Eddie Huang Eats His Way to YouTube Fame

Chef bypasses TV and produces 'Fresh Off the Boat' for online auds

Chef Eddie Huang, star of Vice Media's Fresh Off the Boat series.

For an outspoken and occasionally controversial chef like Eddie Huang, traditional food networks aren’t the right fit, so the owner of New York City’s Baohaus turned to YouTube.

After hosting the Vice Media web series “Munchies,” Huang and the network that’s built a strong following with hard-to-reach millennials, launched “Fresh Off the Boat,” designed as part food and travel show, that finds Huang investigating the culinary underbellies of San Francisco, Miami, Taiwan, Los Angeles and his native New York.

Through the show, Huang could join a new crop of “YouTube stars” that are turning the web into a way to express themselves but also build a digital following that can lead to new financially lucrative opportunities.

For Vice, shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” give it original programming to exploit across a growing network of digital channels, and naturally monetize at the same time. Brooklyn-based Vice, launched as a free punk ‘zine in 1994, but has since added several YouTube-backed channels, a record label, book publishing biz, TV production studio and creative services agency that all speak directly to younger auds. “Fresh Off the Boat” is one of a dozen series Vice is producing this fall.

“We shine a light on food stories that people aren’t telling,” Huang told Variety. “I wanted to find cultural stories told through food because America’s food scene is interesting. There is a lot of food culture that goes on in the home and in the community in non-traditional ways. Food is a lot more than restaurants.”

In the first installment, Huang attends a Vietnamese block party in San Francisco’s Mission district, shoots rabbits with a motorcycle gang in Oakland, and gets his hair cut ‘Ducktail’ style with Filipinos in Daly City.

Given the short attention spans of the web, 18 episodes are broken up into six-minute segments, with the Bay Area trip playing out through Oct. 29 before moving to the next destination. First “season” of “Fresh Off the Boat” wraps up March 25.

Huang never intended “Fresh Off the Boat” to become a brand, but the name launched his blog, the current series and also an upcoming memoir, out Jan. 28, published by Spiegel and Grau, a division of Random House.

After appearing on shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover,” Huang hosted his own short-lived series “Cheap Bites” on Scripps Networks’ Cooking Channel, but “it didn’t work out for me,” Huang said. “They were trying to package me as the Asian guy and overplayed it. I didn’t want to be put in a box and overly branded.”

Since then, he’s paired up with Vice TV and finds himself gravitating more toward the web.

“We wanted to purposely be on the web and develop a fanbase and a following and show what is possible,” Huang said. “This is what a food show can look like. For me, it’s easy to find stories. You eat somewhere, you go somewhere and a good story punches you in the face.

“This show couldn’t have happened on a (TV) network,” Huang said of “Fresh Off the Boat.” “It’s fun to do a web show because there aren’t any rules. What’s been amazing is to have complete creative license to find the stories and tell the jokes you want to tell. This is how people really talk. We’re not trying to be anything we’re not.” In previous interviews Huang has said he objected to not being able to make mock on-air che-lebs like Guy Fieri and Anne Burrell while working for Scripps.

The production on a web show also is quicker, making it more appealing to a busy chef. Whereas most cooking shows can take six to seven months to make it to air, episodes of “Fresh Off the Boat” are shot and turned around within five weeks.

Huang admits he didn’t necessarily need to launch a web series or get on TV. He also doesn’t recommend the celebrity chef route for everyone.

“Chefs don’t have to do this,” Huang said. “There are tons of chefs who own restaurants, mind their business and turn out amazing food and feed their families. But some have to do this because they decided to open up big box restaurants and they need to fill those restaurants with tourists and dumbasses. They sentenced themselves to this life. They choose this career path. If you go on TV and people make fun of you, you signed up for this shit, dude. I signed up for this. I enjoy doing this. I blog because I have something to say. I love shooting this show because I really like to tell these stories.”