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Blogger, chef, writer, thinker? Huang hates labels

Thursday - 2/7/2013, 5:24pm  ET

In this Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 photo, chef Eddie Huang poses for a portrait at his restaurant Baohaus in New York. Huang unveils a biting new memoir, "Fresh Off the Boat," about race, immigration, and, yes, food. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

JOCELYN NOVECK
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- The seats were filling fast for a book reading last week by food personality Eddie Huang, and a Barnes & Noble employee came to address the crowd. Actually, it was to issue a disclaimer of sorts.

"We do not censor our guests here," said Maria Celis, a special-events coordinator. "If you're not comfortable with four-letter words or hip-hop references that may be over your head, this may not be your event. It's gonna be as freewheeling an event as we've ever hosted here."

Clearly this wasn't your typical celebrity chef book reading, from Huang's prize-fighter-like entrance in a red-white-and-blue hoodie -- "What up, New York?" -- to the hip-hop music and cheers from a young, hip fan base, to the cheerful profanity, to the occasionally brutally honest subject matter -- including childhood beatings meted out by his father. And the book, "Fresh Off the Boat," is hardly your typical celebrity chef's memoir.

In fact, let's get the "celebrity chef" label out of the way right now, because Huang doesn't like it at all.

Sure, he's gained some fame through his tiny restaurant, Baohaus, which first opened on the Lower East Side in 2009 ("bao" are stuffed, steamed buns), but he doesn't see himself as mainly a chef or restaurateur, he explains. Among other things, he's an author, a blogger, an essayist, the star and host of a Web series, a sometime standup comic, a streetwear aficionado, and also a food-world provocateur who's taken aim at successful chef-entrepreneurs like David Chang and Marcus Samuelsson, for starters.

"I abstain from defining myself," Huang, 30, says in a freewheeling interview the day before the book reading, perched on a stool at Baohaus as guests munch on dishes like the Chairman Bao, a bun stuffed with pork belly and crushed peanuts, or sweet bao fries -- bread that's steamed, then fried, then glazed. "I don't like labels. I don't understand the need for them. When you define yourself a certain way, people have expectations."

"And I didn't come here," he adds, "to be a great chef. I came here to talk about culture. Food is just a part of it."

When Huang says he "came here," it's not an accidental turn of phrase. Though he was born in the Washington, D.C. area and raised mainly in Orlando, Fla., he speaks -- and writes -- through the prism of life as the son of Taiwanese immigrants. And though he seems quite fulfilled in his emerging role as a New York food personality, he makes clear he's still angry about what he endured, and what many immigrants endure in this country.

"This book is about being an outcast in America," he says. "I wanted to write it while I was still mad. Because, you get rich, you get fat, and you say, it was cool. You look back through rose-colored glasses. I didn't want to do that."

If you don't believe that there's still pain behind the smile, just ask Huang about life in the third grade.

Every day, the 8-year-old Huang brought in his mother's pungent Chinese food for lunch. He was ridiculed by other kids for his smelly lunchbox. Wanting desperately to fit in, he convinced his mother to buy him an American lunch.

"I was so excited at the grocery store," he says now. "I was going to be like THEM." But the next day, when he got to the front of the microwave line, waiting proudly with his chicken nuggets, a kid grabbed him by the shirt and wrestled him to the ground, using a vicious racial slur. Eddie fought back, physically, and he was the one who got sent to the principal.

"It was like, nothing you could do was good enough," he says now. "They get you to wear their clothes, eat their food ... And it's never good enough." At the restaurant, recounting the episode, he begins to choke up.

When Huang was still a youngster the family moved to Orlando, where his father managed steak and seafood restaurants. After a checkered academic career and getting into more than his share of trouble, Huang eventually graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and got a law degree at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

After being laid off from a law firm, less fruitful career attempts followed: selling sneakers and clothes, being a standup comic. Finally, he hit the restaurant business. Xiao Ye, which he opened in 2010, eventually failed, perhaps partly due to a scathing New York Times review in which critic Sam Sifton described Huang sitting at a table and texting with friends. "If Mr. Huang really wants to stand for delicious, he is going to need to work harder," Sifton wrote.

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