CITITOUR’S Q&A Series with celebrated New York City chefs continues with Chef Eric Huang
CITITOUR: Why did you choose the culinary route instead of music? Was your family supportive?
CHEF HUANG: I had a stereotypical Asian-American-classical-music-indoctrination childhood that resulted in hefty invoices for mental health counseling in adulthood. I have learned to be grateful for the training, but it was not something I chose. But I also grew up in a restaurant and that world could not have been more different: clamor, camaraderie, energy, excitement, fury. It encapsulates a broad spectrum of human emotion and it was somewhere I always felt more at home than in an orchestra.
I wouldn't say my family took it seriously until I persisted past my fourth year as a chef. My mother is a hospitality lifer, as is the story for so many Chinese immigrants, but she remains unusual in that she genuinely loves it. Once she got past her protective instincts of wanting an easier, more conventional life for her child, we then began to find we had a shared interest.
CITITOUR: You worked in some famous restaurants like Café Boulud and Eleven Madison Park, what did you learn from working in such acclaimed restaurants?
CHEF HUANG: Pretty much everything about running a kitchen and upholding a high standard of cuisine. I knew what good food was having grown up in a restaurant and being blessed with fantastic home cooking. But as for everything else it takes to run a kitchen, I learned it in fine dining. I'm not saying it is the only avenue by which you can learn to cook, but there is a precision and artistry to working in a Michelin-starred restaurant that is difficult to find elsewhere. The fun thing about being a chef is that it requires an incredibly broad array of skills. That also happens to be the really difficult thing about it. You learn and hone everything from knife skills to roasting a fish to leading a team to managing an inventory to writing a prep list to creating provocative food to the importance of hot plates to effective communication to cooking at high volume to sense of urgency to personal integrity.
CITITOUR: How did the idea for Pecking House come about?
CHEF HUANG: I helped my mother out in the beginning of the pandemic when most of her staff were fearful of working. I got a battlefield promotion to dim sum chef and we proceeded to cook an asinine amount of Chinese takeout. After that, I took a break and started working as a private chef in the Hamptons but felt unfulfilled. Not knowing what the future of the restaurant industry was, I took to helping out my uncle at my family's restaurant Peking House in Queens. It had been shuttered since the pandemic and was unlikely to ever return to what it was unless someone applied a great deal of brute force. The idea of playing around in my own kitchen was very appealing. So I took to breathing some life into the cold ashes of the restaurant even if it meant working in a kitchen that hadn't been updated since the year I was born.
CITITOUR: What made you choose fried chicken?
CHEF HUANG: One major gastronomic factor and one major practical factor. Culinarily speaking, it was the best recipe I came up with. I wanted to create a dish that would comfort anxious New Yorkers trapped in their apartments and reheat well given the broad delivery range from Fresh Meadows to Manhattan. So I was actually trying to avoid committing to fried chicken given its notoriously poor travel habits. But I knew it was something interesting and delicious and I recalled that nobody likes frying food at home but everybody loves eating fried food. The major practical factor was that the fryers were the only reliable piece of equipment in my uncle’s restaurant. So perhaps fried chicken chose me.
CITITOUR: How did you come up with the recipe for your fried chicken?
CHEF HUANG: I used what was on hand in my mother's kitchen: chicken, mustard, five-spice, cornstarch, chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, potato starch, flour, MSG. My personal explanation is that a lifetime of eating KFC, as well as Taiwanese fried chicken, created a natural marriage in my brain, despite never intentionally trying to do so.
CITITOUR: Did you expect to gain a cult following for your chicken?
CHEF HUANG: Absolutely not. I am still processing how the hell this happened.
CITITOUR: Why did you choose Park Slope, Brooklyn as your primary location for a restaurant?
CHEF HUANG: As seems to be the theme here, it was not terribly intentional, but we did have rudimentary data about our delivery hotspots given that we did all of those logistics in-house, and this part of Brooklyn was somewhere we delivered to a lot. We took a chance and hoped that pattern would remain true.
CITITOUR: Do you have any future plans for your brand? Are you planning on opening up new locations?
CHEF HUANG: There is great hope that I can open another restaurant, but much like asking a new parent that is actively drowning if they want more kids, perhaps ask again later.