by Karl J. Paloucek
She’s the focal point of one of television’s coolest shows in recent memory. Thu Tran, creator and star of Food Party on IFC, is a bundle of energy with an obsession for all things cute, cool and food-related. We interrupted her lunch to get some answers from this artist and visionary responsible for some of the most lunatic television we’ve seen in years, to find out her views on cannibalism and to ask about the fate of her utterly absurd series.
How do you feel about the season you’ve just finished on IFC?
I thought it went OK. It’s on TV and — yep. There it is.
There’s always … there’s never regret. [Laughs] I don’t know what I’d do differently, honestly.
How did all of this start for you back in Cleveland?
Well, in college, I was living with my roommates — one of my roommates was this guy named Vinnie, and he was this giant Caribbean dude. We really loved cooking food together, so we would basically take video classes just to make these cooking videos. But they were really, really goofy and casual. We just did it for fun. And the lights that we would borrow from the school also helped heat our apartment because we were too cheap to turn on the heat.
I went to school for glassblowing, but I mainly did installation sculpture that was, like, really environmental. Like I made these glass pieces that were basically like food, and then I built an environment for it which was really, really colorful. It was basically a little forest with ramen noodle grass and Cheetos coming out of the ground, and things like that. Then there were also sound elements — I made this track that was just layering of birds tweeting and water flowing, and different nature sounds. I also pumped a smell of fresh cherry or strawberry car freshener through the room as well, so it was like a whole sensory experience. But after that was all done, I just took it down and just threw everything away. My only record of it was these photos. I was like, “I guess that’s cool to just have these photos.” But I think at some point, I just put two and two together and said, “I can still make these cool sculptures and also make a fun cooking video, too, and just combine the two projects.” That’s how Food Party came about.
What is it about food that inspires such lunacy, for you?
Food — to me, it’s always just been something that I get really, really excited about, just like somebody might get excited about soccer, or someone might get excited about collecting postcards. I got really excited about talking about food, making food and eating it, and eating as many types of different food as I can. And kind of incidentally, I started making art about it, too. It’s just kind of like an obsessive thing like anything else. With that, like, being an artist and knowing how to deal with things visually, but then also really having kind of like a passion for this food that everyone eats is also kind of like its own language, too.
Does it get tiring for you to really work that “cute” angle in your show? Is it exhausting being “cute” all the time?
Yeah — I mean, I don’t try to be cute. I guess it just happens. That might sound kind of arrogant, but I don’t really try to be cute. I just look the way that I do. I like cute things. I was a sucker for all of that Sanrio crap — all of that Hello Kitty [stuff]. I look at it and I want it. So I really, really like cute things. I think a lot of people like cute things. … I don’t really try to be cute. If anything else, it’s a little bit annoying when it’s like, “Hey, Thu, can you be more cute?” and I’m like, “I don’t know — I don’t even know what I did to be cute, before.” That’s a little bit weird, but — I like cute things. I think being cute is cool.
People or puppets — what’s more fun?
I don’t know. When I’m dealing with a puppet, it’s still a person.
Obviously, but …
I don’t really have a preference, just as long as it’s Peter Van Hyning’s hand or his mouth — he’s one of my best buddies. I like working with him. He could be whatever, and I’m totally cool and happy.
Did you watch a lot of puppety shows as a kid?
Yeah, sure — I watched Sesame Street, Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Eureeka’s Castle. All of the Henson stuff. I watched a fair amount of it. I liked Jurassic Park. I know that’s like mainly computer stuff, but — I like all that stuff. It’s cool to just draw a picture of a monster or whatever, and then all of a sudden it’s a character who you can interact with. I think that’s really exciting. You can draw a picture and all of a sudden, you can talk to it. It’s kind of like that Reading Rainbow excitement, like [singing] “Take a look, it’s in a book, a reading rainbow …” You’re basically able to do whatever you can dream up, but I don’t really have a preference. It’s always more exciting in a way when it’s a really wild thing to interact with.
What do you guys end up eating on since IFC’s been looking after you? Any decent catering, or is it strictly takeout?
[When] we used to film it in my apartment, we used to cook some food and it would be cool, but for the shoots for IFC, it was a really intense schedule, so we ate lots of takeout, and Thai food, and Domino’s pizza — things like that. It was good, though. It was just because we were all working really, really hard around the clock. We didn’t have catering or anything like that. It just wasn’t frrractull.
I said it wasn’t practical. I’m sorry — I just put a french fry in my mouth.
You had Andrew WK do a voiceover for your show. Any other celebrities trying to ride your coattails these days?
It was really nice of him to do that. He was really, really funny. But I definitely am open to working with more celebrities in the future. I always kind of joke around that I’d be really pumped to have LeBron James or Snoop Dogg on the show. That would be cool. I’m open to working with celebrities, but I’m trying not to reveal the celebrities who have contacted me. I don’t know if that would embarrass them or not.
How has your life changed since hitting national television?
I get recognized when I go to, like, Necessary Clothing or something like that. But it’s not even that frequent. It’s just kind of funny, if anything else. It’s like, “Hey, it’s Food Party.” And then I turn around, and it’s like, “Oh — you are her.” And then I’m like, “Uh-huh.” And then we’ll chat, and then it’ll be cool. It’s the same, otherwise. I still live in my apartment. I still cook food at home. I still go to the grocery store. I still like going on the Internet.
As Food Party gets better known, do you want the show to get bigger, or would you be afraid it was going to get ruined?
I always would be into making it more and more epic. I think that would be cool. If we’re able to get bigger with it, why not just get as big as possible with it? I always wanted to include explosions and stuff. I thought that would be so cool. You know, to like, cook food and have it explode. To have a big mushroom cloud, and all of a sudden, it’s zombie-like desolation, whatever, and people eating each other. That’s cool. Why not?
You’ve already done the cannibal thing, eating your children in that one episode.
So what about next season? Is there going to be one?
I don’t know. We’re actually waiting to hear. But — either way, it was fun. It’s also, like, if we can do it again, cool. If we can’t, it’s totally not a big deal. I’ve already worked on this project for three years now. I’ve never worked on anything for that long before, so even if it was done, I’m pretty happy with how much we have with it already. So if we can keep continuing, I’d like to really get epic as @#$% with it.
You have a screenplay ready to go, don’t you?
Oh, yeah. There’s always a screenplay in the works for a feature film. We always joke around about that. We’re always like, “If we ever do a Food Party movie, it’s going to be, like, the worst movie ever, and we just have to embrace it.”
What’s going on in your kitchen at home? What are you making these days?
Lately, I’ve been trying to make traditional Vietnamese foods that are really hard to make. I really like beef. I like potatoes. I really like eating eggs. This all sounds really boring, but it’s just food that I like to eat. And then when I go out, I like eating a hamburger. I just like eating food. [Laughs.] I like just getting a fish and then throwing it in a fire, and then eating it. I think that’s cool. I just like eating food. I’m eating a french fry right now that I’m dipping in cole slaw.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve eaten?
My dad used to buy these ducks from a farm in Ohio. There’s this dish that’s called tiet canh, and it’s basically coagulated duck blood, and then there’s chopped gizzards on top, and they’ll throw roasted nuts and basil on top, too. You eat it with this rice congee, basically. My dad used to just dip tortilla chips into it, which I thought was really fun. So basically, duck-blood chip dip is the weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten.
Is there any food you wouldn’t eat?
No. There isn’t.
If someone came to you with human flesh, you’d be OK with it?
[Thoughtful pause] I would try it. … Is that bad to say?
Season 1 of Food Party comes to an end on IFC tomorrow, July 14 at 11:15pm ET/PT.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Graylock/IFC