The ghost peppers seemed like a good idea. Amazon sells the dried peppers in nondescript plastic packaging. Bringing them into work and popping a few during an afternoon lull seemed like a reasonable plan. What could go wrong? Well, eating the second pepper so soon after downing the first might not have been the best idea. Extremely hot peppers have a delayed reaction, a depth charge of heat that waits until it hits the stomach before the mouth becomes a volcanic blast of burning heat. Danny Chau was ill-prepared for that first explosion of spice, but the second pepper was already going down, too late to stop. Then he was writhing on the floor in pain, eyes swelling and nose running. He told a co-worker to “get me the sweetest, most sugary drink they could find,” Chau said, laughing. They returned with a strawberry Frappuccino, “and I sucked that thing down.”
A 25-year-old sports writer probably shouldn’t be weeping on the office floor. Danny Chau isn’t the usual sports writer though. In fact, if he had his druthers, he’d open a restaurant sometime in the not-too-distant future. Medium-height, bespectacled, and Vietnamese-American, Chau looks more like a food critic than a stereotypical sports writer. As one of the main NBA writers for Bill Simmons’ website The Ringer, Chau is tasked with writing about the major happenings of one of the most popular sports in the world. But Chau is not just a talented basketball writer; he writes about food with an evocative style.
With the eye of a food and culture critic, Chau is equally incisive while writing about the Grit n’ Grind Memphis Grizzlies or a burger made completely of plants. Chau has never shied away from an intriguing story and relishes different ways of attacking them.
“The NBA is more or less an aesthetic game,” Chau said. That love of beauty is at the core of his passion for basketball. Chau’s all-time favorite player is Steve Nash, a floor genius as a point guard whose smooth game changed the way NBA basketball is played today. Watching Nash and the Seven Seconds or Less Suns was the spark for Chau. “That was when I knew that this was my sport, the only sport I cared about,” Chau said.
Duy Chau, Danny’s older brother, catalyzed the younger Chau’s interest in basketball as a toddler. They watched weekend triple-headers on the basic channels in the garage where their father would fix electronics.
Duy used to collect basketball cards, Upper Deck and Topps, and put them into books. He remembers Danny flipping through the books and reading the stat lines for every player. Danny was “Rain Man-esque” about players and statistics, and not just those of the superstars. “He was a carnival act … you show him a player and he would know the dude’s stat line,” Duy said. “He knew the third-stringers, man!”
Even though he was raised in LA, Danny was never a Lakers or Clippers homer. “I gravitated toward players I liked and found interesting,” Danny said.
Danny Chau’s uncanny ability to remember statistics is a great asset for a sports writer, but his personal style has evolved quite a bit. He uses stats in his stories, but they aren’t alpha and omega. Nor does he have a need to place every action and reaction in an overarching narrative. But seeking out new experiences that no one else has written about? That’s Chau’s land.
“When I was at Grantland I was really attracted to bad teams because I was an intern and wanted to get a byline out there,” Chau said. “I kind of felt I needed to find my own niche.” And since no one wanted to write about the terrible teams, Chau had plenty of room to work with.
Chau’s fascination with food (and its super-hot variants) stems from Chau’s childhood. One of his most vivid memories of eating with his family is his father nibbling on a single Thai chili at every dinner. Chau graduated from sampling a little bit of mashed Thai chili in a saucer of soy sauce as a four-year-old to eating anything his parents did by age eight, and eventually to ghost peppers, one of the hottest peppers in the world.
That need for heat comes from a deep love of food passed on from his parents. “My parents prided themselves on Vietnamese cuisine,” Chau said. “Weird, funky smelling stuff with strong flavors” were part of that upbringing, giving him what might mildly be called a brave palate.
At six, on a trip to Germany with his family, Chau realized that food was his passion. While there, he sampled all sorts of strange delicacies, including the meat from his favorite animal at the time, the kangaroo. That willingness to try anything is a hallmark of Chau’s personality and one that echoes in his writing.
For a sports writer, Danny Chau’s food-writing skills are highly unusual.
Chau wrote a five-thousand-word feature about “hot chicken,” Nashville’s super-spicy twist on fried chicken that was published in The Ringer in August 2016. That hot chicken story had incubated in Chau’s mind for years. And when given the chance to do it, he took it.
Chau’s style is what Sean Fennessey, editor-in-chief of The Ringer, calls “quirky, unusual, poetic without being pretentious.” The writing bears that description out, but Chau’s true talent can only be appreciated in the way a mouth waters while reading his descriptions of food:
“[The] spice blend is heavily weighted toward cayenne and paprika, among other spices; the earthiness almost reminiscent of nuclear Oaxacan mole. It’s hard to overstate how beautiful this fried chicken is. It glows, with a sheen emanating from every crevice.” (Chau “The Burning Desire for Hot Chicken”)
While others might love spice like Chau does, he is certain that none of them can “describe it the way I can and go out there and do what I did.” He subjected himself to the blazing heat of Nashville’s finest hot chicken establishments and came out with what he thinks is “the best thing I’ve ever written, the best thing I ever will write.”
The desire that propelled him to find the interesting and strange is what he finds most liberating as a basketball writer. “I can approach it like a cultural critic would,” Chau said. “Instead of thinking of it as a gamer or a standard traditional feature, there are ways to tackle the sport that are not necessarily bound to rigid formulas.”
Writing like a cultural critic means Chau cuts through the boring narratives that many other writers use as crutches. An early article Chau is proud of is a profile of James Johnson, a current Miami Heat player who is also a black belt. Titled “They Call Him Bloodsport: James Johnson Kicks His Way Into the NBA,” the 2014 article is a prime example of Chau’s unorthodox sportswriting style.
“He’s 6-foot-8, nearly 250 pounds, built like a bear on a juice cleanse. There is no footage of this, and unless you’ve spent an entire childhood mastering the ins and outs of Street Fighter II, your imagination will almost certainly fall short rendering it,” Chau writes of Johnson.
The ability to combine video games, an unusual metaphor, and a challenge to the reader is Chau in a nutshell; the cultural critic meets basketball.
Writing about food is just a perk for Chau. When he first started writing for Grantland as an intern in 2013, his only goal was to stay as useful as possible so he wouldn’t be fired. “Be as indispensable to the process as you can and that way they can never fire you,” Chau said. “I told them I would do anything, as long as it wasn’t getting the coffee.”
That “indispensable” attitude is part of his identity as a writer. He writes about food with the same verve that he writes about draft prospects, three-point barrages and the finer points of the NBA. While sportswriting has a place in his heart, Chau believes openness to other styles is essential. “You never want to pigeonhole yourself as a sports writer,” Chau said. “You want to think of yourself as a writer.”
Chau’s willingness to do or try anything is part of his next plan too. “In fifteen-years I hope to start up a bar and restaurant with some of my best friends,” Chau said. But would he be the chef? “I love food, but I’m not disciplined enough to cook,” Chau said, with a laugh.