Well Huang: How Culinary Enfant Terrible Eddie Huang Dishes it Out

As the world of culinary celebrity expands, cable networks' appetites for larger audience shares grow with it. But can the next edgy voice they so desire fit into that culture without burning down the house, first?

“They called me a chigger.”

Eddie Huang, the gleefully iconoclastic chef-cum-troublemaker, was in a back room at the Ace Hotel, remembering high school. He’d just finished serving as the host of a Jeremy Lin viewing party for a crowd of the chef’s friends and “three random girls from Twitter.” The wax-paper wrapped bao—the signature Asian bun sandwiches that have been drawing crowds to his restaurant, Baohaus, since December 2009—were long since emptied of their pork-packed glories. The Knicks had fallen to the New Jersey Nets. And Mr. Huang was in a reflective mood. 

Earlier that day, he had published a post on his blog, Fresh Off the Boat. The post examined the spectacle of an Asian-American like Mr. Lin exploding as a pop-culture force. It was a cutting, personal indictment of stereotypes and racism. By that evening, it had racked up over 32,000 unique views.

“It was mainly Asian kids that really hated on me,” he remembered. “They thought that there was one face to being Asian, and I was different.”

Mr. Huang was wearing a hybrid of high fashion and streetwear. The look was finished with large glasses not unlike the kind made popular by Kim Jong-Il, giving him the appearance of the lost Beastie Boy who’d finally taken Pyongyang.

If Mr. Huang has made a splash with his reinventions of quick-serve, high-end Asian eats, he is perhaps better known for his outspokenness. In a way, he admitted, cooking has always been more of a means than an end for him. “I went into the food world because I realized that no other place in America would let me break through and speak the way I speak. They will listen to us”—he pointed to himself, meaning, Asian-Americans—”because they want Combo Number Five. You know what I mean? We’re cute. We’re Hello Kitty-like.”

Mr. Huang noted that Asian stereotypes were a double-edged sword. “At the end of the day, people would rather put me in a conference room”—sitting in on a business meeting—”than one of the dudes who works for me from LeFrak City, just because of the way I look and the way I smile,” he said. “I recognize that it’s an advantage. But it’s also a disadvantage.”

He laughed, adding, “No matter what I do, people will be like, ‘He’s cute. That dude is like Keroppi.'”

Of course, Sanrio’s cross-eyed amphibian is internationally famous, and Mr. Huang is still just a local celebrity. But that might all be about to change. On the horizon for Mr. Huang—who before opening his own restaurant had stints as a streetwear retailer, a journalist, a weed dealer, a stand-up comic and an attorney—is a memoir and a television show.

“There’s a lot of good things in place,” Mr. Huang told The Observer. “The show, the book—those things are gonna happen. It’s just like: Don’t fuck it up Eddie. Do not. Fuck. This. Up.”

IN MARCH, while negotiations were underway with the Cooking Channel—the Food Network’s younger spin-off—over the fate of Mr. Huang’s first national TV show, he took to Twitter to verbally fricassee one of the company’s top celebrities, Anne Burrell.

After the frosty-haired host of Worst Cooks in America, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef and The Next Iron Chef derided him to another chef, Mr. Huang fired back: “you host WORST COOKS IN AMERICA, dress like Guy Fieri, and snitch to networks when you’re not happy. i tell it like it is.” And yes, Mr. Fieri is also a major Food Network star.

Mr. Huang admitted that network executives were not especially appreciative of his particular preparation of beef.

“They were pissed,” he said.

As a negotiating tactic, trashing your would-be colleagues seems counterintuitive, but Mr. Huang can’t seem to help himself. “I just love that,” laughed his friend and mentor Anthony Bourdain. “Here’s a guy on his way to getting a show on the Cooking Channel, and he’s out there just mercilessly beating up on their stable of stars,” he chuckled. “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.”

Mr. Bourdain, the bad boy former chef, author of Kitchen Confidential and Travel Channel regular, recently started his own literary imprint at Harper Collins. “I’m heartbroken that I didn’t have my imprint up and running in time to publish him,” he noted of Eddie’s forthcoming book with Random House, which (Mr. Huang explained with unrestrained glee) is being edited by Chris Jackson, who also edited Jay-Z’s memoir Decoded.

He was effusive in praise for Mr. Huang when explaining his appeal: “Here’s someone 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 very sharp, funny guy there with a lot to say.” Mr. Bourdain finished: “Important stuff to say.”

A few weeks later—just days after his 30th birthday (the party, at Southside, featured a “dream” performance by Prodigy, of the seminal rap group Mobb Deep)—Mr. Huang explained his Cooking Channel dilemma over a late lunch in Fort Greene.

He talked about weighing two alternative routes to video stardom: his planned basic cable show versus a project to be produced and distributed independently online. Despite the recent publication of a press release by the channel’s parent company heralding Mr. Huang’s arrival, his contract had not actually been signed yet. By him.

Mr. Huang declined to discuss the nuances of the deal, but it seemed clear that joining an established network would mean sheathing his paring knife, learning to be a team player, going along to get along.

“They told me straight up: ‘Look, you can’t make fun of anyone on this network anymore,'” he recalled. “‘They’re all family. You’re part of the family now.'” At this, he threw his hands up. “I was like, ‘I didn’t choose to be part of this family.’ Like, ‘You’re buying a show, I’m fulfilling my services on the show.'”

Or as Mr. Bourdain put it, “If you can’t make fun of Anne Burrell and Guy Fieri, comedy’s dead.”

“Networks are always looking for something “edgy,” he added, but when they actually get it, “it scares the shit out of them, and they think: Gee, not that edgy.”

THE ELDEST of three brothers, Mr. Huang grew up in Orlando, Fla. His mother was just out of high school when she met his father, now a restaurateur whom Mr. Huang said had been affiliated with a Taiwanese street gang. “He ran shit,” Mr. Huang said.

Eventually, the elder Mr. Huang settled with his brother in Washington, D.C., where he met Eddie’s mother, who became pregnant with Eddie—the first of the three Huang boys—in college. The family then relocated to Orlando, where they ended up launching a steakhouse called Cattleman’s, and the Black Olive, a Mediterranean restaurant—where Eddie and his two brothers were exposed to the business at an early age.

Still, the Huangs pushed their sons toward academics. “They wanted us to be straight-laced and overachieving,” remembered Mr. Huang’s 24-year-old brother, Evan, who in addition to living with Eddie in StuyTown, is a co-owner of Baohaus.

While Mr. Huang was a decent student (“B average-ish”) he had a tendency to get into trouble. In high school, someone broke his middle brother Emery’s nose, so Eddie earned his first assault charge for fighting. The second came when he was a film and English major at Orlando’s Rollins College. He was then making extra money by selling weed, and he got into a fight with some fraternity types. The two offenses earned him felony probation.

Well Huang: How Culinary Enfant Terrible Eddie Huang Dishes it Out