Overnight success is like a Broadway musical come to life. Somebody has such a great idea or invention or TikTok that the world can’t help but stand and applaud. Further accolades and, more importantly, riches, follow. It’s a lot of fun in one act, and it almost always misses the big picture.
Chef Eric Huang’s Pecking House, a movable feast that he describes as a crossover between American and Taiwanese fried chicken, seemed to hatch out of thin air in the pre-vaccine pandemic. Headlines flew about the then takeout and delivery-only spot’s weeks-long waitlist. Pop-ups followed Huang’s success running the operation out of his family’s decommissioned Queens restaurant and, with a little more of a brick-and-mortar presence, however temporary, Pecking House was one of Time Out New York’s best new restaurants of 2021. Now, Huang and his business partner Maya Ferrante are poised to open Pecking House’s first permanent location this month. And it all took somewhere between overnight and a lifetime to execute.
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“I grew up in a Chinese American restaurant, and spent a great deal of my childhood there. And so I always kind of loved being in restaurants,” Huang says.
“And [Pecking House] was obviously not the intention of the journey. My mother immigrated here. And the whole point was for me to go to college and become a doctor or something like that. Or a musician; I was a cellist. And then I went to college, and I didn't really enjoy anything I was studying in particular, and I didn't know what I was doing with my life for a long time. And I wanted to get back into restaurants.”
Getting back meant cooking around his college town outside of Chicago, pivoting to culinary school and eventually working as sous chef at Eleven Madison Park when it was still synonymous with excellence rather than disgrace. Huang left that post in early 2020 without plans to become NYC’s most popular fried chicken purveyor.
“It feels like an accident that we have come to love,” Huang says. “This was never really what I intended to happen. I was just kind of hoping to help my family out and, you know, bring in a little bit of sales to pay the rent or something like that. Obviously, people really embraced it and really seem to love it. And it’s been a journey for me to kind of come to this point where, you know, I think my original mindset was always like, oh, we'll do this for now, it's fun. That still might be the case, but I’ve come to a point where I really, really enjoy this.”
“Especially with the current state of the world, I think bringing this kind of comfort to people, through food and fun experiences is really, really valuable. And I didn't expect that. For better or worse, fine dining is a lot more self, ego-oriented. It's a lot about, you know, expressing yourself as a chef and showing people your vision. This is a lot more relaxed. And, you know, if I may say, a bit humble, to just be like, hey, this is some really good food, we want to offer it to you in a fun atmosphere at an affordable price, and we hope you really enjoy it.”
The all-new and latest interpretation of Pecking House will open in the coming weeks on Flatbush Avenue at St. Marks where Park Slope and Prospect Heights meet. In addition to the fried fowl that made it famous, the counter service restaurant will expand its menu and include beer, wine (in cans or disposable cups) and possibly batched cocktails in the near future. And here Huang and Ferrante have the opportunity to create the destination they haven’t yet quite had.
“It feels more real by the day,” Huang says. “Every day, we kind of walk in and see the progress being made, we’re making the decisions on how things are built et cetera. So it is starting to feel pretty cool and exciting. Having been a vagabond restaurant for almost two years now, I don't recommend that. It's not a terribly easy or smooth experience to be moving from place to place and opening a restaurant all over the place.”
“But, you know, we forged onward as best we could. And yeah, we're super excited to finally build our own home. It feels like we can finally start doing what we really want to be doing.”
Without having to bop all over the city, negotiate space and storage in various locales and calibrate for novel equipment that sometimes meant having to 86 some menu items, all while, Huang says, somewhat confusing the consumer, he and Ferrante are able to establish the concrete business that’s been a bit of an abstraction for the last couple of years. The pair is both grateful for those previous opportunities and for this new chance for Pecking House to be its own thing.
“The first thing was just, you know, getting the space, as boring as it sounds, into a good condition. It was pretty old and not well maintained and we wanted to make sure the bones of the place were well taken care of and refreshed. We wanted three deep friars because we have been working with two small ones forever and ever. It’s pretty challenging when you're a fried chicken restaurant, doing that. And we wanted woks, we had really missed working with woks, cooking with woks is something that’s really important to me; it's really embedded in all the flavors and the way we cook at Pecking House.”
The tools and the space and the singular place will allow the restaurant to consistently supply what it’s known for and continue to grow.
“I think the fun thing about Pecking House is this really fascinating intersection of American Southern food and Chinese cuisine. Even exploring it through the lens of Pecking House, I didn't realize how much crossover there was, how many similarities there were. How much they share is both kind of like based around surviving and making do with what you have. So I think there's going to be a lot more fascinating and fun ways to explore that. It will always be based in that kind of canon of exploring my identity, of understanding American cuisine and Southern cuisine through the lens of growing up here Chinese American. But we do plan on expanding menu with sides and different styles of fried chicken and other great Southern classics that have our interpretation.”
The aim for the space outside of the kitchen is fun, inviting, casual and picnic-like with room for about 45; an easy, fixed pop-in spot after all the time they spent doing pop-ups. And, although this is intentionally on the opposite end of the spectrum of Huang’s fine-dining background, sparkling water on tap, a favorite for the chef, is one somewhat fancy touch. And Huang says that he would love to collaborate with and host other hospitality pros, as he was hosted previously.
Pecking House has has a lot of lives already, and this next step could hardly be farther afield from how it got its start, as a newcomer providing hospitality and a break from days and days of pantry dinners at a time when people were still wiping down delivery containers and eating alone or only with members of their household or sometimes in pods. Now it’s a restaurant. To go to.
“People will sit down together and enjoy this really nice food,” Huang says. “Fried chicken is the best thing to share.”