Thu Tran is the host and creator of Food Party, quite possibly the only cooking program you should be watching. The show is a labor of strange love between the 27-year-old and her friends, who hand-make the supporting cast, sets and props. In the first two episodes, cardboard versions of Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and LeBron James make dinner plans with Tran, and the artist spends a good half hour whipping up snacks made from common household items like spray cheese, Buffalo chicken wings, and tree-grown doughnuts. Also making appearances on Food Party are the devil (who plays righteous rock hero guitar), and a lovelorn ice cream cone that lives in the permafrost freezer compartment. Maybe just watch some segments here.
Thu Tran and her collaborators are currently putting final touches on the fourth episode. From the looks of a preview posted on their site, major changes are coming to the pantry. We met up with Tran last week at the Roebling Tea Room to discuss the show, the mysterious ubiquity of Elijah Wood, and the fate of the crusty but beloved Senior Baguette, token Francophile.
What happens to the Baguette? It's a secret, I don't want to give away the ending. But someone gets sick.
He looks dead in the sneak peak. All shall be revealed.
[a hamburger arrives at the table] I like the squishy picnic bun.
Have some of my fries. I'm too full. I ate a lot of eggs.
Like how many eggs? Well, I made all this gravy for Thanksgiving. This turkey gravy. And before we ate my friend Peter made all this bacon as a snack so then we poured the drippings on the turkey and I made the gravy with the bacon-turkey drippings. So I just made scrambled eggs with tomatoes and scallions and all the gravy. It was so good.
You just came back from touring with Girl Talk, what were you up to on the tour? Me and my friend Chris were doing the props and visuals. This particular tour, the North American tour, was 35 shows, 33 cities, and 2 cities in Canada. We dressed in costume and made giant inflatables, toilet paper guns, lots of confetti. For the lighting - Chris jigsawed out the logo and dropped it in fluorescent wire. We all went to school together and have known each other for a really long time. We're like family.
Episode 4 is coming out soon? We'll finish editing it today, and start planning out the release party.
Do you cater those yourself? I actually hosted one at MonkeyTown and the chef there, Ryan, he probably hates me because the first premiere we had I brought over 8 cartons of quail eggs and told him my deviled egg recipe. He made three varieties and they were awesome but for the third episode I had to prepare them myself and it was really, really tedious. I got two of my friends to help me peel like 300 quail eggs for the shoot.
I fried some quail eggs the other night. They're really cute.
The outside was nasty. They smelled. That sounds about right. Oh, I also cooked an ostrich egg for the third episode. I opened it on camera because we only had two and I didn't want to fuck it up. When I cut it open there was so much liquid and it totally smelled like cum. I was whisking it and I was like [makes grossed out face] this smells like cum!
Where do you get an ostrich egg? We couldn't find it in New York but I think you can find it at Whole Foods.
I don't think so. Yeah huh, in Cleveland at the Whole Foods. Alex Lombardo, who also went to school with us, got it from the Whole Foods in Virginia. Our egg budget for that show was so high. We spent like $300 on eggs. That was our biggest expense by far.
Tell me about the new direction of the show. We're trying to make it really contained. So it's not like Gossip Girl, where you have to watch every show to know what is happening.
Yeah. It's not like Gossip Girl. What's up with Ice Cream Cone? We've have three different guys doing his voice. For the first episode I did it and adjusted the voice in Garage Band with the female voice filter. Peter played the devil, Jack Frost, the snowman, and the Italian chef and he did the ice cream voice in some of the videos but his voice is kind of Elmo-like. Zachariah Durr did it and sounds kind of forlorn and creepy and that's now the official voice now.
Did you anticipate Ice Cream Cone's popularity? No. But we knew he was the coolest puppet. My boyfriend (who makes handmade dolls) made it out of scraps for fun and I was like oh my god this is so cute, so we put it in the show.
Is the set for the show in your apartment? For the first two episodes the set was in my apartment in Cleveland. Two of my friends who run a gallery there had a space four times the size of this tea house and divided it up and rented out a studio space to me for like $75 a month so we just built a giant cardboard set there. Mainly me and Dave Krofta, who now lives in Chicago. We spent a couple months building it. And I had a solo show in Cleveland so it was for that too. We shot it with a tiny team Zachariah, Dave who helped me build and was the main puppeteer, me, and my boyfriend Danny B. who wasn't my boyfriend at the time. Just 5 people. That was it. I moved to New York to figure out how to sell this and lived in Williamsburg but it wasn't going to work. It was a tiny shithole apartment and I could barely afford to pay rent. I went to school to blow glass so I found work doing that immediately but it wasn't good money. Eventually we moved to Bed Stuy and found a place that was dirt cheap and huge so we built the set in the living room there. Danny and I teamed up with two friends who have real jobs and stubs or whatever and luckily they were cool with having a cardboard set instead of a living room. We shot four episodes in that apartment. They’re all friends, about 12 people. I cooked really well for them.
The stuff you cook for your friends isn't like what you make on the show? No! Food for my friends is more home style food that actually tastes good. For the show it's more what would be entertaining or interesting.
Tell me what's in your fridge all the time. Sriracha, two-liter bottles of Coca Cola, juice, parsley, the fresh flat leaf Italian kind [laughs]. We're in Greenpoint so a styrofoam tray of pierogies, heavy cream, eggs, there's always condiments, lots of condiments, half jar of mustard that doesn't get touched, ketchup, and bacon.
Wow. Yeah. But when I came back from the tour all that was in there was a half jug of about-to-expire milk and half a cookie. It was so depressing.
This is your third apartment in the city. Do you leave behind a token Thu Tran artifact when you move? By accident, maybe.
No ice cream cone puppet sitting in an otherwise empty room? Oh yeah! We saw out a hole in the drywall and fill it with gold coins and pom poms. I still have a giant bag of pom poms that I bought in Cleveland - so many for so cheap. They're tiny white sparkling pom poms. We use them as confetti and we used them as snow in the Christmas special.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in the city? I don't really eat out that much but I cook home a lot. I like to go to Chinatown for good Vietnamese, like for pho. Lately I've been going to this place on Baxter Street called Thai Son. It's not as good as my father's but it's fine. There's a place called Pho 69 that I went to just because it's called Pho 69 and their pho blew - it sucked. There's also that Malaysian place and they make this really fishy noodle and it's made with anchovies - laksa. It has mint and cucumber with really thick rice noodles. My boyfriend hates when I eat it because it's pungent. We have to eat it outside.
What are some of your favorite cookbooks? I read cookbooks and food writing a lot. I have a subscription to Gourmet magazine that I keep in my bathroom [laughs]. I have old cookbooks my mom made when I was little, literal notebooks. My mother's actually a shitty cook. I mean, my dad's good but my mom cuts corners. The first time my mom served me wine she served it in a coffee mug. It was kind of sweet and effervescent and I was like mom what is this? She held up a jug of Carla Rossi sangria and I was like oh OK. And then she was like, and I also put a little Mountain Dew in it. I also have Joy of Cooking, this weird Indian cookbook my friend gave me called Packed with Love. I think her family had gone to the Taj Mahal for Christmas and she brought me back that cookbook. I like reading it because I don't recognize the ingredients. I read MFK Fisher; I like her style. It's not dish-centered it's life-centered. And we're trying to move towards that with Food Party. I got into Euell Gibbons when I was in Nebraska on my residency at the Art Farm. Euell Gibbons stuff is pretty funny. I started reading Waverly Root but found him pretty windy.
If somebody hooked it up, would you collaborate with a famous chef in the city for a dinner? Yeah man. Yeah man. I'm open to anything.
Under what circumstances would you leave NY? I love living here. I think right now I have too much energy to live anywhere else. Just going on tour, I don't think I could live in any of those cities. The lifestyle, you go to work you come home settle down and watch TV. I love being here. It caters to people with lots of energy.
Do you have a strange only in NY story? Like I saw the same stray cat in two different spots in the city over a one-week period. That's fucked up. Similarly, I saw Elijah Wood twice you know.
In different locations? Yeah. There's this wine bar next door to where I used to live and my friend and I were just smoking a cigarette and saw him so we were like let's go in. So we went in and tried to sit down but he was leaving and my friend followed him but I decided not to. Then, I was working on a video shoot for Gogol Bordello and they hired me as the food stylist for the Eastern European meat feast. And one of the gypsy backup dancers was his girlfriend so he showed up to hang out with her. So I saw him twice.
That's fucked up. What is the future of Food Party? We're going to keep making them. We need to find a studio because my place in Greenpoint is too small. Hopefully we'll have this cool workshop set up and we can produce and shoot as we go and it'll be cool.
Tell me more about the fourth episode. Writing out the prop list is the funniest thing: Baguette coffin, Sailor wheel. The fourth episode is kind of our attempt at making a dramatic episode. And it has this Clue vibe, like the Tim Curry movie. Peter is actually a really good dramatic performer and in this episode he plays the doctor and the Italian chef again. Zachariah plays the baguette and the ice cream cone, who have similar voices. Andrew WK did a voice over for us so that was cool. And there's a reading rainbow sequence where we tell the story of how a dish originates.
Would you ever open a restaurant? Maybe when I'm 40. I think a restaurant is a real commitment. To me that's like buying a house. It ties you down. So when I'm 40, when I'm ready to be tied down.
How old are you now? 27. But maybe you could say that I'm 37?
Did you get the answers you wanted? Yeah.
Did you get the questions you wanted? Yeah.
What's the oddest reaction you've gotten to Food Party? I don't know how we got the blog press; it came out of nowhere. We're kind of bad about promoting ourselves. We have a web site and You Tube and we each have our respective Facebook and My Space pages that we link out to. And then we have screenings, like premieres for each episode.
Do you get odd emails? We got our first fan art! It was pretty exciting. After the New York Magazine write up I got fan mail from dudes. Our show has a real girly aesthetic but I get all these marriage proposals from dudes. I've been getting that pretty steadily. Like one or two a day. Then one a week. And these days I just get one a month so it's tapering off. But the fan art is like all these sexy eggs with high heel shoes and it says Food Party at the top in his own lettering. It looks like it took him forever to draw. And he apologized for coloring it unevenly but it's like, perfect.
He's like, 'oh sorry for coloring it so unevenly but I'm currently incarcerated in maximum security federal prison'... [laughs] Yeah, it ruled! I emailed to tell all my friends. And they were like, wow Thu, all your dreams are coming true.