Interview: Creator and Foodie Cliff Endo
By: Alex Chester
You might wonder how we at Hapa Mag find all these Hapas to interview. Sometimes it starts simply with a message to our IG account saying hi, and that is exactly how I found Hapa dude Clifford Endo. It turns out I'm more familiar with Clifford than I knew because I've actually watched his youtube show You Can Do This.
Cliff is currently the head of development at Eater and I’m a huge fan of this online foodie mag.
Cliff not only has an extensive background in the culinary arts, he also used to be an actor. You might remember him as “Bob” in the Law & Order episode “Weeping Willow.” After that, he worked in advertising and then went to culinary school, all of which set him up to be a producer/youtube host/head of development.
We sat down and talked about how food has helped shaped him and how the immigrant experience is a part of who he is. Cliff is helping bridge the gap between cultures with the work he does at Eater. It’s pretty impressive, and it just goes to show a good meal can bring unlikely people together.
I always start with this question. What are you?
That's the lead in right? I'm Japanese, Pacific Islander, German, and Irish.
Oh, so was your family interned during World War 2?
No, because I'm from the South Pacific. I'm was born on an island called Palau, which is very small. It's southeast of the Philippines and North of New Guinea. I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which was very weird because it’s like you're the only brown kid who isn't Latin. From there I moved to Louisville, Kentucky and from Louisville, Kentucky to New York.
What was it like in Kentucky for you?
There was Black or White; there's no middle ground. There's no brownness really. It's weird, but I think adaptability is self-ingrained in you when you’re very young as a Hapa, so you just deal with it.
Were you the only Asian kid at school?
My school was actually The Actors Theatre of Louisville, and I think I was the only Asian kid there. It was an apprentice class, so there were 22 people: 11 men, and 11 women. I do believe I was the only one.
Did they stereotype you into only playing Asian roles there, or were they open to you playing other non-Asian roles?
In college, they were very open to me playing different roles. When it got more serious, and there was a giant pool of actors (like at the Humana Festival), and there was a Latin character, I would probably be it. I don't think there were any other Latin kids around. Growing up in New Mexico I guess was good enough.
You went from being an actor to going into the culinary industry. How did that come about?
It all happened in a very roundabout way, I was an actor... I started really not liking it just because back then maybe 1% of roles were written for Asian people. I don't know what it is now... It was just going up against those numbers, and realizing, "hey, I'm not just this person..." I got really frustrated. I did some cool stuff, traveled with some tours, did “Law & Order,” but it was always that "ambiguous" thing that got to me.
I left and started working in advertising, but when the economy crashed in 2009, I was just like, “I don't want to do this anymore,” and decided, “I'm gonna go to culinary school!”
I had been in and out of restaurants since I was fourteen. Food was an integral part of growing up. My mother was a teacher and my father was a teacher, and they didn't have an incredible amount of money. Coming from the Asian Pacific Islander background, food is how we show love. It was a genuine interest of mine all growing up, and I wanted to take that seriously. I went to culinary school, started working kitchens, worked with some great people, and then found myself wanting to combine everything I've done in the past. I started off working at Food Network and worked my way up from the bottom, from researcher or assistant, to food stylist, to a culinary producer, to now doing development.
So, do you think being mixed has played a role in how you view food? Has food helped shape the way you view your Hapa-ness?
Yes! 100%!!! I think that being a Hapa you understand from a very young age that the word “authenticity” doesn't really mean anything 'cause being authentic is about the experience.
I'll put it this way: I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico as an Asian kid. There's not really an Asian community around there, I grew up with maybe one or two Japanese restaurants around me. My mom made immigrant food, where she would make her udon noodles using spaghetti noodles. That's just how it was, and it made sense to me. Udon made with spaghetti noodles is not fusion; it's assimilation cuisine. My mom's udon was made with spaghetti noodles because that is all she could find in the community that we grew up in. For me, it's immigrant cuisine and it is authentic for me to have it that way.
Being mixed has really shaped my view of the similarities we can find within cuisine that unite cultures. If you're Roy Choi with the Kogi Trucks, you're making tacos but with Korean ingredients... Roy Choi is from the "neighborhood!" That guy is straight L.A., and you can't grow up in the L.A. "neighborhood" without having a heavy Latin influence on your life. But, he also grew up as a Korean, so for him, it makes total sense to put those two things together.
However, when you're just like, “here are seven different cultures as a plate and I've never been to any of these countries” and “I don't have any experience of it,” that's "fusion" to me and that's the no-no.
That's kind of how I sift through all this food that is being "mashed up" right now. Why does it make sense annd what is the history behind it? Take *Uyghur cuisine,* which is Turkish/Chinese. It seems totally weird, but also if you realize that in North Western China there is that overlap of Muslim and Chinese people, it makes sense.
I think something that only Hapa kids can really understand is when you go to your family reunion, on either side, and you don't look like anybody. You maneuver differently, you adapt differently. You learn from a very young age how to cross over, and you're split between these very two different worlds. It's not like, "half my family is from Ohio and half is from Kansas. It's so weird they say pop and they say cola." No. This is different cuisines, languages, looks, and everything.
I know when I am with my Asian family I am way more Asian, and when I am with my white family I am way more white. I think that kind of allowed me to maneuver in situations that I can easily adapt to whatever the environment that I am in. I think that's just a skill set as a producer.
If you had to create a meal that describes you, what would it be?
It would be my mom's udon with spaghetti noodles. My mother came to the United States not really being able to speak English. She use to tape-record her college classes and then had to translate them so she could learn. Now, she's the first person where I'm from who earned a PhD, but she had this thing when she made udon. It was never one bowl, it was always ten or twelve. Everybody from the community and all her friends would be invited over to eat it. There would be this table of people from all over the place saying this is authentic Asian, eating what they didn't know was a complete immigrant creation. It was authentic to my mother.
Even as a kid, my mother raised us with very Japanese customs. I would be pulling things off shelves that were like, "Oh, this is black vinegar, let's try this, here are these kimchis, let's do this." I'm going to deviate again... Going back to the table, it was a table of people who were from all over, and that is a representation of what I have culminated into today. So, I would be that udon dish, but it sucks because it's the one dish I would cook, but I know I couldn't nail it. Maybe I didn't struggle enough to be able to make it as well as she does.
It's crazy. I have an education, I have worked for amazing chefs, I have been trained, and trained, and trained in high form molecular cooking, all the way down to South East Asian, and this one spaghetti noodle broth scrambled egg dish I can't... like I can't get it. That's all it is, broth, scrambled eggs, chicken and onions (and the chicken is crazy overcooked), and green onion and a pinch of pickled ginger and that's all it is... and I can't do it. It's super frustrating.
Let's talk about your current YouTube show You Can Do This. Personally, I love the cotton candy episode, that was really cool. I had never seen anything like that.
Oh yeah, thanks. It's actually an ancient Chinese dessert.
What is your favorite episode that you've shot?
Oh man, it's probably one of the least popular ones, and it's the nachos video. Nachos is probably one of my favorite foods of all time. A lot of the ideas for You Can Do This come to me after 10 PM when my day has kind of settled down. This nacho thing has been plaguing me... 'cause delivery nachos are never really that great. You have to make some sacrifices. Then there's been all these debates of melted cheese vs. cheese sauce, the beans, and the toppings... and one day it hit me. I was like, wait a minute, there's a way to do all of this. The reason why the chips on the bottom always suck in nachos is cause we're stacking them all wrong.
I thought about this thing for a long time, and I cannot tell you how many times I pitched doing it and was told no. Finally someone said “yes” to me doing basically a stoner version of nachos, but with high technique—just because you want the ultimate nacho experience on every single chip. That's probably my most favorite episode and it took a long time for someone to let me do it.
Do you have any favorite projects that you've worked on?
Yeah, we do a show here called Cooking in America. When I was hired on, it was the first project they gave me to work on. The show already existed, but they wanted a new feel and take on it. Basically, it's a show focusing on immigrant cooking or first generation chefs. I love telling these people's stories: it's just amazing and it hits very close to home. In the current political climate, the American dream seems farther and farther away, even though the entire country was founded on immigration, and being a Hapa kid your foot is in both sides of immigration. Only the Native Americans have the right to say anything. The American dream is something that I saw in my mom, and I saw the good she did for people and for us. The impact she had on people's lives... just looking the direction that we have now... we are cutting off that possibility for thousands of other people. We are cutting off first-time PhDs, we are cutting off life-changers influencing other people. The reason why I love Cooking in America is I get to go around the country and see a piece of my own story.
We were with some Afghani guys in Houston who were Military translators, and they opened up an Afghan restaurant. We met another guy who said he came to this country and started off as a dishwasher... he just won a James Beard Award and now owns an empire. We were just in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my hometown and got to shoot with the Japanese family that had the only Japanese restaurant in Santa Fe when I was growing up. We got to learn that story, and I got to learn so much about my history through it.
What I think Eater does very very well is diversifying. They show the broad-scoop: there's heavy female representation and heavy people of color representation. You don't look at some of their awards, and realize, "Oh, these are 80% white dudes." You come over here and we are going places with diversity that I haven't felt at any other place that I have worked. That shocked me. It feels good. In me giving voices to other people, I also get to validate my own existence.
Ok, let's talk about the best meal and the worst meal you've ever eaten.
My favorite meal is when you take a bite and everything around you makes sense. That is on every different level, from one dollar to five hundred dollars. Whatever it is, if I take the bite and the story and environment around me completely plays out... then that's my favorite meal of that time.
Worst meal I've ever eaten? Shit, my friend's wedding. God, that shit was terrible. I won't say who it was, but God, they missed the mark. I've had some pretty inedible stuff, I'm pretty loose. I mean, I still rock SPAM. SPAM musubi is my jam.
The Hapa experience is such a unique one. It's not like we're in the Bay Area; it's not like when you're in Hawaii. When you're in a place that doesn't have a lot of Hapas and you meet another one, there's this deeper level of understanding about life, experience, and adaptability that I think other people don't get. It took me a while to understand that what makes you different actually makes you super special, and there's actually a way to use that to your advantage. I think there is a responsibility to educate yourself on both sides. When you're Hapa you often lean towards exploring the Asian side a little bit more, but I think knowing both sides is really good.
The judgment and conclusions about somebody based on their look are much more defined when [they] are just a single thing. I think that being mixed-race, you're allowed to kind of walk that line on both sides, and I think there is the opportunity to unite people. Being able to seamlessly go between both sides, that should be an opportunity to bring both sides together. That is a very special gift that only the mixed-race community has.
End of Interview
For more info on Cliff Endo, follow him on Instagram @CliffordEndo.
*This interview has been edited for flow.
Alex Chester is the creator and producer of the theatre company WeSoHapa - a theatre based on diversity and inclusion. She is a New York City based columnist for On Stage Blog and contributing writer for ManhattanDigest.com and HuffPo. She also hosts a podcast with fellow writer Melissa Slaughter, We're Not All Ninjas. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester if you like food and cats.