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Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir

Celebrity chef Eddie Huang's memoir offers a hilariously unflinching look at the American dream from a 21st-century immigrant's perspective.

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TV chef Anthony Bourdain says, “He [Huang] is bigger than food,” and you had better believe it. Huang has two fingers on the pulse of US culture, and it has served him well in his quest for a socially relevant restaurant. The concept of his restaurant "Baohaus" has always been about community. For him, making good, ethical food is the right thing to do (as is "hotboxing" his own restaurant).

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Huang recognizes that the American dream is not only for Americans. The USA was built on immigrant workers who more often than not get caught in stereotypes. His hostility towards the establishment and the hypocrisy of the “model minorities” is made strangely palatable by his smart/hard/Def Jam-but-substantial comedy style. Say one thing about Huang, say he knows how to dress a plate.

Sometimes I had trouble following the scene changes. He shows up in North Carolina and Pittsburgh with little notice. I also had trouble figuring out how old he was in a few spots. The few poor transitions were a long way away from making the book unreadable, though. Huang gets closer to that himself with his dirty mouth and over-the-top depictions of violence and drug use. You might not agree with his morals, but they are at least well-reasoned.

In the best tradition of food writers, Huang’s descriptions of his cooking will make you hungry, even if you’ve already eaten. But you have to understand that this book is not about food, it’s about him. It’s just that food is a part of his identity. 

Abrasive and brash, yet weirdly endearing, Huang’s memoir is an authentic account of a young man’s struggle to find his individuality and identity in a culture that would force him to conform. If you want to understand hip-hop culture, the modern struggles of Asian American immigrants, what makes ethnic food “authentic,” and why the Orlando Magic can't win an NBA title, this is the book for you.

Ben Frederick is a Monitor contributor

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