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Laid-Off Associate Is Now Celebrity Chef

Vivia Chen

February 12, 2013

 You figure getting a professional degree can't possibly put you in a shittier place than you were in previously, but that's a misconception. It's like having kids. In theory they cool, but the motherfuckers will shit on your life mad quick if you're not ready. 

                                                                                                            Fresh Off the Boat

FOTBAMcoverEddie Huang can now tell Big Law where to stick it.

A onetime big-firm associate, Huang is now a celebrity chef with his own show on Vice TV. He's also been named a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) fellow, and Town & Country magazine designated him as one of 101 people to know. But what's really putting him on the map lately is his book, Fresh Off the Boat, an expletive-laced memoir about his childhood in Orlando and his road to food celebritydom. 

The book is a rambling rant about racism, lousy parenting, Chinese food, hip hop, football, basketball, Asian masculinity, and anger—to name just a few themes. There are lots of fascinating nuggets in the book, but two things jumped out at me.

First, Huang represents every Tiger Mom's nightmare child. Despite his parents' tough—and arguably abusive—discipline, he's a kid who just can't stay out of trouble. He gets kicked out of numerous private schools, and gets arrested for assault. Second, you have to ask why a hellbent kid like Huang ended up going to law school, then on to corporate law.

I asked Huang whether he wrote the book as a rebuke to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and he got quite impassioned. "I was really, really angry when I saw that book. She is reinforcing a stereotype about us."

That stereotype, of course, is the high-achieving, rule-abiding Asian—the prototype of the perfect big-firm associate. Huang is the antithesis. Which brings us to how and why Huang decided to embark on a legal career.

Huang said he went to law school because he had (and still has) a blemished legal record (an assault conviction), and he thought law school would give him legitimacy. "I wanted to go to law so school so that I'd be respected. . . .There are a lot of things in my life I'm not proud of."

Eddie HuangAfter graduating from Cardozo Law School (in the book he slams the Asian American law student group at Cardozo—he calls them  "pea-brained, slanted-eyed idiots"—because "everyone was concerned with jobs" rather than identity issues), he landed at Chadbourne & Parke (Huang, on left, from the Chadbourne site). Though the book never mentions Chadbourne by name and Huang won't comment about his time in practice, it's clear that he had no desire to be the typical associate. "While other associates competed on billable work trying to climb the ladder, I got high," he writes.

After getting laid off in 2009 during the recession (he worked as a lawyer for less than a year), Huang did stand-up comedy and sold dope, according to his book. Then he focused on his career options. Among them, besides stand-up: playing for the Redskins or the Knicks, or starting a restaurant. He writes in his book:

I was 27, just laid-off, looking for a new career. . . .The answer was clear: Eddie Huang was going to open a restaurant.

In the book, Huang makes his ascent up the food ladder sound pretty smooth. But he's brutally honest about how hard it's been to convince his parents that working in a kitchen is a better career than lawyering (see "When Mom Disses Your Work"). Even when The New York Times puts his restaurant Baohaus on the map, his parents are disapproving:

I told my parents the story, but they just shook me off like they always did. Even on that day, nothing impressed them and it hurt.

Still, Huang's story is upbeat—the kind of saga that should give hope to the legions of disenfranchised lawyers who dream of a breakout career.

So let's cut to the bottom line: How successful is Huang—and is he making a decent living? "Yup," he assured me. "I host a TV show. I have a New York Times bestseller. I own a restaurant. I do better than most lawyers."


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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Thanks for this article. It reinforces something that I have held true since the beginning of my career. Too many people attend law school and become lawyers because they test well and it is an honorable choice NOT because they actually want to be lawyers. Eventually, the fortunate ones like Huang, leave the ranks of practitioners and find their passions. The rest work too hard, complain too much and dream of retirement. Since he's doing what he wants and isn't borrowing $ from his parents he's a HUGE success in my book.

Hi Thank you for this article - it will help others stuck in mire of parents wish to make us make them look good - altho it is understood - status - financial security - but it is a bit one sided - as it pertains to sons

This guy's hilarious! I'm buying his book.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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