Tools for Telling Stories: Food and Social Media
“Don’t be afraid to tell your story.” That was the message Eddie Huang delivered on Monday at a South by Southwest Interactive panel. Perched at the podium, Huang rattled off self-help one-liners from the Tao Te Ching and held forth about his favorite topic, Eddie Huang, and his journey from unemployed lawyer to celebrity chef.
How did he do it? He let go, and stayed true to himself. A Taiwanese American with a penchant for irreverence, pranks, and pork buns, Huang bounced from job to job (he designed street clothes, did stand-up comedy, and even sold pot) until he and his brother dumped all of their savings into a little café selling Taiwanese style comfort food. “Opening the BaoHaus was one of the least planned things I have ever done…and it worked,” proclaimed Huang during the panel.
Using the BaoHaus as a platform, Huang started a street-smart blog in which he prattled about everything from food to drugs to politics, attracting followers but alienating others. The BaoHaus itself became mecca for young foodies. This eventually spawned an internet food show on Vice.com, another failed restaurant venture, the book Fresh Off the Boat (Random House, $26)and now a film. From this experience, Huang councils other would be restaurateurs, filmmakers, or creative types to just “follow your heart. People in a community relate to a good story and the beauty of social media is that it allows people to tell it in a completely unfiltered manner.”
Questions from the uniformly young and deferential audience ranged in theme.
How does a restaurant owner help chefs to market themselves through social media? Answer: why do chefs need to be the only ones with a story? Why not include your waitstaff or your busboys in social media posts. It’s all about the story, and the dishwasher might have a great one to tell. But social media is also about fun, so let people know that they should just have fun with it.
Why do you think Taiwanese food doesn’t get the attention that other Chinese food does? Huang referred to the lemming effect among immigrants. If one person comes up with a successful restaurant concept, the next month, there will be half a dozen restaurants just like it in the same neighborhood. American expectations also play into this. Americans expect Chinese food to be a certain way, taste a certain way, and this hamstrings innovation. The other factor is that many of the greatest chefs cannot tell their own story because of language barriers. Huang sees that part of his mission is to tell that story for them.
How does it feel to be always pushing boundaries of the (media and food) establishment and yet be someone who is now embraced by it? Dancing around this a bit, Huang finally stood firm and restated that he prefers to distance himself from the food industry. Even at events like SXSW, “I like to stay in my own bubble; I don’t let anyone else get in my head.”
Prior to the panel I had asked for interview with Huang. His press assistant declined, citing Huang’s busy schedule in Austin. I privately wondered whether it has anything to do with the fact that I have only one follower on Twitter. Maybe he just didn’t want anyone to get into his head. I admit, I came away from the panel with a certain amount of admiration for the brash boy blunder.