In the House of Art and Food

Text by Michael Cohen
Photography by Andrew Strasser

“Imagination is important for creating new beauty in the world,” says Thu Tran about her artistic perspective. Best known as the host of Food Party, Tran is an artist, often described as part Martha Stewart, part Pee-wee Herman, and part Chewbacca.

Just like LeBron James, Tran grew up in the city of Cleveland, OH. And while James has more Twitter followers (4,355,979 versus 2,307), Tran has a much better homepage and many more puppet friends. Via email, Tran says, “I hate LeBron James. Use any other Cleveland celeb. Here are a few: Bone Thugs, Kid Cudi, Trent Reznor, Wes Craven, Dennis Kucinich, etc.”

Growing up in the city, Tran was an A-student and TV junkie. She recounts, “I learned how to fight, which was cool. It made me a stronger person to have three brothers.” Eventually, she turned to art as a means of self-expression and fun, earning a BFA in Glass from the Cleveland Institute of Art.  At art school, Tran developed a network of friends and collaborators. “It was a dream,” she says, “when I was younger, to have a cooking show.” In that vein, she started to make online videos, a riff on a low budget Julia Child. The videos turned into an art installation with cardboard sets. Soon IFC and New York came calling, and her art school friends became the cast and crew for Food Party.

The show became known for Tran’s awkward delivery and lo-fi characters such as Baguette, store-bought bread with aluminum foil glasses and mustache. Over the following two years, the puppetry grew more sophisticated under the direction of Kreepy Doll Factory founder, Dan Baxter. Tran explains, “Food was something I would think about all the time. Like, what would I eat today? You’re always hungry. It was easy for me to think about what I could possibly eat today that would make me feel good. It’s consuming in an obvious way, a universal feeling.”

While the original intention might have been to play with the cooking show format, the show grew into more plot driven episodes. And when Tran did demonstrate techniques and recipes, they involved fictitious ingredients or fantasy applications. Tran clarifies, “The goal wasn’t to make fucked-up food. I mean, it was that too, but initially, it was just to show you what combinations would work that [were] cheap and delicious. Cooking food is just like making anything. At lot of it is being conscious to using the resources I have. It’s just become another way of experimenting.”

Tran insists the format was based, in part, on her actual eating habits. She explains, “The food I make was just a result of being poor and not having that much stuff. I wouldn’t want to leave the house to get something. I ended up cooking with leftovers or weird condiments or weird snack food from the dollar store. It’s anything goes, like peanut butter or ketchup on everything.”

After its second season in 2010, Food Party was not renewed by IFC. But Tran never saw it as a lifelong career. She says, “The show was something my friends and I worked on for a really long time. It was an art project that lasted five or six years, which is a long time to work on anything. I was sad and relieved
at the same time.”

In the two years since then, Tran has gone on speaking tours, directed music videos and returned to making funny online videos. She says, “All the art I make now just exists as data. Putting videos and images on the internet makes it seem like it will last forever, and everyone in the world has access to it, if they can find it. I work collaboratively a lot. I like to work with people that I really like and continue to make things that are interesting and weird, and experiment with analog techniques.”