Eric Huang Perfects Chili Fried Chicken Sandwich at Pecking House

Eric Huang Perfects Chili Fried Chicken Sandwich at Pecking House

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Photos courtesy of Justin Kirkland

“Michelin stars are stupid,” Eric Huang tells me as he takes a sip of coffee out of a plastic Tupperware container. At that exact moment, somewhere in nearby Manhattan, a crystal vase implodes. A beautiful white chef’s jacket is sullied by an overturned glass of cabernet. A woman, probably named Margaret or Evelyn, gasps into an embroidered napkin. Chef Eric Huang, former sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, has no right—no right, I tell you!—to shrug off a classist, somewhat antiquated, mostly white-faced system like fine dining. By God, this is decadence he spits on. And yes, Huang developed a brilliant recipe (during a pandemic, mind you) that currently has a waitlist of 8,000 people, but if he doesn’t invite the elites to laud it, does it even matter?

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Five days a week, Huang and his staff prepare around 140 pounds of fried chicken.

Justin Kirkland

Huang’s office is the corner of a long metal prep table shoved in the back of the kitchen at Peking House, a Chinese restaurant owned by his uncle in Queens, New York. On a particularly busy Friday, he’s facing it, sorting an order list for 150 meals that his pop-up Pecking House will prep and disseminate across New York City by the day’s end. It all sounds very fancy, but the truth is, it’s fried chicken—damn good fried chicken that is impossibly crispy, reminiscent of a Southern country-fried recipe, but enhanced with flavors representative of Huang’s heritage and childhood. Invented on a whim, the dish has garnered so much attention that it takes a full two months to get a plate. Huang’s chicken distribution system involves an Excel spreadsheet and innumerable Post-it notes with math done by hand because, as he puts it, that’s the math he trusts most. He’s got a lot of names waiting to be cycled through it.

“I’ve been renegotiating my relationship with fine dining a lot,” Huang says, then takes another sip of hot coffee from his Tupperware. “Not that I don’t think fine dining is important. It definitely pushes the boundary on the art form, though I’m loath to call cooking an art.”

He switches out a Post-it. Bad math. I blame the conversation.

“It sounds weird, but I’ve worked in a certain kind of cooking for so long, I’d kind of lost sight of the purpose of cooking in general, which is to make people feel good and to be hospitable,” he continues, scanning Excel again. “Fine dining is just so ego-oriented, and I lost sight of that in some ways because I was so in it for 10 years.”

This take on fine dining, as spicy as his Szechuan hot fried chicken, is a relatively new perspective for Huang, who’s 34 years old. In January of 2020, when Huang stepped down from Eleven Madison Park, he had plans of starting his own fine dining restaurant that subverted the expectations of Chinese food. A Taiwanese kid growing up in the back of his mother’s Chinese restaurant in Long Island, he was acutely aware what people thought of Chinese food: cheap lunch specials, fortune cookies, egg rolls, small boxes. What he would create would be an elevated version, a proof point that his culture was not a blanket trend, or worse, some kind of novelty.

Then Covid hit. The plan faltered. The food industry stopped. The whole world stopped, really. That landed Huang back in his mother’s Long Island kitchen. “I was learning how to make dim sum on the fly,” he jokes. Then he did some private cheffing in the Hamptons. But his uncle’s Peking House, like most restaurants, had closed right at the start of the pandemic and sat empty for months. A cousin suggested that with no re-opening in sight, Huang should utilize the kitchen. It’s not like anyone else was. Perhaps it could help earn money to pay the rent. So in September, in the back of Peking House, Huang concocted his plan for Chinese-inspired hot chicken, delivered straight to New Yorkers’ doors. And no, Pecking House (Huang’s fiancée, chef Madeline Sperling, thought to add the “c”) isn’t fine dining. It’s the people’s champion, a restaurant that reimagines Chinese cuisine using high-end, inventive ingredients in a kitchen inhabited by people of color from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom.

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Peking House, located in Queens, New York, is operated by Huang’s uncle. Mid-pandemic, Huang stepped in to use the kitchen for Pecking House.

Justin Kirkland

At this point, career detours are a love language for Huang. For the majority of his life, food was not on the radar. “So,” he says, “very stereotypical Asian American childhood. I was forced to play a classical instrument.” Countless Saturdays in the city learning cello paid off when he was accepted into Juilliard. That dream was quickly dismantled when Huang was expelled for skipping class, losing an opportunity to perform Beethoven’s Eroica with the Juilliard orchestra in the process. He went to Northwestern to study cello, said “fuck it” after a few months, and got a degree in history instead.

At the same time, Anthony Bourdain went from renowned chef to beloved public figure. Food Network was birthing bona fide fine dining celebrities like José Andrés and Bobby Flay. Huang was reminded of being back in his mom’s kitchen, so he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, started working at New York staples like Cafe Boulud and Gramercy Tavern (where he met his Pecking House business partner, Maya Ferrante, and routing manager, Cassie Sciortino), and eventually landed at Eleven Madison Park in 2016.

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The country-fried chicken is slathered in a chili sauce before being boxed up for delivery.

Justin Kirkland

In a lot of ways, Eleven Madison Park is the mountaintop of American, if not global, gastronomy. Under Chef Daniel Humm, it has been named one of the world’s top 10 restaurants six times, landing a number one ranking in 2017. “I went from this extremely poor student to this hyper-disciplined chef, because working at EMP is like being in the military,” Huang explains. “It’s just so rigid, and intense, and life-consuming. Finally, I found something I liked doing. And I really, really wanted to be the best at it.”

His goal was ultimately to blend pedigree and heritage into his own take on Chinese fine dining. Covid had other plans.

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In the kitchen at Peking House, around noon, Huang is joined by Ferrante, as well as Brianna Cruz Rabago, chef de partie at Eleven Madison Park, on loan to help Huang develop a new chicken sandwich. She is quick-moving and serious and determined to make this sandwich sing. Before us is iteration number 14, adorned with pineapple butter and teriyaki sauce; its bun is tilted back slightly, as if to give a flirty hello. This type of research and development process is a little alien to Huang; he’s more of a one-and-done guy—a bizarre quality in a chef—but Cruz Rabago has kept him focused. “I joke about how I don’t test recipes. But, I mean, I didn’t test recipes at EMP either,” he says. “So I got in a lot of trouble for that.” I, like Huang, cannot imagine it getting better as the butter works its way down my fingers after a bite, but Cruz Rabago questions the coating. The pineapple jam. The bun.

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Huang and Ferrante make gribiche sauce for the evening’s deliveries.

Justin Kirkland

That is what happens when you bring a slate of top notch cuisiniers to build a fried chicken business. The side of asparagus is served on a bed of gribiche. There’s a whole discussion about what is and isn’t decent peanut butter. (“JIF is a good brand of peanut butter!” Huang insists.) Shaking the pretension of fine dining didn’t happen overnight, but as he dives deeper into fried chicken nirvana, Huang admits it’s getting easier.

Pecking House’s prix fix menu runs customers 35 dollars and includes three pieces of buttermilk-brined, country-fried chicken finished with Tianjin chilis and Szechuan peppercorn, asparagus with XO sauce, roasted Yukon potatoes with ramps and peppers, and a butter bean salad that has no business being a secret star of the menu. To be very clear: The chicken is stupid. About 140 pounds of the stuff leaves the restaurant every day and remains inexplicably crispy (at least until 2 a.m., when I fished the final piece out of my refrigerator nine hours after it left the fryer) thanks to a mix of EverCrisp, a specially designed delivery container, and what I’m convinced is a bit of witchcraft. Huang is cavalier about the viral recipe: “I like to say it was just a natural evolution of growing up here Asian American. That’s the kind of style of chicken I grew up eating, just KFC, Popeyes, buttermilk-fried and country-fried chicken.” This is, respectfully, not KFC chicken.

I feel guilty having skipped the line of 8,000. Randomly, I apologize to Ferrante, who laughs, trying to communicate the PR struggle of having a weeks-long waitlist. “It’s not an ego thing or an attempt to create an aura,” she explains. “We want to create good food from the heart in a time when people need it.”

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Hundreds of sides are prepped earlier in the day, then refrigerated until packing time.

Justin Kirkland

As I lick my fingers like some sneaky kitchen rodent, I notice that I am the only white person in the building. After years spent in Michelin-star restaurants—often very white and very male—having a back of house filled with people of color and gastronomical gravitas must feel nice. That helped sell Ferrante on partnering with Huang. This was their chance to do it differently than what they had experienced under the thumb of fine dining’s impossible expectations. No bullshit, no ego, just great food.

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“Chefs in their kitchens, in their restaurants, they like to play God,” Huang says. “That’s how I carried myself for a really long time and was always trying to show people that I was the best. And that can be for a lot of reasons. But perhaps it’s just connected to my childhood and just feeling invisible as an Asian American growing up in a white society. I wanted to be seen.”

People of color have a place at the table here at Pecking House, and not just the least desirable seat. They’re paid a living wage. Employees are encouraged to keep Huang in check.

“Not to criticize Bourdain, but there is this celebration of [gastronomy] being a society of misfits and outcasts, and that’s certainly what drew me to it in a lot of ways. But the restaurant industry exists outside the rules,” Huang adds. “We cannot exist outside the rules. That’s where horrible things happen. In my career, I’ve seen more and more women in leadership positions and more people of color being celebrated for the kind of cooking they’re doing. And that’s an imperfect process for sure, but it’s getting better.”

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Huang makes gallons of a fermented hot sauce in house, by hand.

Justin Kirkland

Outside the kitchen, that process is even more complex, especially in 2021. It’s hard to ignore the fact that a Chinese-inspired restaurant blossomed at a time when attacks on members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have skyrocketed. Chinese restaurants have seen a huge drop in business since the pandemic began. Huang mentions that Chinatown is a completely different landscape now, quickly adding that a problem existed well before Covid. The low price of food and produce in Chinatown is a selling point, particularly for non-Asian visitors, but that price comes at a cost. “What is value perception? And, why is it that my people’s cuisine has such poor value perception in America?” he asks. It’s a “messy” issue, but Huang is doing what he can about it with the resources he has.

“Fine dining is just so ego-oriented, and I lost sight of that in some ways because I was so in it for 10 years.”

At around 5 p.m., Sciortino shows up in sensible shoes to check Huang’s math, replacing his Post-it with one final Post-it that has the actual amount of food needed. Then, like a humanoid version of Google Maps, she charts out the routes for the in-house delivery drivers. There’s a bit of chicken left over at the end of the night, so Ferrante slips a couple extra pieces in a bag for me to enjoy after we deliver five orders out in the far stretches of Brooklyn.

As the world opens back up, Pecking House will become Peking House again. Slight spoiler—the pop-up is currently scouting brick and mortar locations. As for what that restaurant might look like, Huang hopes for something he wasn’t initially planning for when he quit his sous chef gig: A restaurant with accessible price points and without pretension that is “as cozy and welcoming as it can be” for everyone. So it may not get any Michelin recognition, but when you’re tasting a spicy piece of fried chicken, you’re tasting good food, not invisible stars. Fine dining gods, forgive us.

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