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'Food Party' returns: A Q&A with creator Thu Tran

April 27, 2010 | 10:48 am

Thuweb2Tonight, gloriously, begins a second season of my current favorite TV show, "Food Party," on IFC. Thu Tran, 28, is the creator and host of this handmade, puppet-filled world, whose rules and mythologies change from week to week and whose inhabitants include Monsieur Baguette, Ninja Dog, the King of the Universe and Peanut Butter Jerry (who this season meets his match in Grape Jenny).

Nothing in its look, its acting or its narrative flow is predictable by any of the usual conventions of television, because it is not made by TV people, but by a group of friends from the Cleveland Institute of Art, now working out of Brooklyn. I'll have a feature/essay on the show in an upcoming edition of the Times' Sunday Calendar, but as an appetizer, here's a Q&A with Tran, whose love of food also expresses itself in a blog and a Twitter feed. She will be Web-chatting the premiere tonight at 7 p.m. PST via IFC.com.

Let's go back to the moment that "Food Party" popped into your head.

Thu Tran: It came from a hybrid of doing a lot of things and then just trying to figure out exactly how it could all fit together. It came from making installation art in art school -- I really like to make art that is very experiential, so it would be an environment where every single piece was fabricated, as well as lighting to evoke a specific time of day or a mood, and there was also a smell to it; I had humidifiers running so that it was scented. And each sculptural item was also very tactile, so you could touch it -- it was soft or it was rough or it was very smooth and glassy or it was lumpy or whatever.

At the same time I was also shooting these fun little cooking videos with my roommate; they were very stoner-ish and very "Wayne's World"-y because we filmed them in our apartment, which was, like, full of Jimi Hendrix posters and drawings that our friends made. It didn't really look that interesting, but I did my best in post [production] to draw pictures over things to give it a more intimate feel. I liked the [installation] art I was making a lot, but didn't know how I could take it anywhere with me because it was just a lot of stuff that I couldn't store; after I was done uninstalling the piece I'd just toss it because I couldn't put it anywhere. So that was, like, a bummer to me that it was only for whoever went to the gallery.

So I thought of making a video, a cooking video, that was in a very sculptural set. I'd have pieces of the set for the show, and the video itself was not really a parody -- it was more like a parody on art videos. To me a lot of art videos are not unwatchable, exactly, but I wanted to play with the structure of a television show, learning how that works and applying that to making an art video.

The Thu Tran we see onscreen is obviously not the person I'm talking to now; there are certain, almost stilted speech patterns you have there that are key to the feel of the show -- the way you repeat and phrase things almost sounds like you're not a native speaker of English.

TT: Yeah, I start sounding like I'm talking to my [Vietnamese] mom on the phone. It's very different, and it's the same. Because I never really feel like I'm playing a character, but I am, I guess. It's honestly just nerves. I'm even now slowly coming to terms with actually being a performer, just because I'm more used to being someone who likes to be behind the scenes and likes making things with my hands. When I'm on camera I tend to repeat things a lot because I have poor memorization skills, and also I'm trying to project my voice more because I want to make sure that I'm audible, so I overcompensate on that end as well. And it's a very exaggerated world, so I'm trying to compensate for that as well.

Food is a longstanding focus of your art -- you've made blown-glass birthday cakes -- and you blog about food and your Twitter feed is mostly about food. 

TT: It's a very easy subject matter for me because to me food is about as universal as it gets; it's a language that everyone speaks. You can say so much with food, and to me it has its own vocabulary as well, so for the show I try to translate whatever visual vocabulary I have and apply that to making food. I love food, I love preparing food, I handle food the same way that I would handle a drawing and I would handle a sentence -- to me it's all the same.

What I've seen of the new season seems more ambitious than the first.

TT: Yeah, totally! I always want to try to push myself to do things bigger and better because otherwise they'll just get boring. Even with limited means you still can push that, and when you have a little bit more means you can push it even further.

Did having 20 episodes to play with this time instead of the first season's six make you feel more free, that you didn't have to edit yourself because of the bigger canvas?

TT: It was a little bit liberating. When we were restricted to six and we didn't know whether we would have more, I was being very careful about what we were going to do because I was, like, "Oh, these six better be really good because we might not get another chance." We were a little bit timid as well because we were working under this corporate network and worried a little bit about not doing certain things.

This time around we're a lot more confident and comfortable, and with 20 episodes we can try things where it's not necessarily like a throwaway episode, but it's more like, "Let's just focus on this, and we can really dig deeper into it." In terms of writing the show, it's still definitely done collectively, but this time around I did get a chance to write most of the scripts. In the past I wasn't so comfortable doing that; I would just write an outline of everything I wanted to do -- like, "I want to do an episode where I marry myself, and I want these things to happen," and have my friends help me script it out. We still do it the same way where we brainstorm with each other, and if we're laughing, then it's good. A lot of it comes from just joking around, where we're maybe just hanging out together late one night and maybe we see a bird fly in with a Dorito and it'll be like, "Oh wow, we should do that." Little things inspire it.

What's your best dish?

TT: I make this really good thousand-layer crepe-galette thing. It's called "thousand-layer" because it looks like a thousand, but there's really not that many. Each layer is a fun thing, like jelly, or ham, or cheese, or whatever available ingredients I have, and then when you slice it you can see all the layers. It's really good because it gives you everything you want and it looks really good.

Give us a local restaurant recommendation.

TT: My favorite sandwich place in Los Angeles is Mr. Baguette [in Rosemead]. The owner is a Vietnamese guy, he studied exclusively the art of making baguettes in Paris and then opened up a cheap little sandwich place here. The sandwich I like there is just a fresh baguette and it has vanilla pudding inside -- it's like a savory cream puff, like a doughnut almost, it's really good. You can eat it as a dessert, but you can also eat it as a meal, because the bread is nourishing.

-- Robert Lloyd (follow me on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd)

Photo: "Food Party" creator Thu Tran. Credit: Karolina Wotjasik / IFC

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