When Eric Huang stepped into a professional kitchen more than a decade ago, there were no plans to return to his family’s American Chinese restaurant in Fresh Meadows, Queens.
In January, the 33-year-old chef had just left his sous chef position at Eleven Madison Park, which was rated the best restaurant in the world back in 2017. Finally, the native New Yorker—who also spent years cooking at fine-dining establishments like Gramercy Tavern and Café Boulud—was ready to start looking for a kitchen to call his own.
But fast forward to mid-September 2020 and Huang found himself back at his family’s restaurant, Peking House. Instead of ladling vats of egg drop soup and tossing woks filled with beef and broccoli, Huang was serving up fried chicken as part of his new project: Pecking House.
“I had Michelin stars in my eyes. It was a singular focus,” says Huang. “This year has me thinking: ‘Maybe that stuff isn't so important anymore.’ It has me realizing that it was very self-ego driven. This is more about being part of the community and making people happy.”
It helps when so many people love fried chicken. The demand for Huang’s menu is growing and successfully placing an order is like finding a pedigreed chef’s underground restaurant no one knows about yet. Customers can direct message the restaurant’s Instagram account (@pecking_house) for a password to access the website so Huang, who basically runs the venture alone at the moment with the occasional help of two friends, can manage the orders; he had about 15 orders the first weekend and more than 120 last week.
This is more about being part of the community and making people happy
For $35, you get three pieces of fried chicken (white and dark meat) with three sides such as smashed cucumbers, dirty fried rice and a tomato-tofu salad. Huang drives his mini Honda Fit to personally deliver most of the orders and for now, he’s completing drop offs in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The buttermilk-brined chicken, which is sourced from D’Artagnan, may “look violently spicy but it’s very manageable.” For the flour batter, he adds five spice, Tianjin chili and Szechuan peppercorns, which imparts mala, that spicy and numbness flavor common in many Szechuan dishes.
“It’s like Taiwanese fried chicken meets Nashville hot chicken,” says Huang, whose parents are from Taiwan.
Huang still hopes to open his own full-service, sit-down restaurant one day, but for the time being, he’s taken over the kitchen at Peking House, which his family bought from its previous owners in the late 1970’s. His uncle took over the restaurant in the late 90’s but it has remained closed throughout the current crisis (sales plummeted before the citywide shutdown as racist and xenophobic responses toward Chinese people and Asian-owned businesses grew). Huang is using profits from Pecking House to help his uncle pay the rent for the building, where the dining room still looks like it’s stuck in the 80’s with glass block windows, acrylic-covered chairs and dim lighting. He’s contemplating opening the dining room to the public, but he’s also been helping his mother with her restaurant, Pearl East, located in Manhasset, Long Island, where business has been robust with takeout and delivery in high demand.
“Pandemic has made me realize that the Golden Age is perhaps over, and that a time of chaos and discovery is on the horizon. Pandemic has made me realize there's no dishonor in making fried chicken to help your family out. Pandemic has made me realize that in moments of despair, a humble chef can bring a great deal of joy and relief to someone's life,” Huang wrote on a recent Instagram post. “And those feelings can't go on a P&L sheet or show up on a tax return.”
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