At the age of 34, Eddie Huang has hosted a successful web series, written two books, opened his own restaurant, designed for his own streetwear company, and traveled across the globe for his VICELAND show Huang’s World. He’s a busy man. With the publication of his second book, Double Cup Love: On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China, earlier this month, and the season finale of Huang’s World last week, we caught up with him at VICE’s headquarters to talk food, travel and what’s in store next for this NYC hustler. Be sure to catch up on the entire first season of Huang’s World now available on VICELAND (Ch. 271), and grab a copy of Double Cup Love!
You’ve traveled to so many amazing places throughout the years—for this season in particular, what place made the biggest impression on you?
I feel like the most inspiring, was the trip to China. I visited two places in China that I’d never been to—where my mother’s side of the family is from, and where my dad’s side of the family is from. Jamaica was probably the most fun, because I really like Jamaican culture and the activities we did. The Caribbean, I mean you can’t beat that.
The place that was the most hectic, climactic, and where I learned the most about food was Sicily. Sicily was very intense, and we learned a lot. Forza Nuova was chasing us around the island the entire episode. Even after we had a falling out with them—we had to leave our hotels, re-book hotels, and go to different cities because they were threatening to follow us. When we left the police station, they were following us. It was insane to shoot a show in a foreign country, with a white supremacist group tailing us pretty much the whole time.
What do you think is the biggest mistake Americans make when they’re traveling abroad?
I think the biggest mistake people make while traveling is not listening. When you go to a country, listen to the locals, absorb it, do it their way. Don’t worry about like, “I have to do it this way. This is the way I do things.” Give yourself up to the journey. I think a lot of Americans have pre-conceived notions, very programmed ideas, of how life works, how humanity and society work, how food works, and you have to give yourself up to the journey. The purpose is to lose yourself to find yourself again—that’s what I think travel is about.
I also think a huge mistake tourists make is to go to all the Michelin type restaurants, because they’re really just replicas of the same thing you have in large urban metropolises back home. It’s the same people carrying the same luxury brands, the same restaurants using the same in-season ingredients, doing some sort of variation of evolved French cooking. It’s like, why bother? If I’m eating, I want to eat local. I want to eat things that I can’t get back home.
Do you hope to inspire people to get out of their comfort zone, and try something different?
You know yesterday this woman in my neighborhood in her late 30s, pops out of her car. She’s got kids and stuff. She pops out and says, “Hey, I just want you to know I booked my tickets to China because of your show.” I was like, “Oh. The China episodes airs tomorrow. It’s not out yet!” She goes, “I know. I saw the trailer and I saw the clips on Instagram, and it was so exciting, so I booked my trip to China!” She told me, “I’ve never been, but it just looks unlike anything I’ve ever seen and I have to go see it.” That was really amazing to hear.
Do you have a travel or culinary bucket list, and if so, what’s on it?
Yes. My bucket list is hilarious, because the thing is, I haven’t had a pleasure vacation in a long time. I want to see the Maldives before it goes underwater. It’s kind of insane that there’s a place that’s going to disappear in a few decades, and it’s super sad, so I would love to see the Maldives. I’m funny. So much of my work is talking to people. I just like to travel and talk to fish. I’ll go to Hawaii and snorkel and just talk to fish, or just listen to what’s going on in the ocean.
You need some serenity.
I need serenity, and I’m very into nature sounds. I want to go to South America and hang out with tribes. We’re looking at Amazon tribes, Peruvian tribes. I’m into that kind of thing. Mongolia was one of my favorites because it’s the least densely populated place in the world, so I’m into very isolated spots. I would like to climb Kilimanjaro. I visit a lot of urban centers for work, and the food cultures are mostly found in larger densely populated countries, so for the show, we try to go to those places. But when it comes to my own travels, I’m not really doing it for food as much since it’s my job. I’m traveling really for spirituality in a way, so I’m into the more spiritual journeys that are very solitary. Just me and the universe.
You’ve mentioned that your parents were huge influences on you and your career, but who else has inspired you?
Cam’ron. I’ve used Cam’ron quotes as the opening quotes for both of the books I’ve written. I just think he’s so funny. I always think tragedy is easy, comedy is hard, and he is the wittiest rapper I’ve heard, so he’s always up there. Charles Barkley was always really influential in my life. As a kid, I loved Charles. He was always very unabashedly himself. Junot Diaz has been a big influence on my writing. Master Yu is the chef that I met in Sichuan, and he was also in our season two Chengdu episode. Master Yu is my biggest culinary inspiration.
In terms of television, I definitely think Anthony Bourdain is at the top of my list. He was the one that showed networks that they could make money with a very literary narrative around food. I don’t write anything like Tony—my voice is totally different, but the fact that he was like, “Hey, I think food and travel television are worthy of a literary treatment,” was very revolutionary. It’s very funny because his format has been adopted by so many people, and so many channels. Every hack that you’ve met in fashion or music or food or whatever is like, “I have a travel show idea,” and it’s like, “You can’t tell a story.” I think the great storytellers put other people, the communities and the story ahead of themselves. A lot of these cats that host travel shows, it’s about their ego and they’re putting that ahead. I think the great ones, they tell the story. It’s about the story, and so he is hands down my biggest inspiration in terms of travel and stuff like that.
It seems like there’s always some kind of “ethnic” food trend emerging in New York, whether it’s Thai-rolled ice cream or Salvadorean pupusas. You’ve talked about New York being a place for culinary discovery, but where do you feel like you draw the line? What’s defined as celebration versus a co-option of culture?
I think it’s all about intention. When you’re serving a food and you’re like, “I want to cook Peruvian food for the West Village,” that’s an appropriation. That’s a co-option. When you’re like, “I want to cook Peruvian food in the West Village for people that like Peruvian food—people that know Peruvian food, and everyone else can catch up,” that’s doing it. You’re doing it, because I think the thinking for political correctness, appropriation and co-option are all the same logic. You’re applying the same logic to different things.
I’ve always said for comedians, writers, whoever, if you want to tell racial jokes about another race, make sure that they enjoy and they laugh with you. You can’t laugh at people. That’s not your joke to tell. If you’ve lived within this culture, you live amongst these people and you have similar frustrations being a part of that community, you can tell the joke because they’re going to laugh with you. They’re going to laugh with you or be inspired to laugh with you, and I think cooking is the same way.
I really don’t like it when a chef is taking food from another region, and “elevating” it. That’s such a shitty word. That means you’re cleaning it up, sanitizing it, to serve to another community. That’s not the purpose of that food. That food was created to serve this community and this region, so if you want to serve the people in your region, then serve them your fucking food. It’s so upsetting and it’s a disservice to everyone involved. White people don’t get to know the real thing. They get fed a bastardized baby infant version, and they’re ignorant. People want to know the real thing. I’ve never eaten with foreign people, and then been like, “Hey, can you give me the shittier version of your food?”
Chefs are talking down to people, and they’re also not taking on the challenge and responsibility of being a chef. The responsibility of being a chef is distributing culture, and if you’re not going to take on that responsibility, and you’re going to dumb it down and water it down so it’s easier for you to distribute, you’re selling crack cocaine. That’s what you’re doing. You’re stepping on it.
You’ve gone from web series to a TV show, and you’ve written two books now. Is there any other form of media that you’re itching to try your hand at?
Film. I wrote a screenplay. I’m into scripted. I have my life story. Whatever happened to my life story is what happened, but I want to write stories. I’m into writing fiction, and it’s freed me up. It’s totally different. I haven’t done fiction. I’ve always been focused on non-fiction, memoir, travel. I think getting into fiction, scripted work and experiential storytelling is the next evolution of my writing.
Catch up on the entire first season of Huang’s World now available on VICELAND (Ch. 271), and grab a copy of Double Cup Love!