There's something about Eddie Huang you guys do not know: dude is really nice. He's not just capable of having a really articulate conversation about other cultures while also using the phrase "much less fucks to give." He's not just a restaurateur and memoirist with a law degree who hangs out with Danny Brown. He also really cares about cultures that haven't yet been given a global megaphone and the protection of those cultures. Which is why, when he ate a piece of camel milk cheese in Mongolia for his VICE show "Fresh Off The Boat," he tried really, really hard not to spit it out immediately.
"Fresh Off The Boat" Season 2 launched last week in Huang's signature, not-totally-safe-for-work style. From a Mongolian metal festival, to camel vodka and camel cheese in the Gobi desert, parts one and two of this season make it clear that there is pretty much nowhere he won't go and nothing he won't eat. Luckily, VICE is up for the challenge too. We caught up with Huang recently to talk about the upcoming season of "Fresh Off The Boat," culinary imperialism and the all-consuming-stank of camel cheese.
HP: We're pretty excited for the second season, how was filming it?
EH: They really gave me a lot more freedom this season. VICE really let me spread my wings and I took full advantage. And I’m just super super happy that we got to tell some of these stories, because these people really deserve to be heard. I hope that people smarter than me will watch the show, see these things and then go dig a little deeper.
Was Mongolia your favorite place you’ve been for the show so far?
Oh, hell yeah. I love Mongolia. For someone who lives in New York to go to Mongolia, it’s just like unplugging. You totally unplug. Despite the fact that there really was not much good food in that country, it was pretty uncomfortable -- we stayed in a hotel that was literally built the day before. My door, the knob wasn’t screwed in, so I couldn’t lock the door. They didn’t have wifi, we literally were there the second day they were open. The thing is, it’s really cool to go to these places, Mongolia especially, and start to understand that the food is horrible, the hotel totally sucks, and there’s no wifi -- but I’m okay. People do green juice cleanses, this was totally a modern civilization cleanse for me.
Did you come back and feel less reliant on technology?
Yeah! Definitely less reliant and less just, much less fucks to give. That’s, I think, the best way to put it. Once you’re out there and you realize -- wait, if I lost all my money, and I lived in Mongolia and I ate all this hot trash all the time, like, I could still be pretty happy. It’s a very, very interesting place to go to ask yourself what truly makes you happy. And, if our pursuit of all these material objects, or comforts, or ideals, even if it’s the idea of a family or love, or -- you know -- certain types of food or certain types of shelter… do these things really make us happy? It gives you so much perspective to go to a place like that.
Was that the roughest place you’ve ever filmed?
After doing it, I don’t even consider it rough. It’s more funny to me. Because I was really happy to meet those people. This lady gave me food and she had dogs, kids that would go into the field where there’s poop everywhere, covered in dirt, there was goat poop everywhere and then there’s this dirty carpet. And you see the carpet is like made out of fur -- maybe it’s goat fur, maybe it’s dog fur -- and this lady gives me a bowl of rice with a little bit of lamb on top, and takes a fork from the carpet, wipes it on the carpet and gives it to me. I was like, “Oh my God. I’m basically putting goat butt in my mouth."
And you made it!
And I made it! And I ate it, and I was totally disgusted, but I was like, “I’m not dead, I’m okay. I’m okay.” It was kind of funny just be like, man, why are we so uptight about things? I can’t speak for all New Yorkers, but it was funny to got there and meet these people who could not understand why we cared about certain things.
In this episode, you drank camel milk vodka, which was made in what essentially looked like a camel shit still, basically?
[Laughs] Yes, yes.
Can you tell me -- how could your face have said that that was more palatable than a piece of camel milk cheese?
YO. The camel vodka was super sweet. And you kind caught this essence of the camel, but it was distilled and sharp. The camel cheese, like, stuck with you. We actually had a shot of our Director of Photography who took a bite (he’s the guy who takes a bite in the video and says “Oh, it’s not bad, I like the consistency.”), and he spit it all out. And he was just trying to be nice. We have it on camera where he said, “This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted.” We didn’t put it in, just out of respect for them. I wanted to put it in, but our editor is a little nicer than me. It was nasty.
What did it taste like?
UGH. It really felt like you were in a camel’s butt. I think it was because I was eating it and I was standing in, like, poop flames and standing next to fresh poop. I was just all -- everything around me was just camel poop. And it was a little too much. The alcohol, because it’s sharp and distilled, the taste doesn’t linger like that.
Your second season is in the can, do you feel like you have a sense of what the point of the show is for you, and what you want it to say?
Oh, absolutely. There are still people who wish there was more food in the show. The first season we said it was a genre-bending travel show. Food is used as a narrative tool. It’s really just a travel log, trying to give a voice to people who go unheard and silenced by traditional media.
We pick a place, like “Coming to America,” where we spin the globe and put our finger down. We chose Mongolia simply based on the fact that it’s the least densely populated country in the world. Then we just started to think about the stories we could tell there. Same with Detroit. There’s people who want to go to Detroit and show you ruin porn, and there’s the people who want to tell you “No, it’s back! Detroit rolls strong and hustles harder, we’re coming back.” I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, so that’s what we did. It’s not my job to pass judgment or say how I think it’s going to turn out. It’s just my job to show it, and hopefully that helps.
Have you ever pitched VICE a location or a scenario in a location where they said, “No, dude, we can’t do that.”
That’s the best part about VICE. We have guests that are like, “No, I can’t do that.” Or fixers who are like, “I absolutely will not take you there.” VICE will do anything and go anywhere and that is the single most important reason I’m with them. We wanted to go to Tibet, but we couldn’t get clearance. But they’ve never shut me down on anything. Our show has a very unique voice, even for VICE.
It’s been a little over a year since you and Francis Lam had a pretty intense conversation about culinary imperialism. A little over a year after that conversation, have you felt your position on that issue either soften or intensify?
It’s definitely intensified. The matrix is just getting much smarter at appropriating and co-opting food. [Laughing.] The matrix moves faster than the individual so, you see derivatives of the popular New American restaurants. For a little bit food was very creative. For all the shit I don’t like about David Chang, he definitely contributed to the democratization of the dining world, right? He definitely tore down a lot of walls in terms of what people would accept in a dining room. Gael Greene gave him a hard time for having hard stools in his dining room, and that used to go for a proper food review. That was actually something you could say. But now you can’t. Props to David for hard, uncomfortable chairs.
At a certain point, I don’t know where it was, but the food world got really carried away. And then it became, “This is the best Asian restaurant in America,” or “This isn’t an Asian restaurant, it’s a New American restaurant.” Guy, you can’t take these ingredients and techniques that are clearly Asian and call them New American. Because, we weren’t always treated as equals in this country, we don’t have the same power that the people in this country have, so for you to take something that’s clearly from China or Thailand or Laos or Vietnam and call it New American? You don’t have the right to do that whether you’re of Asian descent or not. It’s not yours to take. It’s not yours to give. People don’t understand that. It’s a concept that goes over a lot of people’s heads.
It’s a pretty intensely philosophical question for people who mostly just want to eat a pork belly taco, right?
Yes. YES. But the thing is that you can’t just want the egg. You gotta raise the chicken. I had this conversation once on MSNBC and Adam Rapoport was like, “You know what though? Does it taste good? Because that’s all that matters to me.” I’m like, yeah, you’re allowed to be like that because you’re white and you already have everything else. So, at the end of the day, what else do you need but for this food to taste good?
What’s the worst thing you ever read about yourself?
The worst thing anyone’s ever said about me was when Rapoport on MSNBC was like, “you appropriated hip hop.” And I explained that I didn’t. Number one, a Chinese person doesn’t really have the power to appropriate hip hop in America and secondly, you’ve totally confused what hip hop is because you’ve attached it to one race and one faith. That was upsetting to me, but it was such a bonehead thing to say that it doesn’t really matter.
Do you think that there’s a way to have a healthy and respectful obsession with another culture, and try to fall into it in a way that’s not exploitative?
Yeah, I definitely do. I really like when Andy Ricker [of Pok Pok] does dishes and gives the credit back to the person he learned it from. I definitely think that he’s one of those people that Americans could look at and say, yes, he profits off of Thai cuisine and Thai culture, but you know what? He’s one of the best representatives of it, so -- you go, Andy. He really, really cares, he’s very conscientious and he’s very aware of who he is and what his identity is, and where the power is. I think he’s a pretty good example in food. I think another person is Sam Sifton. I love the way Sam Sifton would write about music and hip hop and New York, integrated into his column. I don’t think Sam ever culturally appropriated or co-opted, but he was clearly a fan of hip hop. And it was really cool the way he worked it into his articles. It’s just important to give credit where credit is due, respect things and understand it before you become a practitioner of it.