Let me tell you a story: Earlier this summer, my friend introduced me to a talented young Taiwanese-American chef named Eric Huang. He had cooked at Cafe Boulud with Daniel Boulud, Gramercy Tavern with Michael Anthony, and Eleven Madison Park with Daniel Humm. I found out later that he went to Juilliard for cello and graduated from Northwestern University. He was also an exceptional writer from what I could read on his Instagram posts. This guy was the real deal and all sorts of talented.
Eric wanted advice and feedback on his business plan for Anzhu, a high-end Chinese restaurant he dreamed of opening in New York. We talked about the current state of the industry and how people right now and for the foreseeable future needed something different, something more comforting. I talked him into doing something fast casual and simpler that could be delivered to the masses. He could make a lot more cash and build his brand to raise capital more easily for Anzhu when things get back to normal. He was already making frozen dumplings on the side to deliver to friends. He had his family restaurant Peking House in Queens that he could use as a ghost kitchen. I suggested fried chicken after having the fried chicken from Birdsong in San Francisco. And thus Pecking House was born.
I started seeing the photos of his drool-worthy fried chicken pop up on his Instagram. I pitched a story to my friend Kate Krader, the food editor at Bloomberg. She trekked out to Queens to try Eric’s chicken and was blown away. She said she was going to bring New York Times food critic Pete Wells next time she came back for more. Her post on Instagram got her friends like celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern saying he wanted some too. Then his story was covered in Time Out New York.
Pecking House started blowing up with a waitlist 400 people long because up to this point Eric is doing this all solo. The waitlist is about to get a lot longer because the New Yorker just wrote a great review! Meanwhile during all of this he got engaged to his girlfriend who is also a talented chef who came up with the name Pecking House. Even though we’ve never met in person, it makes me just as happy to see others succeed as succeeding myself and I’m so glad I could play a small part in all of this coming together.
I think Eric will be a great ambassador for Chinese cuisine in America. Restaurants have suffered severely during the pandemic, especially Chinese restaurants for xenophobic reasons. His family restaurant was a victim and business has been sparse. Less business meant a slower kitchen which created an opportunity and a space for Eric to work. After having cooked in some of the greatest restaurant kitchens with the biggest name chefs in the world, Eric took a detour and found himself back in the kitchen he grew up in. He aspires to join them on the mountaintop someday, but until then he has taken a well-received detour on his journey to the peak. He is still committed to his mission of introducing refined Chinese cuisine to the masses, just in the form of fried chicken instead of a tasting menu for now.
“I felt that Chinese cuisine, especially Chinese-American cuisine, had not really gotten the appreciation or the kind of face-lift that it needed to enter the modern era.” The past nine months have changed his perspective. “I don’t know when or if fine dining will come back in the same way,” he said. “This kind of helped me realize that maybe it’s not what I want anymore. I’m getting back to what being a chef is about to me, as cheesy as it sounds — making people happy.”
The moral of the story is that it’s not a zero-sum game. What might be only a few minutes of your time to help make an introduction via an email or text, or to take a 30 minute phone call, can make a huge impact on someone’s life. Take the time and pay it forward. Good things can happen. Lord knows we need them to now more than ever.