Eddie Huang Fresh Off the Boat author and restaurateur Eddie Huang discusses Taiwanese buns, basketball, and his directorial debut, Boogie. Then, he plays a game about his favorite animal, pandas.

Eddie Huang

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JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.


Thanks, Jonathan. Our special guest is Eddie Huang. And he's done so many things. The sitcom "Fresh Off The Boat" was based on his best-selling 2013 memoir. It's about his life growing up in Orlando, the child of Taiwanese immigrants. And as a kid, he worked in the kitchens of his father's restaurants. Later, he moved to New York City and opened the acclaimed Taiwanese bun restaurant BaoHaus. And now he's a movie director. His first feature is called "Boogie." It's a coming-of-age story about a high school basketball star, and it's out now.

Eddie Huang, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.

EDDIE HUANG: Hey, what's up, guys? Thank you for having me.

EISENBERG: Pleasure. I like your - I like everything that's going on in this background. I see a great T-shirt, a baseball bat...

HUANG: Thank you.

EISENBERG: ...And some sort of either painting or tapestry. I actually can't tell because it's hard to tell texture.

HUANG: Yeah. Oh, this is a friend of mine, Eric Mack. He, like, makes these. He, like, takes, like, moving blankets and other things, and it's his kind of, like, take on painting. But - and then the baseball bat's my security system. Yeah.


EISENBERG: That's good. Very affordable.

HUANG: And this shirt, I got for a dollar in Taiwan. Yeah.


EISENBERG: You've got it all covered.

HUANG: Yeah. I save money on clothing and security and spend it on art. That's pretty much my strategy.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: That's basically your go bag. If it goes down...

EISENBERG: That's right.

COULTON: ...Just to take that shirt, that piece of artwork and the baseball bat, and you're good to go.

HUANG: Yeah, and we're out of here.


EISENBERG: All I need. So you're a restaurateur, but so many of us know you as a best-selling author. You are so many things, but a best-selling author as well of the 2013 memoir "Fresh Off The Boat," which is obviously about your life growing up as a Taiwanese American in the United States. And then the book became a TV show by the same name starring Randall Park and Constance Wu. And the show ran for six years. It must have been just extraordinary to see your own life through the lens of a sitcom.

HUANG: Yeah. I think it would be if I watched it, but I only watched, like, two episodes.


HUANG: So I missed out on that experience, but, you know...

EISENBERG: Did you not want to watch it because it was just too weird to see an adaptation of your life? Like, you were just like, I did this. It's over. It's a different product.

HUANG: I think my thing generally with entertainment and media is that, like, there was no way I was going to watch a network sitcom of my life and be in any way entertained or tickled by it.


HUANG: It just wasn't going to happen. I am the nerd of nerds. People will ask me, did you see this TV show? I'm like, I don't know. I - like, I read an article Scorsese wrote about Fellini, so I went back and watched "8 1/2." Like, that's me, you know? And then I'll wake up and listen to "The Breakfast Club" in the morning. It's like - I'm just very into very specific culture.

And I could tell very early on with "Fresh Off The Boat," I was like, there's nothing in the show for me besides the rise of Constance Wu. That interested me. You know, Constance and, like, her evolution as a person and an actor - because I remember the first day Constance and I met on set, she was like, I never really thought too much about being Asian, you know? Like, she's an actor, and Constance is very into her craft. And, you know, I remember how she felt about the project coming in. And then she read the book, and I could see her evolution, really owning her Asian identity and becoming one of our most powerful voices. Her evolution as a person, as an actor, as a voice in Asian America was probably, like, my - the thing I was most interested in in that show.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Have you ever thought about redoing, you know, your life story, whether you take it from the book or a different lens of it, yourself - like, actually creating maybe a dramatic version or a movie?

HUANG: Yeah. I mean, in many ways - this is a fantastic segue - "Boogie" really is, like, my version of "Fresh Off The Boat" if I was good at basketball.


HUANG: And, like, I'm a good basketball player. Like, I'm 39, and I still start on my rec league team. We are the Mofufus (ph), Monterey Park League champions.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.

HUANG: So I ball. I can still ball, but not on the level of this kid in the movie. And I really took a lot of the feelings and stories and I said, instead of making this about me, but what were the seminal moments in your experience coming of age as an Asian American male that, in many ways, was informed by Black culture, inspired by Black culture? What were the really big lessons? And I took those, and I made those the really spine of the film and then, you know, filled the rest of it in. But for me, the film is, like - can be boiled down to five or six scenes. And those were the scenes of my life that I wanted to take the viewer through.

EISENBERG: When - so when you were growing up in Orlando, were you a big fan of the Orlando Magic?

HUANG: Well, I was a Knick (ph) fan always because...

EISENBERG: OK (laughter).

HUANG: I was born in D.C...

COULTON: (Laughter).

HUANG: ...And so I will explain this - is Patrick Ewing, like, was everything in D.C. Like, my first memories, my dad always carried a Georgetown Hoyas bag to the gym to play ball. Like, there was Hoyas stuff everywhere. And I remember seeing the posters in the grocery store. And then, of course, Patrick played for the Knicks, so I was a Knick (ph) fan.

For a few years in Orlando, I was very excited to get Shaquille O'Neal. And I would cheer for the Magic, but the Knicks were my team. And when the Orlando Magic wouldn't resign Shaq - and there was this big article saying, like, is he worth $100 million dollars? And it was a very racial thing. A lot of white people would call into the radio station like, he's not worthy. He just dunks a basketball. He just does that. I'm like, which one of you guys can do that?

COULTON: (Laughter).


HUANG: Because any of you guys calling, which one of you can do what Shaq does? And when Shaq left, it just broke my heart. And I don't think I ever loved Orlando again.

And I found my pockets, you know? Like, I had my friends that were outcasts. They were different. They lived in the margins. And then the cooks I cooked with at the restaurant, you know? I just - we had a lot in common. So...


HUANG: ...In Orlando, I was just getting by till I could go to New York and met other people that read books.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: And speaking of cooking, I mean, you opened - as a restaurant tour in 2009, you opened a Taiwanese bun shop called - the greatest...

HUANG: Baohaus.

EISENBERG: ...Name for a bun shop - Baohaus.

HUANG: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: That is the greatest name for a bun...

HUANG: Thank you.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: ...Shop at the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And for those - were (ph) listeners who have never had the opportunity to taste a Taiwanese bun, can you just explain how you would describe it?

HUANG: Yeah. I also just want to say, I love that you identified the title because I - you know, a lot of people that come, they don't realize it's from a school of architecture and design. And that's how nerdy I am, do you know what I mean? Like...

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: (Laughter). That's great.

HUANG: And they're just like, oh, it's a bao house, but why do you - like, people would still be, why do you spell it that way? (Laughter) I'm like, this is so sad.

COULTON: (Laughter).

HUANG: You know what I mean?


HUANG: Yeah, out.

EISENBERG: Just direct them (laughter).

HUANG: And that's the thing. Like, I - even in the Asian community, like, a lot of my puns just fall on deaf ears. (Unintelligible).


HUANG: You don't study German architecture. That's unfortunate. But - sorry, what was the question (laughter)?

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: I was just going to say, you know, just a very simple thing just to - from your mouth to describe what a Taiwanese bun is.

HUANG: Oh, it's - you know, basically it's our famous sugar dough. It's very well-known in northern China. Usually, you use this sugar dough to make, like, mantou or any type of bun. It's a steamed - it's our Wonder Bread, and we steam it. And traditionally, you put a braised piece of pork belly, crushed peanuts, Taiwanese red sugar, cilantro and pickled mustard green on there.

They serve it to you any other way, it's - it may be good, it may not be good, but that's not the original. I really think with cuisine, you should start with the original. And then you want to get funky, you want to eat Cheeto-fried chicken, that's fine. But that is the original. And - yeah, that's the one.

EISENBERG: Yeah, know your masters - know your masters.

COULTON: (Laughter).

HUANG: Yeah, exactly.

EISENBERG: And how did you - I mean, your father owned restaurants. Obviously, you had some experience working restaurants, but how did you learn how to cook?

HUANG: I learned primarily from my mom. My dad's way of cooking was just to take all the leftovers and put it in one pot and heat it up, and then it was a dish.


HUANG: That was how my dad cooked. But my mom is honestly a gourmand. Like, my mom has just been fascinated by food her whole life. She would taste something at a restaurant and be able to make it. And I think that gene or whatever my mom's magic is, it got passed to me. Cooking was very, very natural for me.

And I would tell people it's just about paying attention. You know, when you're eating, to pay attention, take a moment, savor it, think about it. And if you do that, you could probably make it again.

EISENBERG: I mean, I'm not sure I could, but I love believing that for myself (laughter).

COULTON: (Laughter).

HUANG: I'll give you an example, right? I'll give you an example.


HUANG: You know how these days, when you use your GPS and you go somewhere, you probably can't remember it after because you just, like...

EISENBERG: Terrible.

HUANG: They just said left and right. And, like, when people give recipes, I'm like, that's not great. But every bite you take is like walking to the store. And when I walk to a store, I can walk my way back. And I just tell people, remember each bite like it's walking to the store. And if you do that, you could probably walk your way back.

EISENBERG: I like that.

HUANG: Yeah.

EISENBERG: So in 2010 you also opened up a short-lived restaurant called Xiao Ye. Is that right?

HUANG: Xiao Ye.


HUANG: Yeah, it's - I'm not laughing at your pronunciation. I'm laughing at that restaurant because it was a complete disaster.


EISENBERG: Well, I mean - so I just wanted to talk about it because it does have a - I think a good story around it from as far as I could tell from reading about it.

HUANG: It has a mystique. It has a mystique about it.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) It has a mystique.

HUANG: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: It received a zero-star review from The New York Times. I actually didn't know they could do that.

HUANG: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Do you remember what it said?

HUANG: Yeah. It's, if - this could be one of the most interesting restaurants in downtown New York if Eddie paid more attention and wasn't on his phone and all of those things, you know?


EISENBERG: Chastising you, chastising you.

HUANG: Yeah. And I took his criticism. But there was a reason why I was not cooking that night he was there. And it was because...


HUANG: ...I had given this big talk to the kitchen about, guys, we cannot have this restaurant operate at a different level when I'm here and when I'm not here. The test of a really good restaurant and a really good chef and a really good staff is that you guys can do this without me here. And if I'm not here and you can't do it, then I didn't do my job. And that was a night we were testing. And I walked out of the restaurant, and I saw Sam come in. And in retrospect, I should have walked home. But instead, I sat in the dining room with my friends because I wanted to see what happened. I was like - it was like smelling your feet. I was like, I've got to see what's going to happen.


HUANG: And, of course, we as a restaurant - we failed. After that review, I just said to myself, I failed. But also, this isn't what I want to do. I don't want to be a chef. I never wanted to be a chef. I cooked food because it was the place that Asian people could have narratives in this country because people expected us to be good at kung fu and good at cooking. We aren't expected to be good at anything else but, like, accounting and doctoring. But I was like, I'm meant to write, and I want to tell stories. And so I just kind of retreated to Baohaus, ran Baohaus as well as I could. I moved my apartment on top of Baohaus so that I never failed again. And I was just working there constantly and writing "Fresh Off The Boat" upstairs.

EISENBERG: Oh, wow. "Fresh Off The Boat" worked out.

HUANG: Yeah.

EISENBERG: All right, Eddie. Are you up for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

HUANG: Yeah.

EISENBERG: We think we have something good cooked up for you. Eddie, you've described yourself as a human panda.


EISENBERG: Please explain.

HUANG: Well, I just feel like a panda, you know? Like, I'm warm. I'm cuddly. I'm slightly overweight.

COULTON: (Laughter).

HUANG: But I have - I do have claws. And I am Asiatic, and I do like a fibrous diet.


EISENBERG: OK, great. Great. Perfect. But this is an amazing moment. It's a game about pandas, and it's called, Is It a Panda?


EISENBERG: So we're going to read you a fact. You just have to tell us if this fact describes a giant panda or if it describes some other black-and-white animal.


EISENBERG: Very easy. So you just have to say panda or not a panda.


EISENBERG: All right. So here's your first one. I think you're ready to basically answer this, but this animal has the digestive system of a carnivore, but it has a vegetarian diet. Is it a panda?

HUANG: Panda, panda.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's a panda.


EISENBERG: It is a panda.

COULTON: All right. The name of this animal is also the name of an extinct language. Is it a panda?

HUANG: Not a panda.

COULTON: You are correct - not a panda. We're talking about Dalmatians, who are named for a historic region of Croatia where the breed originated. And centuries ago, they spoke a language called Dalmatian, which is no longer spoken.

EISENBERG: It had 101 different words for spot.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: All right. This animal has six digits on each paw. Is it a panda?

HUANG: Not a panda.

EISENBERG: It is a panda.

HUANG: It is a panda.

EISENBERG: So get this. Each panda paw has five fingers. But then their wrist bone works like an opposable thumb. And when I read this, I thought, well, that's disgusting.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: And then I looked up, you know, pictures on - photos on Google and turns out - adorable, just like a panda, even...

HUANG: I got tricked because I met a panda, and I shook its hand, and there was five fingers. So this is mad.



HUANG: I'm failing.


COULTON: I guess that I've never looked at a panda's hand up close. But yeah, it does sound pretty - (laughter).

EISENBERG: Well, later today. Later today, when you...

COULTON: Yeah, later today I'll check out my panda more closely.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HUANG: You got to meet a - I met a panda. We really got along quite well.

EISENBERG: What? How? How?

HUANG: In Chengdu, in Sichuan. In China, you can go to the panda reservation and meet them. And I swear to God. I have it on tape. It's on a Vice episode. This panda clawed everybody. And they had to give it honey so that it would lick its paw when people went to take photos.


HUANG: But with me, the panda just laid into my lap and hugged me - didn't even claw me.


HUANG: That's when I knew...


HUANG: ...I was a panda.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that you were - of course.

HUANG: Yeah, I just didn't...

COULTON: That's a real thing.

HUANG: ...Know it had a sixth digit. I didn't know.

COULTON: Or maybe you had a bunch of honey in your lap, maybe is what it was.


HUANG: Yeah (laughter).

EISENBERG: Were you wearing those honey shorts? All right. This animal has been seen performing a handstand while it pees. Is it a panda?

HUANG: It is a panda.

EISENBERG: It sure is a panda.

HUANG: It's a panda, yes.


COULTON: Very confident answer there. Did you...

HUANG: Yeah.

COULTON: Do you have specialized knowledge about this handstand peeing?

HUANG: I've just watched so many YouTube videos of pandas, and they're quite acrobatic animals.


EISENBERG: Yeah. I mean, it usually...

HUANG: They're kind of idiot savants, too. Like, you watch them do something amazing, and then they fall over and wreck, like, whatever thing they're doing.


HUANG: But I relate to that.

EISENBERG: Right. Both, like, agile and clumsy at the same time, yeah.

HUANG: Yeah. Like, I - honestly, I could write you a book, but I could not fix your lightbulb. I can't do stuff.


COULTON: All right, this is the last question. This animal was first brought to the United States in the 1850s. Is it the panda?

HUANG: Not a panda because I believe the pandas came later, to D.C. first.

COULTON: You are correct. This is actually describing a Holstein cow, classic black-and-white-spotted breed of cow which was brought here in the 1850s.


COULTON: Giant panda was brought from China, actually, to San Francisco first in 1936.


COULTON: Immediately a sensation because - pandas.


HUANG: Yeah, pandas.

EISENBERG: You know your panda facts.

HUANG: Some.

EISENBERG: Amazing. Thank you so much for joining us. Eddie Huang's new movie "Boogie" is out now. Thank you.

HUANG: Any time. A lot of fun, guys. Great show.

EISENBERG: Thank you.

HUANG: Highly recommend doing this show.


EISENBERG: That's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff, along with Cara Weinberger and senior writer Camilla Franklin and Karen Lurie, with additional material by Ashley Brook Roberts. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber, Rommel Wood and our intern Sophie Hernandez-Simeonidis. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel, and our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.



EISENBERG: Hey. You're still listening. Fantastic. So since you're still here, why not pop over to Apple Podcasts and write us a review? We'd love to hear from you, and it also helps others find out about our show. For information about new episodes, bonus videos and more, follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Thanks.


EISENBERG: Next time on ASK ME ANOTHER, we're joined by "My Brother, My Brother And Me" podcast hosts Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy. They talk about their book, "Everybody Has A Podcast (Except You)." Plus comedians Shalewa Sharpe and Gastor Almonte compete in a game about sped-up versions of slow jams. So join me on NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER, the answer to life's funnier questions.


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