Q & A: Anthony Bourdain on Eddie Huang, and the Potential Perils of Food TV Personas

For this week’s Observer cover story—a profile of New York City restauranteur, cultural gadabout, and rising food personality Eddie Huang—we spoke with someone well-acquainted with Huang, the world of food celebrity, and the perils of speaking without reserve: Anthony Bourdain.

Mr. Bourdain, who recently signed famed Olive Garden reviewer Marilyn Hagerty to his publishing imprint, expressed dismay at not being able to sign Eddie Huang to his own imprint for our piece. While there’s only so much wordage room in one profile, given the wealth of quotables we received from Bourdain, some things are just too good for the cutting room floor. The interview, in full:

How did you initially become acquainted with Eddie?
I was reading about him for a while. I started following his amazing blog, became a fan as well of his after-action reports on The Next Iron Chef, which were hilarious. And then it wasn’t long before we realized we had mutual friends. But honestly, it was his writing that—long before I met him, which was actually on my show, when I ate at BaoHaus for the first time—I was really a fan of his writing, and his merciless wit. I’m heartbroken that I didn’t have my imprint up-and-running in time to publish him.

And what was it you found so compelling about his writing?
Some of the stuff he’s written about Asian identity, and his mom, and growing up Asian-American, I thought was really powerful. Here’s a guy with a voice saying things that to a great extent haven’t been said before. That made a powerful impression on me early. And then, I just love that: Here’s a guy on his way to getting a show on Cooking Channel, and [laughs] he’s out there just mercilessly beating up on their stable of stars. He had a shamefully rough time [at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival] in Miami….

We actually heard something like that as we—…
…If you’re walking around with bleached hair, dressed up like a rodeo clown, you should have a fuckin’ sense of humor about yourself. You know, I don’t get it. Anyone who’s on TV, if you can’t have a sense of humor about yourself, it’s going to be a very tough road. If you can’t make fun of Burrell and Fieri, comedy’s dead.

As Eddie told it, when they were in Miami, Anne Burrell elbowed him in the back.
What? Wait, really?

[Ed. From an earlier interview with Eddie: “I went to South Beach Food and Wine [Festival] and I’m there waiting for a hamburger at the 212 House and Anne Burrell comes up behind me, elbows me in the back. I turn around, just looking, and she goes, ‘Oh, excuse me, I’m sorry. Did I just do that?’ and I told her—exact words—I said, ‘Anne, you need to let this go, ‘cause it’s only going to get worse for you.’” When asked for comment on this story, a representative for Burell noted: “Anne is unavailable for comment at this time.”]

So the story goes. They were waiting in line for burgers…
I like Anne. That’s just no way to go, though. Eddie’s smart, he’s funny, he’s fast, and that’s not an enemy you want to have.

What do you make of Eddie Huang, chef, or Eddie Huang, restauranteur?
I don’t know Eddie the cook, and I don’t really know Eddie the restaurateur. It seems to me a smart operation with tasty little pork buns. Great. I definitely recognize in his criticism of Next Iron Chef, as hilarious as it was, it was pretty goddamn astute!

Fundamentally sound?
It was fundamentally sound, though scabrously, insultingly, witheringly funny. The guy obviously spends a lot of time immersed in pop culture, but honestly, I think those are deep waters. I see a guy who’s probably had a lot of pain in his life, and there’s a pain and discomfort in what he writes about. I don’t even know how to address it!

Here’s a guy less and less unusual these days in the respect that he’s clearly not done what his parents wanted him to do, who’s broken the pattern of what’s expected of him, and with that there’s come some guilt there, some discomfort there, there’s a lot of anger there, and as so often happens, a very funny guy there. A very very sharp, funny guy there with a lot to say. Important stuff to say. And a guy with a vocabulary like that, who’s that fast, and that funny, that’s a dangerous entity to have. Especially in a target-rich environment like the Cooking Channel [laughs].

So what are his odds of success at a place like that?
My experience, having toiled in the same fields, is that you have to establish up front what you are and are not willing to do. When I was at Food Network, it helped me a lot that I’d written this obnoxious book, and my feelings about the network were already a matter of public record, so I don’t think anyone expected me to morph into another creature, and I made it very clear—very quickly—that…that just wasn’t going to happen. I think he’s in a position to do that same thing, in a sense.

But would they steamroll him creatively before he could do that? Or force him to acquiesce to their brand first and foremost?
Networks have been looking for someone like him forever, they just tend to get scared when they actually find someone. You know: ‘We want someone proactive, and who appeals to a younger demographic, and somehow hip, someone edgy!’ And when they get someone like that, it scares the shit out of them, and they think: Gee, not that edgy. But if he rates, he’ll be able to do whatever the hell he wants. As long as he’s getting ratings, they’re going to have to eat it.

What do you think Eddie represents to the industrial-food-celebrity complex? Or the food world at large?
I think he’s bigger than food. I’m looking at the guy as a writer, and an interesting guy with a story to tell, and who’s telling it in an interesting voice. I see him as someone with something to say. Whether he’s using food or not to say it, it’s not about his cooking.

He actually said something to that extent: He used food as a way to get into a position where he could speak freely and be taken seriously, as an Asian-American man.
I’m surprised that—I find it really interesting that he’d say that. He clearly has some really interesting and often uncomfortable things that he wants to say, and I’m really interested in hearing them.

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek Q & A: Anthony Bourdain on Eddie Huang, and the Potential Perils of Food TV Personas