Why you should care
Sometimes getting fired from a high-paying job is the best thing that can happen to you.
Eddie Huang is just 36 years old, but his already impressive résumé reads like an all-you-can-eat professional buffet. Huang is a celebrity chef, restaurateur, best-selling author, television producer and fashion designer. And this week the entrepreneur finds himself wearing yet another hat: He’s the subject of Breaking Big, a new TV series from OZY airing tonight on PBS at 8.30 p.m. ET that charts the unexpected twists and turns of rising stars like Huang on their paths to fame.
Oh, and before Huang was any of those things, he was also a marijuana dealer, a shoe salesman, a stand-up comedian and — believe it or not — a corporate lawyer. That’s right, a mere decade ago, the flamboyant East Village chef and the brash host of Huang’s World on Viceland was just another stiff in a suit at a prestigious Manhattan law firm on the road to a lucrative legal career. Until fate — and a major financial crisis — intervened, and big law gave Huang his big break … by laying him off.
The layoff for him I think was a huge blessing.
Evan Huang, Eddie’s brother
The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Huang spent his early years trying to fit into what he’s called the “vanilla American monoculture” of suburban Orlando, Florida, where classmates at school serenaded him with “Ching-Chong Eddie Huang.”
Gradually, Huang learned to embrace who he was, but he still had trouble escaping who his parents wanted him to be, even when it meant taking on the challenges, frustrations and massive debt of attending law school. “The law school experience was in part to please his parents,” says Christopher Jackson, a friend and the editor in chief of One World Books. “But it wasn’t ultimately, I think, where he thought he could do this best work.” In his memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, Huang writes of that choice: “I decided to do something so no one could ever look down on me again. I went to law school. I didn’t even want to be a lawyer.”
In 2005, Huang moved to New York to study at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. “You figure getting a professional degree can’t possibly put you in a shittier place than you were previously, but that’s a misconception,” writes Huang, who estimates the three-year experience cost him about $200,000 — money he says he is still paying off. Huang’s parents paid for his first year of law school, but when they hit hard times, he was left trying to pick up the tab for his final two years. “I had to just break bread,” Huang tells Breaking Big host Carlos Watson, “I had to find money somewhere to finish school and pay for my apartment.”
Like so many law school students, Huang relied heavily on student loans to make up the difference, and after graduation took a job at a large corporate law firm to help pay back his debts. Wearing a suit and tie and working long hours to meet an 1,800-hour billable-hour requirement did not suit the 27-year-old Huang. He was miserable.
But that same fall of 2008, when Huang started to climb the corporate ladder at Chadbourne & Parke, the stock market began to plummet. Confronted with the strain of a global financial crisis, most big law firms like Chadbourne started to inform the last attorneys through their doors, like Huang, that they would be the first to exit. “He wasn’t happy in law,” says his brother and business partner Evan. “The layoff for him I think was a huge blessing.”
After getting laid off in the spring of 2009, Huang initially sold dope and did stand-up comedy (stage name: Magic Dong Huang) to make ends meet. But then he decided to take his severance money from the firm and pursue something that, unlike the law, he had long wanted to do. “When he got laid off, I think that was the moment where he didn’t have any other opportunities and options,” says his friend and law school classmate Rafael Martinez. “He had to push forward with what he thought was the best thing for him, which was opening a restaurant.”
Huang is far from the only celebrity to move on after a brief fling with the legal profession. Italian singer Andrea Bocelli served a year as a court-appointed lawyer before leaving to pursue his music dreams. Scottish actor Gerard Butler was a trainee solicitor at an Edinburgh law firm for less than a year before he was fired into pursuing his acting ambitions. The list goes on: from Michelle Obama to Geraldo Rivera to Howard Cosell.
Being a lawyer can be a fine and noble profession, but clearly it’s not for everyone. And even Huang’s parents came to realize that. “He was just too free a spirit to be a lawyer,” says his mother, Jessica. “So, finally, we understood.”