An odd journey to culinary genius
Fresh Off the Boat, the new memoir by rising culinary star Eddie Huang, is one roller coaster of a ride. Written with headlong ferocity, the book takes us from Huang’s early Taiwanese taste bud revelations (“Soup dumplings, sitcoms, one-night stands—good ones leave you wanting more”) to the establishment of his restaurant Baohaus, a realization of his vision for a youth-culture-oriented hot spot in the East Village where no one would “kick you out, call the cops, or serve you shitty 7-Eleven pressed Cubans.”
But it isn’t a swift or easy ride; like many bright, talented, angry and angst-filled young people, Huang struggles to discover and embody his authentic self—a struggle compounded by his Asian upbringing in American culture. He vows to “detox” his identity and cleanse it of everything he doesn’t consciously want or choose. But the fight isn’t only internal; he takes it to the streets, is constantly in trouble and hopscotches through five schools in seven years. At 13 he was already hustling, “running NCAA pools, taking bets on NFL games and selling porno,” and by the time he’s in college it’s skirmishes with the law. One night, the situation gets out of hand and there’s a trip to Orlando’s 33rd Street Jail, and a conviction. Rather than “sit at home on felony parole,” Huang takes a hiatus to Taiwan for a while, where he is relatively free and able to contemplate his future.
By the time he returns, he’s on a mission: finding a place for himself in the world, “or making one.” Food is a lifelong interest, but before Baohaus materializes, Huang “samples” many other venues: hip hop, law school and stand-up comedy among them. But “the sky broke and everything was clear” once he knew he was going to open a restaurant—one that specialized in Taiwanese gua bao and, even more importantly, one that would be the manifestation of his “friends, family, and memories.”
Though much of Huang’s writing is raw and intense, there are dollops of tenderness and zen-like wisdom when he writes about someone or something he loves, such as his mother, his grandmother or well-prepared food: “The best dishes have depth without doing too much. It’s not about rounding up all the seasonal ingredients you can find, it’s about paying close attention to the ones you already have.”
Like the dishes he describes as “jumping off the plate,” Huang’s memoir jumps off the page. Its flavors are “big, deep, kid-dynamite-Mike-Tyson-knock-you-out-of-the-box” intense and will leave you wanting more!