Tupac would shout out Alize and we would go to the store and steal Alize. Mad Dog, whatever. I was like, this s--t is disgusting.
So you started your wine connoisseurship by boosting bottles?
[Laughter.] Yeah, somewhere between Alize and Boone's Farm. But really, the sommelier Michael Madrigale has been very special to me. He hit me on Twitter after the New York Times reviewed [my restaurant] BaoHaus. And he's a hip hop head. He invited me to Bar Boulud, Daniel Boulud's restaurant. [Madrigale] is one of the foremost sommeliers in the world. He said, "You come up, I'll put on Tribe or whatever you want to listen to, and I want to teach you about wine." And he's been my selector ever since.
Your show, "Huang's World," is very much a continuation of that. It's a travel show, a food show. It feels a bit like Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" with a lot more attitude and swearing, and [showcasing] your taste. Is it an extension of your food series that you had on Vice that was originally called "Fresh Off The Boat"?
Yeah. I would say that the online show is the mix tape and ["Huang's World"] is the album. We worked for almost a good five years to develop this show.
Why so long?
Well, we wanted to take it seriously. Uncle Tony [Anthony Bourdain] has set the standard. He's paved the way and I think everyone has to respect that man. Because he broke it open. I have a different voice as a writer, and I write the whole show.
We had to build the team. That's the hardest part. It took Tony many years. It takes time because this is a band of brothers show. For us to create our own voice and our own style, and learn how to manifest it on the tape, it takes time.
Two things happen in the show. One is it's your own personal exploration and education. In the first episode you see how wine barrels are made and you talk about different vintages. Are you the substitute audience member who can't afford to go to Burgundy?
Yes. It's an immersive travel adventure. I want people that maybe aren't into wine, or maybe aren't even aware of Burgundy, to go with me and say, I don't know about wine, but I like Eddie. I'll go with him on this trip. I think wine, Burgundy, food — all the places, we go to Istanbul — these are things that people from all walks of life, colors, creeds, sexuality and socioeconomic levels should be able to understand. I really get upset at the inability for people to have global mobility. Immigration issues really bother me. And I think this show was one way for me to create a rabbit hole for people to go down and say, I'm going to save my money and one day I'm going to go see Burgundy.
It all comes from that experience I had as a kid. Anyone should be able to read Shakespeare, understand it and appreciate it. You need an intermediary. So that's what I try to do.
So what Shakespeare was to you as a kid, terroir could be to somebody who doesn't know anything about wine.
Absolutely. I think the key is not to try to stunt on people. I know the words, I keep a Google doc of all the wines I taste, and I write down all my notes when I drink. But when I show it to my friends, I'm not sharing my wine with them to impress them or make them feel lesser.
I had a professor back in the day who told me that the purpose of writing is to communicate. But if you communicate in a way that people can't be receptive to, then you're not a good writer.
Is there a satisfaction in cooking somebody a great meal, or serving them a nice wine, or doing a comedy bit or a TV show that is different? Or is it all about what that person takes away from what you have given them?
I think the most satisfying thing is to be understood. At BaoHaus, if I make a dish and an old grandmother comes in from Flushing and says, This reminds me of Taiwan, that's beautiful. She understands my experience and I understand hers. I get emails from people who are Puerto Rican or Ecuadorian and they say, I'm not just like you, but when I watch your show, I feel like this is my life. That warms me. That's why we do this. And when I write the book and people say, Hey, I can relate my relationship with my parents to yours. I grew up with domestic violence too and I never heard anybody say it in this way that feels like my voice — I love it. For me, I'm just trying to use all these ways to convey my feelings and hope to be understood, and that I'm understanding people as well.
I wanted to talk a little bit about "Fresh Off The Boat." We talked with Nahnatchka Khan — the showrunner for the ABC sitcom based on your memoir — and she said this about the controversial fallout you had with the show:
I think you have to understand where people are coming from. Neither of us have had our lives turned into a sitcom. It must be challenging. You have to sympathize with that.
What did you take away from that experience?
Nahnatchka really is a sweetheart. It's just unfortunate that we were brought together on this project, because Nahnatchka was hired to make an ABC sitcom. She's not used to somebody who has the underlying rights to the book, wants to come in and wants to redefine the Asian-American identity in America, break the shackles that we've had on us with our image.
I had really big dreams and goals for that show because it's something that I've thought of for a really long time, but I put myself in her shoes. She had just done "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23." It got canceled after two seasons. She's trying to make a hit.
I don't think it's Nahnatchka's fault. I think she and I had different agendas and we got put together. When they told me that it was going to be Nahnatchka, I [said], "I don't know if this is a fit." Ultimately, for me, it's not a fit. For the show, it is, and Nahnatchka has done a good job in what she's been asked to do. It's just not what I had envisioned.
You have a new book coming out. It's called "Double Cup Love." You relate a lot of personal stories. Some about going back to China, some about eating strange food like rabbit brains, a bit about smoking opium. How is this book a companion or not to [your first book] "Fresh Off The Boat"?
Well, it's definitely the bookend. In my mind, it's "Godfather II." This is going home. It's me going back to China and trying to figure out where I fit in this country — if I can reconcile the identities, or if I'm too far gone.
You also talk about the way in which you were raised. Specifically, you wrote that your dad would beat your mom. Which is very different from what we see on television in "Fresh Off The Boat." How important is that history to you and why do you feel it's important to share?
I mention it in the original book, "Fresh Off The Boat." But in the second book I really gave my soul up. I told my agent and editor, I'm never writing nonfiction again. It's just hard to walk around knowing people know [the truth]. The book hasn't even come out — just my friends [have] read it — but it even changes my relationships with them. They understand a lot more. But it's very raw.
When the ABC show didn't go hard with the domestic violence, or at least to the level that the first book did, Wesley Yang asked me about it. Wesley Yang wrote a profile on me when "Fresh Off The Boat" first came out. He said, "What do you think is missing?" I said, "I think it's the violence in the home." The first book is marred by violence. My identity is intertwined with it.
I can't expect anybody else to help me tell this story. I have to give this up. So that was hard. I'll say this for my pops: My goal was not to snitch on my dad. My dad is an incredible man. And I think that domestic violence is not understood in this country, especially in immigrant homes. You want people to be safe. Number one, safety is the number one concern. But I think that criminalizing it too quickly in certain circumstances really hurts the kids and the parents. I don't have an answer for how the system and the government and the institution can intervene in domestic violence, but I lived it, and I have a lot of opinions, and I write about it in the book.
It really feels like what you ultimately are is an anthropologist who's examining not only immigrant culture, music, this nation — but yourself.
Yeah, absolutely. And it's flattering that you say that, but I'll still stick to the fact that I think everybody is [an anthropologist], in a way. People can do anything. They're just things that you do.
How do you want people to change the way they see themselves or see you through the things that you create?
I don't really care how they see me. Sometimes it does bother me if I feel like they don't get it, because of course you want to be understood as a person. But I think the best is when people see themselves in me and my work. That would prove [my] hypothesis that humans are a lot more similar than they are different.
"Huang's World" premieres on Viceland on April 28. His new memoir, "Double Cup Love: On The Trail of Family, Food, And Broken Hearts in China," is out on May 31.