In the scant few months since he opened Baohaus on Rivington Street, Eddie Huang has established himself as (a) one of the city’s most gifted purveyors of Taiwanese gua bao (steamed buns) and (b) one of the most outspoken members of the city’s restaurant scene. Then again, he might take issue with being called part of the restaurant scene: As he has written on his blog, Fresh Off the Boat, “…for the record, so that I never have to follow chef rules, please no one ever call me a chef again. I am a person who COOKS FOOD. I have business cards that say chef, but once I run out, they’re done. I really don’t want to be ‘part of the scene’…”
Having used his blog to both promote places and people he loves and call out those he doesn’t (hello, Michael Huynh, Joe’s Shanghai, and Rickshaw Dumpling), Huang clearly is unafraid to speak — or type — his mind. Most recently, he aired his feelings about the “idiots in Lacoste shirts” who have taken over the Lower East Side and inspired him to “establish an abrasive enough vibe” at his new restaurant, Crackhaus, to ward them away.
We spoke with Huang, who is 27 years old and the son of Taiwanese immigrants, about what to expect at Crackhaus, which will most likely open by June, as well as his feelings about, among other things, foodie culture, Yelpers, Taiwanese food, Kenny Shopsin, and the crucial difference between Orlando, Florida, and yogurt. Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of the interview.
When I called you earlier you were having lunch at Shopsin’s. What did you eat?
It’s always good over there. We got the Zimmys, which are short ribs and cherry stew, and red velvet pancakes and shrimp biryani. It’s always crazy over there; [Kenny’s] a lot of fun. I didn’t know anything about Shopsin’s until two months ago. I was walking through the Essex Market, picking up things for the restaurant, and I saw this giant menu and thought, who is this crazy person? So I sat down and started eating. I didn’t know the rules, but I became friends with Kenny and Zach. They’re great.
And you guys seem to have a similar philosophy about how to run your places of business.
It’s great — we were talking, and both of us really agree that it’s a two-way street when you have a restaurant. The service industry has set a standard where the customer is always right. It needs to be a two-way street, where you come in and show a restaurant respect. It’s annoying when people come in and they test you, like, “Are you authentic? Where did you find this recipe? Is this really Taiwanese?” That really bothered me. I wanted to do something honest, and sell the best food, and a lot of people test me and make it hard to do something genuine and honest. Everyone thinks they’re a chef now because they watch the Food Network and read Chowhound. I’ve been making the same dishes for upwards of 16 years, so it does feel disrespectful. I wish people would just eat food for what it is.
If you go to China or Taiwan or countries that are older, with more of a food culture, not this Johnny-come-lately kind of thing, being into food is a way of life, not something we started because the Food Network got onto cable TV. People have always been obsessed with night markets and hawker stalls. A lot of this foodie revolution is competitive. Like, one time I was in Xi’an Famous Foods with my brother. I’d been to the one in Queens and…told him there were two locations, and one guy went out of his way to tell us there were three locations. I was like, dude, you’re crazy. And then he figured out I was from Baohaus and e-mailed me to say, “I was the guy who corrected you.”
You’re definitely not shy about responding to people.
I just feel like life’s too short to be dishonest. That New York Times article, I had no idea it was going to be such a big article. Julia [Moskin] is really nice and I liked her a lot. I was just surprised with the reaction; I didn’t know there was this rule that chefs don’t talk about other restaurants. People started offering PR services to us; they’re like, “You’re breaking all the rules, that article is negative.” I started thinking, maybe this isn’t the way to go about business, this is going to cost us, and then the day after the article came out, people were coming in with it, like, “I want a photo with the newspaper!” I realized there’s a set of people that like honesty and they’re sick of these chefs slapping each other on the ass in the press.
You’ve been pretty unsparing in your criticism of some of them.
I’ll be honest: Half the really critically acclaimed restaurants in the city, they suck. I really stand by it. I just don’t think I need to be part of the whole charade. I feel like people know the food’s bad anyway, it’s the industry that’s like, “We need to be friends with Michael Huynh because he owns these restaurants.” We’re creating a monster. [Huynh] was the one I was most annoyed about because people keep confusing us — Baoguette, Baohaus.
Have you met him?
I haven’t, but I saw the video of him in the cab. He’s a professional person and I’m just a kid; I think it would be silly for him to come to me to talk.
So what are you planning to serve at Crackhaus?
It’s American-born Taiwanese food, is how I would describe it. For instance, I’m going to have authentic things on the menu, such as Taiwanese rice balls and Taiwanese fried pork chops, and minced pork on rice — very authentic Taiwanese street fare, but then also crazy stuff. A lot of people don’t know that General Tso’s is from Taiwan, so I’m going to do General Tso’s langoustines. And I love Dominican and Puerto Rican food: I make mofongo with taro and Chinese sausage and it’s killer. Or the Cheeto-fried chicken that I make with Cheeto bread crumbs. I was kind of stoned at home and ran out of panko; if you crush up Cheetos, it’s like panko. One thing I think foodies forget when they watch these shows on the Food Network is that you don’t need all of these things they tell you you need — you can improvise. I don’t see [American-born Taiwanese food] as fusion — I don’t like that where you’re slapping things together. I feel like what I’m doing is an evolution of Taiwanese food, staying true to flavors and applying new techniques I learned living in America.
You’re from Florida, right?
I spent some years living in D.C. and northern Virginia, and grew up in Florida. Florida was horrible. I had a lot of fun and I was partying a lot, but culturally — the best quote I have about Florida came from a professor of mine, who said, “What’s the difference between Orlando and yogurt? Yogurt has culture.”
Was there much of a Taiwanese or Asian community in Orlando?
Yes — my brother and I went to Chinese school every single weekend until the eighth grade.
Your dad owned restaurants, correct?
My dad owns the Black Olive in Orlando and Cattleman’s Steakhouse.
So not Taiwanese restaurants.
That’s what bothered me when I was a kid. I said, steak is great, but mom’s food is so much better than the food at the restaurant. [My dad] would get really pissed, and would say, “American people aren’t going to pay for Taiwanese food.” He was right. In Orlando, they wouldn’t know what to do with a pig intestine or chicken foot. But I’d tell him, if you open a restaurant and put mom in there and make Taiwanese fried chicken, we will be rich. He didn’t listen. But my dream was to do this.
What do your parents think of Baohaus?
They like it. At first they didn’t like that I wasn’t practicing as an attorney [Huang used to be one]. They were like, “We work in a restaurant and it’s really hard — why are you working in a restaurant?” But you can’t escape things that you like to do.