Article Link: Read it on The New York Times
Published in December 2020
In January, Eric Huang left his post as sous chef at Eleven Madison Park with aspirations to open his own restaurant. As the son of Taiwanese immigrants who owned restaurants in Queens and on Long Island, he wanted to present Chinese flavors in a new way, giving them a fine-dining platform. “There was this really entrenched perception of Chinese-American cuisine,” he said.
But then the pandemic forced Mr. Huang to put his dream aside.
Instead, he began frying chicken for delivery out of his uncle’s restaurant, Peking House, in Fresh Meadows, Queens, which closed during the shutdown. Mr. Huang’s set menu features chili-fried chicken — buttermilk-brined and finished with Tianjin chiles and Sichuan peppercorns — along with three seasonal sides. Orders have grown to nearly 250 a week. In a nod to his uncle, whom he’s helping out with rent, and the long lineage of Chinese-American restaurants with similar names, he’s calling his business “Pecking House.”
Mr. Huang, 34, lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, with his girlfriend, Maddie Sperling, 29, a chef at Olmsted, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. They recently got engaged.
MEOW ALARM My cat has kidney disease, and she wakes me up at, like, 5 in the morning so I can feed her medicine and give her water. I get up for real around 8. I don’t eat breakfast or make coffee. I’ve been intermittent fasting for, like, two years now. I was super overweight as a child, so it’s just a diet that works for me. I started doing this when I worked at Eleven Madison Park. I had to taste food all the time and it was impossible to stick to any sort of restrictive carb diet or whatever. I get ready in about seven minutes, kiss my girlfriend and the cat goodbye and I’m out the door.
WORKING FOR THE WEEKEND Sunday is my Friday, if that makes sense. I close the restaurant Monday and Tuesday, so it’s both a really glorious day but also a really difficult day. It’s basically me worrying about fried chicken from the moment I wake up until the end.
DRIVE-THROUGH COFFEE A car has been a very important part of my life this year. It’s the first time I’ve owned a car since I was in high school. I will grab a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee from the drive-through, which is a strange luxury I haven’t had in about 15 years. I drink a lot of red-eyes.
CLEAN UP I’ll go to Peking House, I’ll open it up. It’s usually in a state of disarray because when I close, my priority is getting this food to people and not making sure everything is buttoned up really clean and tight. I spend the first hour firing everything up and cleaning up after myself from last night. I’m kind of neurotically obsessively clean.
WHITE SNAKE I’ll do about 50 dinners a day, roughly. So I’ll approve all the orders that are scheduled for that day and then I’ll print out what we call, in chef’s parlance, a “white snake,” which is a really comically long paper trail of tickets. Then I sort the tickets by borough. I will literally plug every address into Google Maps and I will start routing. All the third-party delivery apps, it’s too far for them or it’s way too expensive for me.
BALANCING ACT I’ll start prepping at 11 and, while I’m prepping, I’m also selling and trying to respond to wait list requests because — it’s like over 400 people now. I’m getting some help from an organization called Send Chinatown Love. They’re doing pro bono business development and website development for Chinese restaurants that are struggling during the pandemic, and they were kind enough to take me on.
SUSTENANCE I’ll probably have eaten, like, two spoons of peanut butter at around 11:30, that’s my breakfast, which is really sad but true. It’s creamy. I don’t know what the brand is, but every Chinese restaurant uses it for peanut butter noodles. I’ve been eating this peanut butter since I was like 5 years old.
PREP There’s a lot of cutting of chicken and marinating chicken. I always try to stay a day ahead on it because the buttermilk marinade really works its magic overnight. The three sides are the dirty fried rice and then the roasted brussels sprouts with sesame and chili. And then, there’s the Kabocha squash with caramelized onions and bacon, which was something I made up on the fly, but it seems to be everybody’s favorite dish. Accidental win.
FAMILY MEAL Segundo will come in at 1. He’s a longtime Peking House employee; he’s worked for my uncle since like 2006. My uncle will come in around 2. He always makes some Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee. I’ll start cooking a family meal. I try to be super economical because margins are tight, and I also just hate wasting food. I take all the backs from the chickens and I make soup out of them and then I pick the meat off, and I’ll save them for the next day to make a cold chicken salad.
PRETTY GOOD At 4 Segundo will start helping me fry. I always fry off a piece of chicken to taste myself just to make sure the seasoning is good and the spice blend is the right balance. I kind of describe it as Nashville hot chicken meets Taiwanese fried chicken. I’m pretty sick of my own chicken because I eat it every day and I can’t even tell if it’s good anymore. But people tell me it’s pretty good so I just take their word for it.
GROUND CONTROL My loyal cadre of ex-fine-dining employees will show up at 6 and the real craziness begins. We’ll lay out all the containers and then all the bags. It’s really chaotic. The food starts dying rapidly so we have to try to get the chicken to everyone in under an hour. We’ll pack them all up, make sure they’ve got everything they need, make sure the checklist is right, get them in the car — godspeed and good luck. I always try to give myself the most difficult, annoying route because I really appreciate my friends helping me and I don’t want to scare them away. We leave at 6:45, and we’re usually done about 8:30.
LOVE THY NEIGHBOR I’ll get home, take care of my chubby cat and then I’ll go for a run. I might practice cello for a little bit. I was trained as a cellist for my whole life and then I went to Juilliard pre-college in Manhattan. Another key part of the Asian-American experience is being forced to play a string instrument. I just got a practice mute, which is like this big brass block you put on your instrument so it doesn’t bother your neighbors. The neighbor I share a wall with, she came over and chewed me out one day.
POP CULTURE CATCH-UP My girlfriend will usually get home around 12:30. She’s a chef as well. I think I’m the only millennial who hasn’t watched “The Office” before, so I’ve been making my way through it because I never had Netflix! I was a chef, you know. I was just working all the time.
Sunday Routine readers can follow Eric Huang on Instagram @eric.p.huang