Eddie Huang, Owner of Xiao Ye, Causes a Stir on Cooking and Asian American Identity

By Guest Contributor Jenn, cross-posted from Reappropriate

Caught this over at CNN’s Eatocracy today.

Eddie Huang is the owner of a Lower East Side Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant in Manhattan called Xiao Ye, which (if I think I understand my Taiwanese) means “midnight snack”, although Eddie suggests in the video above that it means “delicious”. By glancing at the restaurant’s menu, and by gleaning bits from descriptiong of the restaurant’s atmosphere, Xiao Ye apparently caters to the young (Asian American) club-going set, who’re looking for some good, home-cooked comfort food at 4 a.m. in the morning, after a night on the town.

And frankly, as someone who resigns herself to late-night IHOP (because nothing else is freakin’ open!) whenever she goes clubbing, the business plan is motherfuckin’ brilliant. I cannot tell you how badly I crave some pork potstickers, or some rice noodles with scaldingly delicious and hearty beef broth, after a night on the dancefloor and a few too many shots, all served in a place where the music just don’t stop.

Dear Eddie, if you are reading this, please open a branch in Tucson. Seriously.

Xiao Ye has only been open for a few months when, last month, Sam Sifton of the New York Times stopped in for a review. Although the review praised some of Huang’s food, the reviewer was critical of Sifton’s seemingly frenetic menu and hit-or-miss approach. He seemed particularly galled by the fact that Huang was — shockingly — eating food at his restaurant rather than cooking it. Since I’m used to Chinese restaurants where the waiters, kitchen staff, and owners regularly scarf down a meal at the restaurant, I’m not sure I get the issue. Yet, Sifton rated Xiao Ye a “fair”, which is the textbook definition of “damning with faint praise”.

This prompted Eddie to post about the review on his blog, Fresh Off the Boat. Specifically, he posted a most fobilicious email from his mother about the whole incident.

Hi Eddie,

So what do you think about this review. I feel it is a review of your life. It sounds so familiar to The Food Net Work competition Judge’s comments. I guess you never registered all the opinions from those professionals who have seen so many people working toward their success. There is a reason why the other guy won. Good taste, hardworking attitudes, great values. In our life, there is a lot of honesty does exist. The vast majority of public will give us a score that we deserve. You have so many different fabulous talents, but to focus, and to perfect it is very crucial. No matter what career you explore, there always going to deal with: discipline, honest hard work, social skills, leadership ON TOP OF YOUR PERSONAL TALENTS.

Your talents will not shine or truly succeed until you have satisfied the basics that other competitors have already.

You have always tried to be different or funny for the sake of funny, to cover up your anger and discomforts about how we Asian are being perceived. It is not necessary to do that, your true talents will lead you above it all. You must know what you really are, and able to do well. Restaurant business is a very very tedious business, and requires on going detailed watching. Is this whole package of restaurant business really what you can do, and enjoy doing? I do not see much difference in the stress levels compare to other choice of career, but much less money rewards. Trust me, you much keep your bar license active just in case you need it. You do not even understand your own strength or the whole scope of this business, and you are not even willing to listen. YOU MUST GET BURNT BEFORE YOU WILL HEAR YOUR MOM. Please calm down, analyze yourself, and be honest. You have a lot of potential, but you must make good choice and stick to it with the best choice. With all the staff, and your korean friend, no one was able to point out or warn you the mistakes, or problems you have???????????????????

As one commenter said, this email totally belongs on MyMomIsAFob.com.

What I found interesting about the whole incident, and why I’m writing about it here, is the conflict between Eddie’s cooking approach — which has all the flair of Asian American youth-clubbing culture — with the “traditional Asian” expectations that seem to be both expressed by his mother in the email above, and in the reasons why Sifton gave Xiao Ye only a passing grade.

When I read Sifton’s review, it felt as if Sifton was upset by Xiao Ye not necessarily because the food was bad — in fact, Sifton remarks upon how good the food is — but on whether or not the food was “authentically Asian”. Certainly, a Cheetos-breaded chicken breast hardly qualifies as traditional Taiwanese fare; was Sifton placing a double-standard upon Xiao Ye because it did not meet his expectations of what a purportedly Taiwanese restaurant should serve? Could Sifton’s review speak to the same stifling stereotyping of who Asians are “supposed to be” that all of us struggle with? Are we not, for example, supposed to be the kind of adventurous cooks who would not dare try to fry a chicken breast in Cheetos crumbles?

Eddie Huang says in the video clip above that much of his motivation is to challenge those stereotypes of who Asian Americans are supposed to be. And indeed, with the hip-hop blaring atmosphere of his restaurant and the risque dish names of his menu, Eddie Huang is the polar opposite of the model minority math nerd stereotype. He is unabashedly hyphenated, and most of his menu items reflect that identity: Bao fries are topped with Ovaltine, head-on prawns are tossed in General Tso’s sauce.

That’s not to say that there aren’t elements of Eddie’s in-your-face Asian American approach that makes me antsy. Eddie’s menu, and his whole restaurant approach, refer to insider language that I worry will come off wrong to an outsider. Xiao Ye‘s menu deliberately slurs r/l’s, which is hilarious to Asian Americans, but would be intolerable if a Gwai Lo did it. Every menu item seems to refer to Asian American tropes – Farewell My Concubine Cucumbers, Chinee Beef Shortribs — but the language is at once familiar, and a little offensive. In particular, there are some dishes that seem borderline sexist, like “Poke-Her Face Prawns”, “Concubine Cucumbers”, ”Poontang Potstickers”, and “Taiwanese Flat Booty Cake”.  The description of the Beef Noodle Soup refers to hard-ass Asian parents and report cards. Is all this accessible, or stereotype-promoting, to a non-Asian crowd?

In the video interview above, Eddie Huang talks about wanting to challenge stereotypes. And frankly, I’m all about showing the other side of Asian Americana — you know, the one that doesn’t give a shit about your Kumon homwork. But, is Xiao Ye‘s approach the way to do it? I really, honestly, don’t know. I like Eddie’s ideas, and I like some of his execution, but I’m also with Eddie’s mom that there are elements of it that threaten to make Eddie look like he doesn’t take himself seriously enough to really want to fight the  hype.

I don’t know. Isn’t there a happy middle-ground between math nerd and I-don’t-give-a-f-ck boozer?