Sam Sifton, the New York Times' much feared restaurant critic, wasn't hugely impressed by what he saw at Xiao Ye, the restaurant started by Taiwanese-American food personality Eddie Huang. "[It's] really too bad," Sifton sniffed. "Because if Mr. Huang spent even a third of the time cooking that he does writing funny blog posts and wry Twitter updates, posting hip-hop videos and responding to Internet friends, rivals, critics and customers, Xiao Ye might be one of the more interesting restaurants to open in New York City in the last few months." Grade: zero stars.
Xiao Ye went out of business, but Huang is still going strong. Both facts speak to a sea change in food culture, one that has had veteran chefs mad for a long time and that even Establishment critics like Sifton have finally noted: you don't have to earn your food cred the hard way anymore. Huang gets by on a cocktail of personality, hustle, some luck, some cooking skills but most of all a really compelling ability to communicate who he is to the world. If you want to understand where the food world is going and the special way that it intersects with our social-media-driven public life, he is the guy you should be looking at.
Huang didn't go to cooking school. He's a former lawyer whose most conspicuous previous business venture before opening up Baohaus, his tiny Lower East Side sandwich shop, was as a purveyor of designer hooded sweatshirts to downtown hip-hop types. Baohaus, which opened in December 2009, is still a work in progress but so what? Your résumé as a chef used to matter. It doesn't anymore. So the world has opened up to Huang: he has a book deal in the offing, a memoir of his Asian-American youth ("We're not all National Merit Scholars," he says); a blog, Fresh off the Boat, that is now officially my favorite one-man food site; and even a TV project currently being discussed with the Food Network.
That's a lot for a 25-year-old with a six-seat Asian sandwich shop, even by the standards of the Twitter era. But that's O.K.; how many people ate in Johnny Garlic's or Tex Wasabi's, Guy Fieri's restaurants? And it was Fieri himself who first encouraged Huang, then a contestant on Ultimate Recipe Showdown. "He told me, 'You have something,' " Huang says. That was in March 2010; it isn't even a year later, and Huang is already rebuilding after his first serious restaurant went under. (The Sifton review didn't help.)
His response was typical, and it should be enough to tell you why Huang is going to be a success. After the review came out, Huang's mom sent him a letter roasting him for his failures: "I feel it is a review of your life. It sounds so familiar to the Food Network 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 ... 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 GET BURNT BEFORE YOU WILL HEAR YOUR MOM." Huang immediately published the letter on his blog, which in turn got picked up by Eater, the New York City food world's primary involuntary nervous system. A few months later, during the hubbub surrounding Amy Chua's "tiger mom" manifesto, he published a hilarious, moving tribute to his own father: "There are a million Amy Chuas pumping out Ivory Tower Lap Dog Asians but there's one Louis Huang and he had a Money Gettin' Chinkstronaut Like Me." It was forwarded to me by half a dozen people from different parts of the country.
What this means is that Huang won't have a big problem getting someone to finance his next restaurant, even though his first one was a conspicuous failure, and even though he's never even worked in a good New York City restaurant or, for that matter, any restaurant besides his father's steakhouse in Orlando, Fla. And why? Because of all those "funny blog posts and wry Twitter updates, posting hip-hop videos and responding to Internet friends, rivals, critics and customers." The bar on Asian food isn't set high, since most Americans haven't had good versions of it even in New York City, it can be flawed indeed and its makers won't get called on it unless they charge too much. Someone like Huang has built a cult of personality, and I'm in the cult. What I think of the food in his next restaurant won't matter one bit, unless it's truly horrendous and even then, I'll probably tweet about it, keeping the cult alive. Better to learn to cook on the run than to master the craft and then steep in obscurity. Huang knows that much, anyway.
Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.