The colorful host of IFC's most insane cooking show drops by for a chat about season two and the future of her career
We recently pointed out the wondrous work being done by Thu Tran and her creative team on the explosively colorful IFC cooking show Food Party. A rousing mix of live action, puppetry, and edible oddities, this one of a kind ten-minute blast of energy borrows from past works of genius such as Sesame Street and Martha Stewart Living to create something wholly original and unique within its own monstrous construct. It's quite literally like nothing you've ever seen before. And Thu isn't your typical television host. Always grinning with a mischievous glint of sunshine in her eye, this energetic sprite bounds from one cardboard set piece to the next, engaging herself in lofty adventures that could be conceived as adult in nature, but never quite lose their childlike sense of wonder. Which far too many shows seem to be missing nowadays.
Thu, with her untrained delivery and rushed urgency to get through any given skit at the speed of light, is a powerful little forced to be reckoned with. And once her show catches the eye of the pop consciousness, she will surely blast off into the stratosphere in ways we haven't even begin to comprehend yet. Her time is approaching fast. And before long, we will all be bowing down before this culinary master of the universe.
Folks that catch her show are equally bewildered and enamored at the same time. What is this? Where did it come from? And what is it truly about? Well, we recently caught up with Thu to find out more about her show and her indelible cooking skills. Here's our conversation with the young woman we've recently fallen in love with:
While doing some research on the show, I came across your website. Your own personal recipes are quite unique and fascinating, to say the least. I became quite captivated by the idea of your Buffalo Turkey (which is a Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with Buffalo Wings and then marinated in Buffalo sauce). Then I saw your Turkey episode from this past Tuesday, and the recipe is played for laughs. Almost as an inedible joke. How serious are you about the dishes you create? Which seem so delicious on paper? And why do you purposely present them in such a grotesque way on the show?
Thu Tran: A lot of the dishes that are prepared on the show are dishes that I have prepared in reality. Such as the Buffalo Turkey. That was made for a friend's Thanksgiving party that I attended with a bunch of my roommates. We would always prepare two turkeys at a time. Because it was for a house party, Thanksgiving style. The two turkeys that I made that year were the Buffalo Turkey and the Pizza Turkey. I had this weird idea to stuff the turkey with a bunch of wings. Which was my favorite thing to eat at the time. Then I stuffed the second turkey with old, left-over pizza. For both turkeys, I made a special glaze for the outside. It was made out of the flavor that it was stuffed with. They both came out really well. The Pizza Turkey came out a little more dry, because the stuff I was coating it with wasn't ready. It wasn't blocking in the juices quite as well as the Buffalo Wing sauce. That one came out incredibly juicy and very delicious. In terms of the show, the recipes and preparing the food is really important. If anything else, it drives the narrative that goes on. Either or. It switches around. Sometimes the food drives the narrative, and sometimes the narrative drives the food. It's always food focused, regardless.
What goes into creating each new dish or recipe that you create? Do you find an ingredient, and then decide how it should properly be utilized? Or do you do a lot of improvisation in the kitchen?
Thu Tran: I do a lot of the latter. I will find an ingredient that I really want to experiment with, and I will slowly discover what I want to do with it. But most of the time it's the latter, where I am just really hungry. I have all these random items in the kitchen, and I try to figure out what to do with them. Maybe someone will come over later, and they will bring a tray of donuts. Then someone else will bring something totally random. It's all about figuring out how to assemble that together. If it's a dish for someone's birthday, and I know they like tacos or burritos, maybe I will make them a burrito cake. Something like that. It's not from a single source that my recipes are created. They come from a natural need to eat and please.
One of my favorite recipes from the show is the Donut Sandwich. I'd been waiting forever for Duncan Donuts or Winchell's to bring this to the market. Are you ever worried that a fast food chain might steal some of these crazy ideas that you are putting out there?
Thu Tran: I'm not worried at all. If anything, I hope that it does happen. Then it would be available for me to get on a more regular basis. As opposed to me getting a donut, and frying an egg, and frying bacon, and slicing the cheese. To me? It's a lot more exciting if it catches on and becomes more readily available. Especially with the things that I really like to eat.
How badly has one of your recipes backfired on you? Where you think something is a good idea, and you take one bite, and you simply can't eat it?
Thu Tran: Yes! That happens maybe one out of three times. I think that is very important for that to happen. That is how you learn, just like with anything else. You only learn by failing. I have learned to accept failure. Because it will always happen. You have to figure out what happened and what went wrong. It only gets better from here.
Last week, you guys killed off Baguette. Is that because you were using real food and he was getting moldy? Or is it because you like to bring in characters and get rid of them right away? We don't see Food Party utilizing too many of the same characters from episode to episode, which is a unique idea in its own right.
Thu Tran: Right. The puppets are always very totalitarian. Especially Baguette. It goes along with the way food is prepared. There is no reason to get attached to any animal or vegetable, or piece of bread that you are eating. They have a personality, but it's not a baby. Its there for you to eat it. That's why we go through a lot of characters. That's not the main reason. We all like to see a lot of different things all the time. We have to move things along quickly. Sometimes we'll want to show a bird, or an eagle, or a dragon. We make all of these things, but we can't show a hundred new characters in one episode. It is very quantitative. We hope to introduce something new every time.
How much of the actually episodes are pulled directly from your own experiences in life? And how much of a collaborative process is this between everyone that works on your show?
Thu Tran: It's hard to break down how much comes from my own personal experiences and how much is collaborative. It's even. A lot of the stuff does come from my own personal experiences dealing with food. Or dealing with whatever. The show is a very collaborative process in general. I am working with some of my closet friends. We will sit down and ask, "Wouldn't it be wild if this happened?" Then we all bring that idea together in the end. Yeah.
The show is quite visually stunning. As art, it is just fun to just stare at. A lot of work obviously goes into every single episode as far as the sets and the character design, which doesn't ever seem to get reused too much. How many different artists do you have working on the show at any given moment? And how long does it take to make one episode?
Thu Tran: It takes a while. We have about ten people just doing the artwork. We have a lot of people that do other things as well. We have specific people that work the food. Our camera guys are also artists. We all work together, we are all artists, and we make this art together. It takes a week to shoot two episodes. Prior to that, we have six weeks to build sets and props for ten episodes. It spreads out. I don't know...It takes a long time and it's a ton of work.
When you premiered last summer, you only did a short run of 6 episodes. Now, you are doing twenty episodes for season two. Has it been a little overwhelming to create that many new episodes all at one time? Especially when you don't allow yourself to repeat too many of the themes or ideas from past episodes?
Thu Tran: Its not that hard, only because we are still filtering out ideas when we go to make the show. We haven't reached that point where we can't say, "No, we can't do that!" We are still fortunate enough to work through the process of elimination. We can get rid of those ideas that are bad. There hasn't been a lack of ideas yet, which is always a good thing. We are done shooting season two, and we shot a total of twenty new episodes.
The show dabbles with adult themes and jokes, but it never quite leaps out of the realm of being child friendly. This is the type of show I would have been awestruck by as a child. Is it ever hard for you to find the balance between who you are aiming the show at as an audience, or do you simply adhere to your own ideals in what you personally find entertaining? Whether it connects with a certain demographic or not?
Thu Tran: To me? I would like to make the show as universal as possible. That was my goal in the very beginning. That is why we don't ever curse on the show. We don't ever do things that are too crazy. Yet, I love innuendo. And I am an adult. Everyone I work with is an adult. So we do cover ideas that we are all excited about. It becomes very adult in the end. For me? I feel a child can still watch the show and enjoy it. A grandma can watch the show and enjoy it as well. It's been a goal to make it universal enough for everyone to watch.
The show never seems geared towards shock for the sake of shock value. This isn't Wonder Showzen. If something's a little off, it seems to genuinely come from the heart of the story you are telling.
Thu Tran: I am not trying to shock people. Or force the show to be edgy. But I do care about making something that is mind blowing. To me, that is where the agenda is sometimes. It needs to be mind blowing. We use that as a gauge.
What can we expect to see in the coming weeks as far as new stories are concerned? And do you have a favorite episode that you're really excited about this season?
Thu Tran: For the new episodes? I am not trying to shock anyone. None of the subjects that we cover are shocking to me. They are important to me. There is an episode coming up that deals with cannibals. I eat myself. But its also like, maybe I would do that if it came down to it. I'm trying to think of something else you might find shocking. I am more concerned about the absurdity of the situations than I am concerned with trying to offend anyone. Or shock them. We have an episode coming up where the moon falls out of the sky and it ends up being a big donut. I really like that one. There is another one where I go on a diet, but it's a visual diet that involves mirrors. It goes along with the saying, "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach." You train your eye to see more than it's eating. Those are the episodes I am most excited about.
The opening credits instantly put one in a very festive mood. How did you guys go about creating that one indelible image for the show to constantly adhere to? And more importantly, what is that black mouse critter we see in the new credits? Will we be getting more of a back-story on him soon?
Thu Tran: You will see more of that mouse soon. He's a cool rat, played by our friend Paul. He is really cool. You'll see what he does. I cannot even insinuate what it is that he'll be doing. It is going to be really cool. Our opening was never meant to be the opening at the very beginning. That was a very, very fun video that we shot together one evening with a bunch of our friends. We wanted to do something that was literally a party. So we made a fictitious two hundred year anniversary episode of the show. We did it for the web. A bunch of cops come to bust the party, but it continues on. It didn't have a strong story, it was just a literally party. It was really, really fun. And it looked visually amazing. It became the thing best suited to setting up the show. Like, "Let's party! Anything goes!"
One thing I've noticed this season is that when you flub a line, it stays in the show, which you either correcting yourself, or sometimes a buzzer will go off. Is that an inside joke? Where does that idea to keep in the mistakes come from?
Thu Tran: That is scripted, you know? All the stuttering? You can look at our script and see that things are misspelled. Things are cluttered. The buzz will be scripted. Do you mind? I am trying to order some food!}
At this point in the interview, Thu takes a moment to order food at a restaurant. The interview commences as soon as she is done...
Did you get all ordered?
Thu Tran: Yes, I did.
Good. Now, how soon are we going to start seeing merchandizing from the show? Because it seems like the next logical step would be a Thu cookbook.
Thu Tran: I am definitely planning on writing a cookbook. But in terms of other merchandising, that is out of my hands. We have come up with a lot of ideas that are suited to that. But it's not a high priority. The bigger priority is to make a great show. Not toys for every character. But a cookbook is something I've been working on slowly for the past five years. It's something that will definitely happen.
Do you know when we might see that appearing on a book store shelf near us?
Thu Tran: You are going to have to hold your breathe.
From what I've read, the visual medium of television wasn't necessarily your first intention when getting involved in the arts.
Thu Tran: I wouldn't call it an accident. It wasn't something that I had planned on. But it was always a dream. My hero when I was young was Bob Barker. But being a TV host wasn't something I sought out. Not until I was done with school, and I wanted to make a video project. That was fun. It was everything I wanted to see in a video. It was always meant to be an art video that looked like a TV show. It ended up being a TV show that looked like an art video. That's how everything worked out.
Do you see yourself continuing to work in this medium in the future? Will we see other TV shows from you, or possibly a feature film?
Thu Tran: I'm not sure. I definitely have ideas for more TV shows in the future. Nothing I would necessarily be starring in. I've always wanted to do a film. That would be amazing. Anything like that would be amazing. I am open to whatever.
Your show has certainly encouraged my creativity in the kitchen. What do you consider the perfect snack for folks settling in to watch Food Party on a Tuesday night?
Thu Tran: Burritos. Nachos...
And that's it?
Thu Tran: Yup!
All-new episodes of Food Party air back-to-back Tuesday Nights at 10pm, only on IFC! Be sure to watch!