On April 27, the IFC Channel will roll out the second season of Thu Tran’s Food Party. Simply put, Food Party is a collection of 20 15-minute episodes dedicated to the cooking adventures of Tran and a cast of puppets. But beyond that description, the show is more or less indescribable. Surreal, absurd, childlike, amiably anarchic, and slightly morbid, it’s without a doubt the only television food programming that seemingly owes equal debts to Pee Wee Herman, Meet the Feebles, and Julia Child.
Episode 1, for example, sees Tran eating a bacon, egg, and cheese on a glazed doughnut in the shower (which is in the refrigerator), concocting a ham and spaghetti pancake with pineapple sauce with some help from Ninja Dog, watching a TV show in which a hamburger bun copulates with a baguette, and then cooking a bag of shrimp she’s procured from the belly of a whale. Tran narrates the whole thing in a kind of guileless stoner’s deadpan that’s completely free of irony. The whole thing seems less a commentary on the shallowness of other cooking shows than one on the bottomless depths of a well-tended imagination.
If the show tends to feel a bit like a lark perpetrated by resourceful art school students, there’s a reason. Tran, who was born in Malaysia and grew up in Ohio as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, moved to New York after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she studied glass blowing.
Living in Brooklyn, surrounded by “so many talented friends,” Tran admits that “a big reason why I started the show [was that] I thought it was a fun way to hang out with everyone all day and have something to show for it.”
Tran created Food Party in 2007, and built a cult following performing it around Williamsburg. She and her friends began posting episodes online, and in 2009, it premiered on the IFC Channel. Each episode ran about 10 minutes; this season, they’re on average about three minutes longer.
The process seems to have been remarkably free of growing pains. “It has evolved very organically, very beautifully,” Tran says. “Initially when we were starting out we tried to make something very straightforward, based on what I know of what a cooking show is supposed to look like, but with less resources or a lack of means or whatever. As we learned about what was working or not, we progressed and started becoming more narrative-driven. It was exciting to me to put in a little story, and we started getting better with filming and sound and getting more confident about the way we handle more materials.”
Now that the show has become a “full-time thing as opposed to something we did on the side for fun,” Tran says, “it’s something to get used to. I have to take it more seriously because it’s a job now; it’s a little bit more pressure. I’m learning how not to take it too seriously.”
The set of the show, which is filmed in a studio in Greenpoint, certainly doesn’t feel too serious — on the surface, it looks less like a TV set than an uncommonly spacious art school co-op. Tran and her friends, when they’re not busy filming, congregate around a wide table making props, and there’s a large kitchen where the food for each episode is prepared. Puppets and costumes crowd the shelves, and a sewing machine hums merrily along. The atmosphere is laid-back and ostensibly unhurried, a stark contrast to the labyrinthine set of IFC’s other food show, Sam Mason’s Dinner with the Band, which is stuffed to capacity with camera operators, equipment handlers, and numerous people outfitted with clipboards and headsets.
Despite the comparatively easygoing ambiance and small crew, the shooting schedule is, Tran says, “very intense. We shot very long hours all week, and prepare for months. We started production around November and started filming in late January, so we film about two episodes a week, and it’s very long.”
The long hours are made easier by the fact that Tran is working with her friends — the show, she says, is a collaborative process. Her boyfriend, Daniel Baxter, designs the puppets and serves as a production designer and co-writer — “a lot of stuff he comes up with is centered around the kinds of characters that he wants to see or make,” Tran says. Almost every other member of the crew wears multiple hats, acting as writers, lighting technicians, and puppeteers.
“We blend together a lot to see what we can make into 15-minute episodes,” Tran says. “All I really do is provide a really specific framework of how these things can come together. A lot of the episodes are centered around dishes that we prepare; it’s kind of like a big part of show is there’s always a reason for cooking.” A lot of the recipes on the show, Tran adds, “come from cooking for my friends or family,” although “there’s definitely a huge difference between what I would prepare on the show and what I would prepare at home, because the show is very visually driven. Decisions are made on what will be the most visually impactful — when you watch a cooking show, you’re not eating it. It has to be appealing for the eyes, if not the stomach.” Which certainly holds true for, say, a ham and spaghetti pancake with pineapple sauce.
At home, Tran cooks a lot of Vietnamese food, dishes she learned from her family. She grew up in the kitchen, working her way up through the kitchen hierarchy: “When you’re young, you do more dishwork, washing vegetables, picking stuff from the garden or de-stemming herbs or shelling shrimp or peeling egg roll papers,” she explains. “And then gradually you move up along the lines and start handling knives or learn how to season things.” Such is her love of cooking at home that Tran, who lives in Greenpoint, rarely goes out to eat. “I’m always really embarrassed when my friends from out of town come to visit,” she admits. “I don’t know where to take them.”
She has stronger opinions about cooking shows. “I like Julia Child,” she says when asked about her influences. “I loved watching her a whole lot because she rolled with everything really well. She’s obviously a skillful cook but doesn’t necessarily show it because she might be nervous or for whatever reason. She may fumble but it’s not a huge deal.” She also likes the PBS Great Chefs series. “The chef isn’t necessarily like the host,” she says. “It’s more like cooking and a voice-over. A soothing female voice-over. I like that.”