This former Eleven Madison Park sous-chef is mentoring the struggling Asian-American youth during the crisis while challenging the entrenched notions that Americans have of Chinese cuisine.
Photo: Courtesy by Eric Huang
Eric Huang grew up in a Chinese restaurant in New York and has always had a love of the stimuli and the energy that pervades a busy dining room. Like most first-generation Asian immigrants, he was not supposed to be "wasting" his parents' sacrifice by going into the hospitality industry. At home, Eric wasn't allowed to cook because he was force-fed a life of classical music training and had to keep his fingers safe for the cello. Fast forward to a stint at The Juilliard School, a subsequent expulsion, he then sneaked his way into Northwestern University. Having an existential crisis about what he wanted to do with his life, Huang wandered back into a restaurant to ultimately become a chef.
Eric Huang has deepened his skills in New York City’s most renowned fine dining restaurants from Café Boulud to Gramercy Tavern, to finish most recently as a sous chef at the Michelin starred NYC institution: Eleven Madison Park. After almost 10 years spent in the fine dining industry, Eric was in the process of opening his restaurant as a means to challenge the somewhat entrenched notions that Americans have of Chinese food. Then Covid-19 decided otherwise. Huang found himself back at his uncle’s restaurant where he is serving up fried chicken as part of his new delivery pop-up project: Pecking House.
During the pandemic, Huang decided it was also time to give back. After hearing the stories of Asian children being harassed and bullied over unjustified COVID fears, he felt now was a critical time to do a mentorship with APEX for Youth to try making a difference in a young person's life.
Welcome Eric to Chefs for Impact!
By Eric Huang as told to Chefs for Impact
How is your Pecking house project going?
“Since the pandemic started, I've been trying to figure it out like everybody else. I started delivering fried chicken to people about a month ago and it’s been quite successful; people are enjoying it. I still want to open my restaurant one day but the whole landscape is changing.”
What was/is the vision behind the restaurant you were about to open?
“I have always been passionate about showcasing Chinese cuisine in a modern dining setting. I found Chinese food was incredibly underrepresented in fine dining. The way people perceive Chinese food - at least in America - is cheap. My idea is to bring Chinese cuisine to the modern area.”
Do you think this crisis will have an impact on fine dining?
“I realized that what people wanted the past few months was to eat very simple well-prepared food. There has been this appreciation of eating food that makes you happy and that nourishes you. Fine dining will always be important, and there will always be these chefs who push the edge of how we perceive cuisine; but I think the focus will be more on cooking something that tastes good, is enjoyable, and brings instant happiness. It’s a chance for New York to start over in a lot of ways. For a long time, there was this monopoly of fine dining chefs and restaurants like EMP, that we’re defining what dining means in NYC. I think a lot of things will change.”
Most recently you got involved with the organization Apex for Youth, what brought you to youth mentorship?
“In America, the perception of Asian American people is that we are all successful and do well financially. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, there are a lot of low-income families that struggle to put food on the table and get a proper education. When Covid started there was all this Chinese prejudice and crime against Asian people and a lot of violence in the streets. I felt like if I could be a guiding force for a young person in the current time, then that would be a good experience. I wanted to help these kids. I lacked a great deal of mentorship and parenting as a child and I got in a lot of trouble. I spent the last 10 years just focusing on myself, and learning how to cook. I felt it was time to give back. I’m learning a lot from these young people. It is such a difficult time for a young Asian person in this country.”
What values do you convey to them?
“Through virtual talks and workshops, we explore different ideas such as identity and intersectionality. We discuss the idea that all these things about your identity intersect at a point and that there is no way to categorize you, it is up to you to define who you are. In the end, you get to create your meaning with your values. The system makes you feel different like you don’t belong. Look at the lunch box your parents made for you, and when you open it, it looks and smells foreign to the white American kids at school and they tease. So, I encourage my mentees to just think about who they are and what’s important to them.”
Did you grow up with a similar feeling?
“I was one of the only Asian kids in my school, I knew I looked and felt different but it took me a long time, most of my life, to figure out why. Somehow that’s what drew me to the restaurant industry; because there is less discrimination in some ways, and it was I felt comfortable. I also think identity through food is super important, and food is incredibly important to Asian people!”
What values would Eric Huang’s restaurant be highlighting?
“It would be about the greater perception of Chinese food and about addressing the fearful of the unknown. When you take this little nugget of ignorance and it becomes something much greater because people chose not to educate themselves on it. Since the 80s there has been this fear that MSG (Monosodium glutamate) gives you allergy. I’d like to change some preconceived ideas and raise awareness of Chinese cuisine. I’d be about exploring and celebrating Chinese ingredients and techniques and making them more accessible and approachable while cooking reactively to the seasons. It doesn’t serve anyone for a Chinese chef to stand on one side and laugh at what people endpoint at them.”
What drives you?
“My original goal was to have a restaurant in Manhattan and to become a Michelin starred Chef one day. But the pandemic changed a lot of things. I’ve been cooking at volume non-stop for 10 years at Manhattan kind of intensity of speed, and it was very stressful and very miserable a lot of time. The Michelin standards put a lot of pressure and force you to draw attention to the wrong place. I learned a lot cooking that way. But I rethought things a lot to finally realize that I didn’t like cooking that way. I like cooking for the humbler audience of local people. It would be much more rewarding to have an intimate restaurant, smaller where you can take your time to cook special things. I don’t know if Michelin is that important to me anymore. It was always about proving something to someone. I realized that I don’t have anything to prove anymore, I already have accomplished a lot.
For now, I enjoyed this fried chicken project, and that is my focus. My dream is to open a food court that serves simple delicious comfort food while making everyday people happy.”
To place an order, you can direct message the restaurant’s Instagram account (@pecking_house)