APRIL 27, 2014
THE IDEA OF CHEF as both aesthete and rock star enjoyed a boost in 2000, when chef-turned-author Anthony Bourdain wrote his gritty, engaging exposé, Kitchen Confidential. The book became a bestseller and launched a whole new industry for Bourdain as well as a new age of visibility for the men and women who wear the white toque. A pair of notable recent memoirs, one of them published by Bourdain’s imprint at Ecco Press, trace the rise of two stars in both the kitchen and without: Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang and L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi. Huang runs BaoHaus on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, dishing out Taiwanese-inspired meat buns, while Choi achieved fame in Southern California, via the short-rib Korean taco served up by his Kogi BBQ truck empire.
The timing of their two memoirs appearing last year within six months of one another is surely coincidental, but the chefs share several notable traits. They are both the children of Asian immigrants, and they both grew up disillusioned by suburban America. Both came to fame on their transformations of “ethnic” street food into something more haute. Both even write with the same kind of terse, propulsive prose of a hardboiled novelist as well as drawing upon hip-hop-inflected jokes and slang to add some punch and street cred.
Where they depart from one another is where they would seemingly have the most in common: in their relationship to food, race, and identity.
For his part, Huang opened BaoHaus with his brother Evan in 2009 and became as well known for his pugnacious attitude as for his $4 take on the gua bao (pork belly buns). He never embraced an identity as a chef and strategically described himself as BaoHaus’s “proprietor.” Instead, Huang saw himself as someone who has more to say “as a writer than from behind a wok,” and he’s rarely run short for words.
To describe Huang as “outspoken” would be an understatement. Through a variety of outlets, he hasn’t only criticized HBO’s Girls (“elitist”) and celebrity chef Guy Fieri (“deserves a shot in the face”), but has taken on more respected colleagues in the New York culinary community, including David Chang and Marcus Samuelsson. Along the way, he’s established a mini-media empire that spans shows on the Cooking Channel, essays for The New York Observer and the ESPN spin-off, Grantland.com, not to mention his blog, the new memoir and his Vice TV series, all of the same name. He also has a sitcom in development at ABC, based on the memoir, that’s nominally entitled Far East Orlando. In short, Huang has become a prolific and savvy media operator, a 21st-century trickster who deals out calculated doses of chaos.
Huang explained his agenda on his blog, writing:
I came in through the medium of food, but I’m dying for people to understand the concepts we talk about outside the context of food. It’s not about Chefs and Rockstars, Chefs and Music, or Chefs and Authenticity. What I’m really interested in is the evolution of culture and its relationship with race, economics, and power. It just so happens that food is the most interesting starting point for this discussion today (in my opinion).
That last point — that food has become a proxy for all kinds of social debates — is astute, and he uses his memoir to explore that ground. Fresh Off The Boat isn’t a book about food so much as a treatise on race and masculinity, with food anecdotes sprinkled in.
Huang’s parents are part of what’s known as the waisenren generation from Taiwan, many of whom came to the United States in the 1960s and 70s. As one of three sons, Huang paints his parents in familiar Freudian shades: overbearing, castrating mother; distant, judgmental father, both of whom mix unrelenting expectations with shame/piety-based mind games. Huang seems motivated to both dutifully fulfill those demands and rebel against them; he wants to achieve “success” but on his terms: a classic generation gap tension.
Complicating matters is how Huang grew up in an affluent white suburb in southwest Orlando. He describes his subdivision as home to “twenty-first-century forty-niners digging for gold. […] Carpetbaggers with no culture or moral compass, enabled and empowered with new money.” Even though his family had been able to buy their way in, Huang felt it “was a world that treated us like deviants and we were outcast.” In high school he fought with local bullies, and his pugnaciousness continued into college, resulting in an assault charge midway through Huang’s matriculation at Florida’s Rollins College.
The incident catalyzes one of Huang’s first major “turning point” moments and in the aftermath, he threw himself into his studies, especially in feminist and ethnic studies. As he humblebrags, “I’m probably the only student on felony probation that won college awards for womens, African-American, and English studies.” Huang downplays his intellectual acumen yet strategically sneaks out reminders. He can quote Ghostface lyrics off the dome but also works in the random Audre Lorde reference, just to make sure you know he knows.
Huang’s thoughts on race and masculinity are provocative, but they often result in the memoir’s most muddled arguments. For example, take one of the jokes he told in a short-lived stand-up career and that he repeats here: “Bin Laden could get more money if he exploited fat-assed Arabic women like Kim Kardashian for his videos.” Explaining, Huang suggests, “I wanted people to understand how negative stereotypes that stigmatized black people could be used to empower Asian and Arabic people who had been considered model-minority types and vice versa,” conveniently avoiding that his punchline isn’t about Bin Laden or black people; it’s about women and their bodies. In his desire to challenge stereotypes around race, Huang tends to espouse all-too-conventional ideas around gender and sexuality.
Along these lines, Huang also tries to triangulate his relationship to Asian-ness and whiteness with a discussion of blackness, comparing his allegiances to the latter with “downward assimilation.” He writes, “I listened to 2Pac […] Our parents, Confucius, the model-minority bullshit, and kung fu-style discipline are what set us off. But Pac held us down,” adding later, “I didn’t listen to hip-hop for strategic reasons. I loved it, I needed it. Watching my white and Asian friends move away from hip-hop opened my eyes to this rite of passage that I was never going to join — the ascendance into whiteness.”
Putting aside the likelihood that very few hip-hop fans listen to the music “for strategic reasons,” there’s a discomforting fuzziness around Huang’s conflation of downwards/blackness and upwards/whiteness. I see why these ideas would be attractive to Huang as a counter to Asian American model minority stereotypes but they reify a pernicious set of stereotypes about blackness, which is precisely what Huang, elsewhere, argues he’s trying to oppose.
Moreover, for all the name-checking of feminist and African American authors and professors, his reading list is seemingly bereft of any Asian American equivalents. Even the sole Asian American book he mentions — Screening the Asian Male is mis-titled (presumably, he meant Peter X Feng’s 2002 book, Screening Asian Americans). While Huang constantly discusses race and Asian Americans via black cultural/historical references, from Jackie Robinson to Biggie to Zora Neale Hurston, there’s no hat tip to any Asian American writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers who have tilled the very same soil before him.
After all, Fresh Off the Boat,” commonly referred to by its acronym, “FOB” happens to share its title with a groundbreaking 1980 play about race and masculinity by Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang. Likewise, Huang’s reclamation of the term “Chinaman” made me instantly think of Frank Chin’s The Chickencoop Chinaman (1972), one of first Asian American plays to enjoy a major production in New York. Chin, especially, would seem like an obvious predecessor to Huang: an intelligent, acerbic writer, highly critical of how Asian men are depicted in popular culture, and a controversial standard-bearer for cultural authenticity who isn’t shy about calling out others as being less so.
These absences are especially glaring since Huang seems as vocally critical of other Asian Americans as he is of racist whites. The book is filled with jabs at “Uncle Chan/Tran” sell-outs, misguided Asian frat brothers, and apolitical Chinese cultural organizations. Yet, for someone who excoriates Asian American student groups for “spending the budget on bullshit mixers and networking events without any substantive cultural programming,” Huang’s own book fails to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, any prominent Asian Americans. Huang wants to suggest that “we’re not all model minorities,” but the only actual example he offers up is himself. The most generous interpretation is that his educational and media experiences never exposed him to many Asian American intellectual and cultural figures. In a roundabout way, that would actually prove his point about the marginalization of Asians within the United States.
This said, if Huang wants to set himself up as “the exception,” I heartily acknowledge that his was the first memoir I ever read where I felt parallels to my own life (and not just because I, like Huang, am also the hip-hop crazed scion of waisenren parents). He’s not wrong that the mainstream landscape for Asian American stories remains relatively barren, and so it’s no small thing for me to instantly recognize the Taiwanese summer program Huang attended, a.k.a “the love boat,” which got its reputation for the frequency of hook-ups that are rumored to happen amongst participants. Likewise, Huang ends the book with a joke about his parents praising him after BauHaus was reviewed by the American-based, Chinese language newspaper, World Journal. That’s a paper my parents — and all their friends — read daily. These are inside jokes that might be lost on non-Chinese/Taiwanese Americans but as the current memoir market isn’t exactly flooded with authors from that heritage, I don’t take it for granted when I can identify parts of myself in someone else’s story. As some of Huang’s (and my) favorite rappers might say: game recognize game.
Huang’s prose especially hums when he’s writing about food, but there’s less of that than you might expect. Given that Fresh Off the Boat is devoted more to Huang’s experiences growing up, it’s understandable that there’d be long stretches of his life where he wasn’t cooking or thinking about food (even if he was ironing frozen chimichangas as a post-marijuana munchie in college). That only makes the times when he does write about cooking stand out all the more. Some of the book’s best moments are when he’s describing the accidental process behind a braised skirt steak recipe that got him onto the Food Network’s radar, or musing on the “Ten Beef Noodle Soup Commandments”(#9: “always use either shank or chuck flap. Brisket is too tough”). Surprisingly, I came away thinking that while Huang will likely eschew the conventional “celebrity” cookbook, he’d likely write a compelling one, perhaps something closer in style to Roy Choi’s recipe-laden L.A. Son.
In Choi’s memoir, food and life are inseparable, with each autobiographical chapter ending with a selection of thematically linked recipes. For example, his recipe for kimchi stew (“it should be viscous and dreamy”) follows a chapter where he recounts his parents’ short-lived Korean restaurant in Anaheim, where the stew was a patron favorite. Later in the book, Choi talks about his ill-fated gig with the Century City Asian fusion restaurant, RockSugar, and follows that with recipes that include one for “Spam Banh Me.”
Choi’s sense of the power of food began early, thanks to his mother, whose jarred kimchi was so renown, she could hawk it at “house parities and bowling alleys and parking lots […] She was like the Avon lady, but instead of makeup, it was kimchi calling.” His parents’ restaurant, Silver Garden, only lasted a few years, but they unexpectedly bounced back in a massive way by becoming millionaire gem dealers, selling high-end jewelry to fellow Korean immigrants riding the economic waves of the early ’80s recovery. Suddenly flush with money themselves, Choi’s family moved to the tiny, exclusive city of Villa Park in Orange County, living in a mansion formerly owned by pitcher Nolan Ryan. As Choi put it, Villa Park was the type of town where, “almost every kid got a new car at sixteen, and girls actually attended a debutante ball. I was doomed.”
For both Choi and Huang, growing up in nouveau riche dystopias became formative events. While Huang used that disaffection to activate a politicized racial identity, Choi seemed to channel the rage more inward, resulting in a series of increasingly risky, self-destructive episodes: showing up to college classes high on weed and losing a week in New York to a crack binge. However, his most dangerous phase was in the mid-90s when Choi, then in his mid-20s, descended into degenerate gambling at various card tables around Los Angeles: “Without the game, I couldn’t breathe. I suffocated in open air […] I just needed to get my fix, to get back in there, to feel the felt on my fingers, the chips in my hand, then…ah.” Choi stole from family and friends to pay for the habit and even when he managed to stay away from gambling, he was still getting into drunken bar fights, leading to a revelatory moment where a chance viewing of chef Emeril Lagasse on television flipped a mental switch: “Bam, just like that, I knew…Food. Flavors…I saw myself in the kitchen. I saw myself at home.”
This marks the narrative halfway point in L.A. Son and what follows is a series of chapters that detail Choi’s professional career in cooking, beginning with attending culinary school in Poughkeepsie New York and ending with his creation of the Kogi taco. This is where some of the differences between Huang and Choi’s books become most pronounced. Choi delves far deeper into the interpersonal and business nuances of the restaurant trade. The single most compelling chapter in that vein may be where Choi recounts his first several gigs out of culinary school, mostly in resort settings, including the desert towns of Borrego Springs and Lake Tahoe. You get a visceral sense of how a hungry young chef learns to negotiate between his ambitions as a cook but also his need to connect with his customers. For some, it’s about James Beard Awards or Michelin stars but for Choi, he was happy to accept “fat grandma kisses and big grandpa hugs” from the retirees who simply wanted a classic but well-executed cobb salad.
The subtitle of L.A. Son is My Life, My City, My Food, and though Choi doesn’t devote quite as much to the “my city” part, what he includes is evocative. One of his frequent haunts during his gambling days was the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, part of Los Angeles’s own rust belt, southeast of downtown, and he paints a vivid scene of that area as “lower-middle-class towns submerged in smog and dust, dominated by raw industry. Meatpacking. Smelt. Metal. Rubber. Food processing.” Likewise, in a few scant paragraphs about eating out in Koreatown, he lays out the dizzying diversity of food options there, hinting at the sheer density of a neighborhood where a quick walk can take you from from black bean noodles that left “faces covered in black smudges,” to classic Korean BBQ cooked over “nuggets of smoldering mesquite” to chicken fried so crispy that “the skin broke like stained glass.” If these few passages don’t compel you to visit Los Angeles simply to binge through K-Town, I’m not sure what else would.
But given that Choi himself talks about his creation of the Kogi taco as “Los Angeles on a plate,” i.e. a two-bite dish meant to represent “Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift,” the book itself doesn’t quite do the same. His book may briefly give you a sense the vastness of Los Angeles but that’s an insight that could be more easily gleaned from a Mt. Wilson-shot postcard. What’s missing is a sense of the city’s linkages, fusion and crossings, i.e. those very inspirations that many chefs, Choi included, aspire to work into his “flavor profiles.” Kogi BBQ literally travels hundreds of miles across this geography five days a week. It would have been fascinating to have Choi comment on how he literally and figuratively sees the region differently based on the neighborhoods he’s visited and the people he found waiting for his trucks. L.A. Son is supposed to be about Choi’s city but you feel like he’s unintentionally holding back so much more than he realizes, like jars of food forgotten in the back of a fridge.
Part of the problem is that L.A. Son, like Fresh Off the Boat, ends with each author’s “great triumph,” Kogi and BaoHaus. I understand the logic of closing out a storyline in those places, but in both books, the ending felt abrupt and unsatisfying. It’s not just that you want to hear more from each writer, but those successes opened new kinds of experiences that aren’t actually shared in these memoirs, whether it’s Choi’s mini-empire of restaurants that sprung up post-Kogi or Huang’s adventures into the world of his video series and upcoming ABC sitcom. No doubt, we’ll hear more of those stories if either author writes a second memoir but I, for one, left both books hungry for more (yes, pun intended).
The careers of Huang and Choi happened concurrently with other high-profile Asian American male chefs, including New York’s David Chang (Momofuku) and Jonathan Wu (Fung Tu), San Francisco’s Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese Food), Los Angeles’s Sang Yoon (Father’s Office), and a slew of others. For whatever it’s worth, two out of the last three winners on Top Chef have been Asian American (Austin’s Paul Qui and Boston’s Kristen Kish). Beyond just the kitchen heads, what some call (or deride) as the “foodie movement” has been lead by passionate Asian American bloggers, cookbook writers, and food historians, to say nothing of thousands of Asian American young people who populate social media and food sites with their reviews, recipes, and of course, terabytes of meal photos.
It’s no revelation to point out that Asian Americans have historically been consigned to the margins of most American pop culture scenes: music, cinema, or sports. However, food is perhaps the one cultural sphere where Asian Americans are more in the center, where their authenticity and expertise are accepted on face value. That’s partially because the American palate has been so thoroughly integrated by Asian ethnic cuisine over the generations: from Indian and Thai curries to Korean BBQ to Vietnamese fish sauce to Japanese sushi to that most American of hybrid dishes, chop suey. The Chinese takeout box is the most recognizable form of restaurant packaging in the country, while the cult of “rooster sauce” has crossed into shows like HBO’s True Detective.
However, while earlier immigrant generations laid down this foundation, chefs like Choi, Huang, and their compatriots aren’t trying to replicate “traditional” cuisines imported from their ancestral homelands. As Jonathan Gold observed in 2010, there’s a “new movement in Los Angeles cooking, the one where Asian-American chefs claim the chicken-pot pie, the taco and the Cobb salad as their own, relating the dishes back to similar ones in Thailand, Korea and Taiwan, but celebrating the differences in culinary culture rather than trying to bury them in a flurry of catsup and processed cheese.” Choi, in particular, is at the front wave of this movement, not just through Kogi, but in his newer brick-and-mortar eateries such as Chego (bimbibap-inspired rice bowls), A-Frame (Hawaiian picnic food), and Sunny Spot (Caribbean). He recently was put in charge of the dining options at a boutique hotel in Koreatown, the centerpiece of which is an upscale Korean hotpot restaurant.
Certainly, Choi’s been a massive inspiration to a younger generation of Asian American chefs; Kogi practically launched a bubble economy in Asian fusion food trucks, many of whom had their own spin on “Asian food item in a taco.” However, though Choi speaks extensively about his relationship to family and his circle of friends, he doesn’t get into how he sees himself vis-á-vis a larger Korean or Asian American food community.
Equally surprising is that Huang, in his memoir, doesn’t discuss the expanding role of Asian Americans chefs and food enthusiasts either. Perhaps it’s just too early for them — or anyone else — to address the question of “what does this all mean?”, but if we’re not quite there yet, it can’t be long in coming. Short of a total collapse in the current interest in food culture, it’s likely that Asian Americans such as Choi, Huang, and many other Asian American chefs, writers, and enthusiasts will increasingly play a role in shaping what that future looks like, or better said, tastes like.