Food as Medium: Cooking Up Visual Delights with Artist Thu Tran


Mixed media artist Thu Tran is truly a Martha Stewart for the 21st century (not to dis Martha, but the prototype’s in dire need of an update). Like Pee-wee Herman before her, the pint-sized hostess of Food Party — a whacked out hybrid cooking/puppetry show premiering on IFC tomorrow night at 11:15 p.m. — orbits an über-eccentric fantasy land. Past web episodes have found Tran crafting a Cheeto parfait for Jay-Z and Beyonce, canoodling with a baguette lothario, milking a psychic potato to produce chips, and making deviled quail eggs with Satan. These shenanigans all take place amidst Technicolor sets constructed mainly out of cardboard and populated by custom-made dolls, which sometimes help her cook and other times get fried up on her stove (which is lit by a hand-puppet fire).

Food Party was conceived by Thu and her tight-knit group of dude friends, who met at the Cleveland Institute of Art. A few years ago most of them moved to New York together, where they continued to hone their skills building plush puppets of all shapes and sizes, mastering the art of green screen, and, of course, playing with their food. These days, when she’s not filming her trippy culinary adventures, Thu tours with mashup king Girl Talk, making his live shows even more raucous by launching toilet paper or giant inflatable whales into the audience. Flavorpill’s Ali Gitlow visited the de facto chef in her kitchen in Brooklyn, where they chatted about the aesthetic appeal of Sanrio products, using food as an artistic medium, and eating bull penis, all while Thu cooked up some shrimp and corn soup.

Flavorpill: How did you get the idea to make a cooking show?

Thu Tran: I got my own place the third year of college and lived with two friends. I really connected with Vinnie, this giant Caribbean dude. We cooked together all the time. Like, “My mom does this.” “Well my mom does this.” We’d take video classes together and would make these bootleg, bootleg cooking videos. Basically college-y stoner food, but also the cuisines we each came from. All the shots were over the shoulder, or getting really close to the pan so the lens would fog up, and we would be like “Dream vision!” Totally Wayne’s World. Then we would draw pictures over the video in post, like football style. Those were the first cooking videos we ever made.

FP: What other art were you working on at the time?

TT: I was making installations. I also studied glassblowing, sculpture, drawing, and things like that. I made this environment with all these fruit trees, and all the grass was made out of ramen noodles. Giant Cheetos were coming out of the ground. It was this fantasy world that was food-based. All the foods that I liked to eat. I tried to light it in a non-traditional way, with colored floods. I had a humidifier pumping out car freshener scents, like strawberry. It smelled like candy. The soundtrack was MP3 bird noises, and other sound effects I downloaded, really environmental ambient sounds of nature. Then it was like “OK cool, I think everyone enjoyed it, but now I have to throw everything away.” At some point I put two and two together and realized I could work like this and it could live on in this other form. That’s how Food Party came about.

FP: What was the first puppet you guys made?

TT: Dan [Baxter, the show’s head puppet maker] just got more and more insane, figuring out how to put things together. The first one I asked him to make was this potato puppet. I called him and was like, “I think I want to do this cooking show, and there’s a couple hard puppets I would have trouble making, maybe you could help me. One of them is this potato, I want it to have eyes. Maybe one of the eyes can blink.” He paused for like 45 seconds and was like, “How many eyes did you want on that?” I was like, “I don’t know, seven to eight?” And he goes, “…I think I can make all of them blink.” It’s all whatever we can dream up, we can figure out how to make.

FP: When did you guys get approached by IFC?

TT: It was pretty shortly after we started getting blog recognition. I put up a blog after the second episode I made, and started putting it on YouTube. Initially they were art videos that I’d show at galleries or wherever, and we’d have a couple props there. Slowly we started getting bloggers saying, “Check this out.” Then New York Magazine wrote us this amazing little thing on Grub Street. The headline was so complimentary, it just said, “World’s Best, Strangest Cooking Show Found On Internet.” They didn’t even contact me, they just wrote it. My friend Jed who works for Emeril, he’s up on all the food blogs so he called me like ,”Oh my god!” Maybe a week or two after that, IFC approached me.

FP: How did your aesthetic form?

TT: I am a really color-based artist. I enjoy seeing really good colors together. Color choices I like were in old Hollywood movies, Technicolor movies, when they first were like, “Fuuuck, we can film things in color.” They just got so pumped about using the most intense colors possible. I try to use that same excitement in color choices, like, “This is gonna be in fucking color.” A lot of it is also honestly influenced by Japanese packaging design, really cute shit. Sanrio or whatever. It sounds really tacky, but I think it works well because people immediately empathize with it because it’s so adorable. The colors are really good and the shapes are really good. Everything is nice and rounded, eyes are perfectly spaced apart, the smile is just the perfect shape and size with the perfect placement.

FP: What’s it like working with food as a material?

TT: We try to handle food really objectively. When we work on Food Party, it doesn’t become something you eat any more, it’s just something you look at. We just handle it as an art material. It’s a whole different craft on its own. We’ve all known each other for eight years now, and we come together with what we know about food. What is the wildest thing to do with this? And let’s make it the Statue of Liberty! Oh, let’s do a Christmas special. What do people eat, gingerbread? What would be the wildest thing to make out of gingerbread? Umm, a Frank Gehry building! It all looks kind of busted but that’s our style. We’re not concerned about accuracy as long as the idea comes across and it’s funny and cool.

FP: Do you think of yourself as a performer, or visual artist, or both?

TT: I never thought I’d do something like this honestly. I really like doing stuff on my own, or doing stuff behind the scenes to help someone else. On the show I am performing, but at the same time I never feel like I’m acting like I’m something I’m not. I’m just exaggerating how I am. I never feel like I’m being a character, I’m just hosting a show and there are all these characters. I always think of myself first as a visual artist. More than anything else on the show, on top of people performing well, I always feel like things need to look really good. Things need to look cool, and have a good visual impact. I don’t know if performing is my strong suit, so I just try to do what I know I do well and whatever I do on top of it will supplement that.

FP: If you could go on an eating tour of any country, where would you go?

TT: Man! I still haven’t gone to France, I’d like to do that. I haven’t really been to too many countries except for Vietnam. Eating in Vietnam is the best, because everything you eat was dead ten minutes ago, it’s so fresh. It really makes you look at what you eat here. How long has that been dead for?

FP: Is there any food you are allergic to, or anything you won’t eat?

TT: I’m not allergic to anything, I don’t think. There’s nothing really that I don’t eat. I eat liver; I eat intestines; I eat brains; I eat ears; I eat tongues. I eat all that stuff. I haven’t eaten a penis.

FP: I have!

TT: How was it?

FP: Pretty gross, it was bull penis. Very chewy.

TT: Wow!

FP: You should try it. If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one food item, one condiment and one drink, what would they be?

TT: I would bring Coca Cola, Sriracha, and beef jerky.

Click here to download instructions on how to make your own Tran puppet.