Growing up as a Taiwanese transplant into the fertile soil of these United States, restaurateur, author, and "human panda" Eddie Huang has never been shy about his love for marijuana, contributing a much-loved recipe for Cheeto Fried Chicken to The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook. Huang's new memoir, Fresh Off the Boat—an often hilarious account of a young immigrant's search for identity while growing up in an American culture obsessed with fast food, sneakers and rap stars—has hit the New York Times bestseller list. Bad-boy chef Huang hosts a food travel show, also called "Fresh Off the Boat," on VICE.com, and was named a 2013 TED fellow, only to have the honor rescinded after he left the conference to do a podcast with porn star Asa Akira. He also served the banned, caffeinated malt liquor Four Loko in his restaurant Xiao Ye until hefty fines forced him to close the establishment, and legendarily hot boxed his bun shop, Baohous, in NYC's Lower East Side. His brash, outspoken opinions on everything from the TV show Girls to how to properly eat soup dumplings has made him a darling of the food press, and his Twitter account keeps it real, with over 20,000 followers.
We sat down with Eddie in Los Angeles to learn all about how dealing marijuana translates into business experience, how to score herb in Taiwan and what he'll do when pot is finally legal in New York City.
Oh yes, so speaking of the cheeto fried chicken in The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook, what was the inspiration for that recipe?
Well, people just make tempura and I remember when people were using the crunch on the tempura for the [fried chicken] batter, and it's just like bread crumbs and people like bread crumb batter. I was like "but bread is so boring, why don't people use chips or cheetos?" Even at the crib I would just crumble up those Cape Cod salt and vinegar chips that were so good, and then I would roll the fried fish in it. So I started doing it with cheetos with the chicken and I didn't know how crazy it would get but everyone just went nuts for that fried chicken. Everyone wanted to try fried chicken with cheetos as the crust, it was cool.
And have you cooked with marijuana as an ingredient a lot or ...
Not a lot. I'm not the biggest edibles dude but I have. Like I make brownies, I made butter for green tea salmon. So really, you make the butter and then you cook anything with it. I'm one of those dudes whose heart goes crazy from eating edibles.
Do you have any tips of working with the flavor of cannabis?
Yeah, it goes really well with things like lamb, so if something's musky and you wanna mask a flavor, you can use it almost like a mint jelly, right, so I think the weed butter is like a masking agent. So you wanna neutralize funky flavors or you wanna mask the funky flavor. So obviously things with chocolate do very well with it. What else? And you can try to use it as an aromatic like what I did with my green tea salmon. You wanna think of it like, how can you either accent something or overpower it so you don't taste it. I think that's the two approaches.
What do you think of the idea of stoner cuisine as it's been talked about in the media? Not so much the idea of food with pot in it, but that food that's to appeal to somebody who's stoned or that was created in that mindset?
I think of it this way. I'm like 30 now, my metabolism is slowing down, my cholesterol is crazy, so I've been trying to like eat better, but when I get high, I'm like yo, fuck all that. Like, I'm eating whatever I want to eat and so I do love the attitude of restaurants where, it's indulgent food, and it's indulgent flavors that you normally wouldn't allow yourself to have. That's what I associate with smoking weed. It's like, I'm so happy right now, I feel so good and I don't give a fuck so I'm going eat whatever it is I wanna eat. That's stoner food culture for me, especially in New York! Some days I will have eaten really well, a lot of vegetables, lean meats, but I'll get high at like 2:00 a.m. and I'm like "Man I had no fun today!" and I will put on my jacket and shoes and go out to wherever's open for 24 hours and eat. It's crazy!
You know, I do discover a lot of flavor combinations when I'm high that I normally wouldn't. There are things that I will come up with—especially with our desserts, like my bread pudding that I make with baos*. I was high when I thought of that because I wanted bread pudding for the next day and I didn't have bread so I used baos and I think a lot of ideas for the dishes that I come up happen when I'm high. I definitely do!
*(bao is a traditional Chinese steamed, filled bun)
That actually lines up with the science of cannabis. It's been proven that the mind makes associations between two different things faster and then more unique ways with THC and cannabis.
I definitely feel that way. I have this recipe document on Google, and anytime I'm high, I'll have it open when I'm at the crib and I just start plugging things in because I know that I'm going to get ideas. And yeah, the associations and shit but it's also that, when you are high, you wanna think about food. I think about food and I think about sex and that's pretty much it when I'm high.
We saw the Fela musical on Broadway and there's this part where one of his many wives is berating him, 'all you think about is music, pussy, ganja and ice cream' or something and he was like, "What's wrong with that?"
Yeah, when I'm high I just wanna eat gummy bears and get a blow job. That's pretty much it.
Well, we might have some gummy bears upstairs but ... that's about as far ...
Just want gummy bears and my dick sucked. That's awesome.
You're pretty forthcoming in the book that you sold marijuana as more than a hobby. Explain to people how that helped prepare you for other business ventures.
That's a great question. I love this question because other people don't ask it, but I think even in the book I talk about how it was super fucking helpful. When you're dealing with multiple people running shit for me, you know, doing drops and then on consignment and yo, you have to run that crew. And it's not a gang but it's a business. I think in this business, because there's a lot less structure to it, a lot of it depends on how strong of a hand you have and how you can control the people working for you and keep them in line and the stakes are kind of high.
So, I definitely learned a lot of management skills, I definitely learned to read people. I think the nature of the business of owning Baohaus, you have to read people a lot. It takes a certain kind of animal to work for someone selling weed or running it and doing the drops, so a lot of times those people that I work with don't give a fuck just like I don't give a fuck, so how do you keep them, how do you motivate them? I learned different ways to motivate people, I learned different ways to keep people in line. And that's one thing I realize too, I just love Bauhaus, I love cooking, I have a passion for it, I wanna work and that's a good thing, but also you realize how hard people work when they just need the bread, you know?
Yeah, so, I don't know. I'm rambling but it taught me a multitude of things. I'm trying to narrow it down to one thing ...
Yeah, managing inventory, oh, especially when shit gets dry you know, definitely when shit gets dry toward the end of the week or whatever, you know you have to move it, you may give people a little more weight. The funniest was when I was selling weed and my parents lived with me for a little bit, in Brooklyn, and by the end of it they were just like, "You are selling weed out of here 24/7. That's not just your friend coming to watch TV!" It's pretty funny.
So you learn management of people, you learn to be clandestine, and networking. Networking is the biggest fucking thing because you can't just go advertise it. So definitely I learned a lot about relationships and networking and first impressions. You know, the first time somebody cops from you, you gotta get them into a habit cause there's so many other people that they can buy from and you can't advertise and you have to attract customer loyalty through a lot of non-traditional means. I know that sounds dorky but I definitely learned that from selling weed.
Like guerilla marketing?
Yeah, like I would go to Container Store and buy like the container that no one else was using. Because everyone was using the plastic cubes, I wouldn't use it. I went to the container store and got the ill vials and put it in there and gave them to people with like metal tooth picks to get buds out and I would just like throw that in and people appreciated that. It was funny, all the kids in Brooklyn really liked that because they were like, "there's a lot more style to what Eddie's doing." In Manhattan they didn't give a fuck. They were like "you're giving me less weight and you have it in this container [thing" so that was kind of funny about the boroughs. But no, you gotta read customers, you gotta see what's selling… I remember that I could never ever move Sour Diesel in Harlem. In Harlem everybody wanted haze. Queens would smoke anything. Like I could have mongo pinya and they would buy mongo pinya in Queens. But Brooklyn was really fuckin' picky and everyone wanted Sour in Brooklyn…
And this was like what year?
This was probably like around late 2007, it was 2008 to 2009. Sour Diesel is my favorite strain and I'll smoke Headband and I've smoked a few other things that I really like, but Sour is my shit. And definitely, in Brooklyn, people were Sourheads, and I was one of the only ones in Fort Green at that time with Sour and I got it directly from someone who was growing it. My shit was fluffy and sticky and that shit just moved! But I remember going to Harlem—they wouldn't pay the price for it, and the dudes were like look, "This is dope and I like it, but I could pay a lot less and have haze and that shit is gonna move itself." So that was what I thought was interesting, that boroughs were very like kind of divided on strains. Manhattan always wanted super exotic shit like L.A. Confidential. It was funny.
Would you say that you have a well developed palate [for cannabis] in the way that you must for food?
Yeah, I think so. Like I definitely, definitely notice the flavors when I taste it. But I don't care as much about flavor as I do about high. That's what I really look for, I don't know what you guys judge it on for the Cannabis Cup, is it more about the high or more the flavor?
There are several qualifications, including the cure and how well it burns, does it have a white ash, because that will mean that it was well flushed. There's a lot of stuff that we consider, the appearance, the smell, the flavor, the high and everything.
Yeah, and it's all weighted categories and then it goes to a laboratory and they test for THC and CBD and those are weighted into a formula. So it's multiple judges in each category—blind tasting—then you fill out a sheet for every entry in all these categories with a 1 through 5. It's a state of the art system.
What's really been kind of cool to see is, yes, people have their personal preferences, always, of everything but the cream rises to the top.
Yeah, no with everything it does. When it comes through your hands every week, you could tell the difference even if it was the same strain, same grower. You could tell differences, like sometimes its wet, sometimes the smell isn't as pungent. In terms of a restaurant, it's like dealing with a purveyor. You know what I mean? Like when you order tomatoes, the tomatoes don't always show up in the same shape. I learned how to evaluate produce from selling weed, along networking and word of mouth. Word of mouth is so important to every business, but especially with weed.
Like, does the dude stay at your crib like after he sells to you, does he stay and try to smoke, or is he in and out? You want the dude that's just in and out. You know, so I was always that dude, but would just be friendly enough so they would pass me on to someone else. Always on time, too! You develop a customer base and people are loyal to you for a myriad of reasons and it's super-personal and so I learned a lot about that. I learned a lot about that customer service shit and the marketing.
You talk about social justice issues a lot in the book. What do you think about marijuana and the drug war as a social justice issue?
Well, I think it's a very valid social justice issue. In the book the first thing I ever wanted to debate was legalization of marijuana. You know, that's why we tried to join the debate club and they wouldn't even let us talk about it. I don't know if you remember that passage…
That's good. It's hilarious.
Yeah, it was very funny. I don't know if you remember, I actually threw the Four Loko (banned caffeinated malt liquor) party 'cause I didn't think that it was fair that Four Loko was being legislated against and Senator Charles Schumer wanted to make a big stink about Four Loko so that there would be media stories about him. And Four Loko was easy to target 'cause 'what about the children?" and I feel more strongly about marijuana than I ever did for Four Loko. But for Loko I threw that party and I lost my restaurant [Xiao Yie] because of that party. Everybody already knows the main points about marijuana, that cigarettes are worse for you, alcohol is worse for you and if you're going to allow those things, there's really not a legal high ground to stand on for why marijuana should not be legal. Especially since it actually has benefits that those other things don't have. I don't think anyone's glaucoma has gotten better from drinking beer.
What were your feelings when Colorado and Washington legalized this November?
I'm excited anytime somebody legalizes! It's pretty decriminalized in New York but I can't wait for us to have dispensaries in New York because just imagine how people will freak that business out. You unleash that business in New York, and people will do really, really interesting things with that business.
Could you see having a line of edibles?
Oh, I would definitely do a line of edibles, if they would trust me with a dispensary I would definitely do a line of edibles. What I would wanna do is ice cream with weed butter or weed cream. I would open up an ice cream shop, like an ice cream dispensary. Does that touch your heart?
Oh my god, yeah. When you were talking about how you would get out of bed and go get food, like ice cream is the only thing that has ever made me get up out of bed and go get something. When I was living in Midtown, you know, the shop on the corner is open 24 hours, I'm in bed, it's 2:30 in the morning ...
Yep. And just crush a pint.
Yeah, that's pretty funny! Back to your original question, I think actually the best use of THC is in ice cream. You know, if you make ice cream with that shit, like mint, like weed brownie, if you have brownie chunks in the weed butter, like that's amazing! So if we got dispensaries, I would open one of those. But it'd just be cool. I don't know what the law is, but I can't wait for it to be legalized in New York. That would be amazing.
So, there's conflicting, a lot of conflicting ideas about where the first marijuana plants grew but there's a lot of compelling evidence that it was western China or possibly the Kush Mountains, and I'm wondering if you ever encountered it there in your travels when you go to China. Have you encountered people that grow it and smoke it? Is there any culture around it like there is here?
Yeah. The culture of it is actually very underground because it's heavily criminalized in Taiwan and China. You know, if you get caught with it, you'll do time. So people are very secretive about it and even when I've asked people, initially, they're like, whoa, whoa, whoa, I can't talk to you about this. Like that's a big fucking deal! But in Taiwan I got hooked up. I smoked up, I smoked up 'til then the worst weed ever. Like the Worst Weed! Same experience in China, same experience in Taiwan… the other thing that's funny too is, when I've gone to the Caribbean it's all like dirt weed too, which was very surprising to me, but um… China and Taiwan, it definitely, it was really bad weed. It was really really bad weed and it was very tough to find people.
I always was successful and I always ended up getting high, but it was like pretty clandestine, you know. You see people with pot leaf paraphernalia but, no man, I wish they'd bring it back there too because smoking in tea houses is amazing. You know, to get high and go to a tea house is really dope. To get high and eat street food is the best experience ever! I really wish that they would decriminalize it because to experience weed in a more liberal setting in Taiwan would be absolutely out of control.
Have you ever been to Amsterdam?
Yeah, I have. I went there when I was like 15 and it blew my mind. This was like 1998 that I went or '97. To be able to even press a dispenser and a pack of joints came out it just fuckin' blew my mind. It was like one of those old cigarette dispensing machines, I mean they just took the signs off and put 5 joints, $20. It was really cool.
What the story behind the infamous hot-boxing of Baohaus?
What happened was my boy had thrown a party down at South Street Seaport and after the party, we all decided, why don't we go to Bauhaus, and we can just eat baos or whatever and we'll have fun. And one dude was like, 'yo, I got a blunt, can we blaze somewhere?' I was like 'why don't we just blaze in the restaurant.' They're like 'you could do that?' I was like 'I own this shit.' And they were like, 'alright.'
We had customers there, and I was like, I didn't give a fuck, because this is my restaurant, and if you don't like people who smoke weed, then get the fuck out. So I leaned over to the people sitting in the restaurant, and said, 'yo, do you guys mind if we smoke weed in the restaurant?' and everyone looked around, they're like, 'no. Can we smoke too?' And I was like 'yeah.'
That's when I knew that I had customers that I liked, you know, and so we lit it up and we locked the door. People kept knocking because they wanted to come in and eat and we'd open the door periodically and we'd be like, 'yo, you can get it to go or you can stay and smoke weed' and people were like, 'let's stay and smoke weed,' and before you knew it the restaurant was fucking full of people!
Then it got too full so we had to close the door again, and then we hot boxed the restaurant and everyone walking by was banging on the window, and it became kind of legendary. No one called the cops or anything, but the people that were in the neighborhood remember it, and it was like, 'yo, the owner hot boxed that restaurant.' It was a ill thing, you know. It was cool.
Yeah, I remember hearing about it.
Yeah, everyone that smoked weed downtown was just like 'yo, I'll fuck with those dudes, because they risked their business, they don't care, they're down for weed.'
As someone who's very open about loving pot, have you experienced that good will that is extended in this community?
I definitely think that with weed, it's something like food that everybody can bond over. It's a common denominator for a lot of things, and there's something that you have in common with other everyday smokers. It's a unique animal that smokes everyday and you definitely have a kinship with other people like that. When I'm on the road and I need weed, people are like, 'no, no, no, I got you.' So, I guess the good will is just that you love it so much. I smoke everyday. Once a year I'll try to quit for two weeks or something just to chill, when I feel my brain is fried.
Try to quit forever or try to quit for two weeks?
No, no, no. Every year I try to quit for like two weeks just to refresh. I'm not addicted, yo, I love my time with weed, those few hours everyday with weed, are fuckin' beautiful hours, do you know what I mean? I don't know what it is, I don't know how to explain, but there is a love for weed, and when you see somebody else who needs it, you're like, yo, I will grant this wish because I know how it feels.
And so you're obviously a very busy guy with a lot of balls in the air and so how does weed fit in and actually support that lifestyle as opposed to what the stereotype is ...
I'm a really energetic dude and I'm also very cynical and paranoid and in the weirdest way smoking weed makes me less paranoid. I don't know if that's possible. But I feel less paranoid and I relax. I smoke weed everyday, and if I don't have much to do, I'll smoke during the day, but usually I smoke around 7:30, 8:00 and it's really dope because I unwind. Really, that's my time to marinate, and go through the day step by step and do daily agendas about the restaurant. Weed really helps me to calm down and process everything that happened that day. No lie. It really does and I've used it pretty effectively and when I'm worked up about shit, I'll smoke weed, and miraculously 45 minutes later, I'm like, that dude ain't that bad, he ain't out to get me. I feel like people are out to get me sometimes, but I smoke weed and I'm like no man, I'm good. And it does carry over to the next day and I'll remember it. It helps a lot. Especially in New York where you have so many interactions everyday, you gotta just like chill and unwind. So it's a very essential part of my day.