Eddie Huang is precisely the sort of storyteller America needs right now: an ambitious, multicultural Everyman who believes the nation’s greatness lies not in assimilation but in diversity, that our mosaic strength comes from each of us owning and celebrating our own largely-immigrant stories in all of their idiosyncratic glory.
That said, since he’s set himself up in Los Angeles to shop new versions of his own stories, the weed-smoking, hip-hop-loving celebrity chef-turned-screenwriter finds that’s easier said than done. “I came out here wanting to do the best version of every single story,” he says, still sleep-groggy at 11 o’clock on a weekday morning. “You realize a lot of the people you run into aren’t looking to make the best version: They’re looking to make the safest, or the most universally-appealing version. They want to play the short hand. They don’t want to play for the long run.”
Huang is a long-run guy. He publicly accused the producers of the ABC-TV sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, based on his 2013 memoir, of making a watered-down “cornstarch story” about the Asian-American experience, but eventually saw the wisdom of compromise. His truth-famished food-and-travel series Huang’s World proved being a reality TV star didn’t have to be synonymous with cultural toxicity. But it, too, was a struggle for creative control, and after two impressive seasons that included hang time with Trump supporters in Cape Cod and un-scripted jail time in Sicily, he reclaimed the show from the Vice network and plans to pitch a new version soon.
More pressing, however, is Huang’s debut film, based on a script he began writing after an especially galling Huang’s World meeting. “It’s about a kid who has all the best intentions, all the ability in the world, but he has to learn to, like, live to fight another day.” He references a famous line from Catcher in the Rye – “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one” – to help explain the biggest lesson of his last few years in Hollywood: “Just cause you’re right, just because you got talent doesn’t mean everything’s going to go your way. You have to sacrifice, you have to compromise, and then you have to pick your battles. And when you pick them, you better win them.”
His screenplay – which Huang describes, unsurprisingly, as “semi-autobiographical” – is about a Taiwanese Chinese kid from the New York City Asian enclave of Flushing who becomes a great point guard. It’s fueled in part by his longtime obsession with basketball. “Johnny Damon went to my public school, Damien Wilkins, Shane Larkin,” Huang notes, reeling off heroes that came up on his Orlando, Florida, homeground. “It’s about a kid coming of age, realizing what he wants out of life, and following his dreams as opposed to everybody else’s. It’s simple, but it’s written in a very specific voice, specific to my experiences in my community and the life that I came from.” Huang’s been keeping the script under wraps; when we speak, it’s still in rewrite – the deal not fully “papered,” as they say in the business. He’s also intent on directing it, because Eddie Huang wants this story to be told his way.
It’s not his only writing project on deck; there’s also a new book, his third memoir, this one dealing with violence, in his life and the culture at large. Yet befitting a Californian, he still makes time to chill. He enjoys the state’s legal weed culture, though his consumption tastes are old school, (“I still smoke weed every day, and I still use the same bong; I actually just cleaned it last night”), and he’s still a hip-hop connoisseur; Hoodrich Pablo Juan and Trouble are on rotation, along with golden-era reggae (“[Althea & Donna’s] ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ is on loop when I’m writing.”)
And he hasn’t left the restaurant game that was his pop-culture entrée. He rose to fame adapting Taiwanese street-food at BaoHaus in New York nine years ago. The latest iteration of the brand is slated to open in LA this fall: a cafeteria-style operation inspired by the high-end foodie mecca Erewhon Market, California’s one-upping of Whole Foods. “I wouldn’t want to be the Asian Erewhon per se,” he says, “but I wanna make the greatest Taiwanese Chinese hot bar in America.”