Meet – Edward Huang Pop Up Store Owner
Founder / Chef Edward Huang is an ethnically Taiwanese, Texas-born, California-native turned New Yorker. His curiosity about food began in elementary school when he could not fathom that some of his (non-Asian) friends did not eat rice for dinner. Food runs in his family as his parents were involved with two Chinese restaurants in his childhood. From there, Edward developed his technical culinary skills on-the-job, working as a cook at the Hilton Hotel while in high school. Food was always more of a hobby than a serious pursuit for Edward in the intervening years as he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, taught English abroad in Taiwan, then graduated from Brooklyn Law School and worked as an immigration and criminal defense lawyer in New York’s Flushing Chinatown.
That changed when Celebrity Chef Jehangir Mehta (Graffiti Food and Wine Bar, Mehtaphor Restaurant, GraffitiMe) asked Edward to manage the startup of Mehtaphor Restaurant (130 Duane Street in Tribeca) in 2010. Edward remains involved in the business side of Mehtaphor and Graffiti while keeping his culinary skills honed through catering service. He has cooked with Hank Tomashevski (Anna Wintour’s private chef) on high-profile events like serving Prince Harry on his visit through the United States and the CFDA awards.
Edward’s sense of taste primarily derives from the myriad of flavors he experienced during his upbringing in Southern California. From his mother’s Taiwanese-Japanese-Chinese sensibility to Carne Asada nachos after school to diner food on the pier, Edward enjoyed the diverse expressions of food available to him. During his two-year stint in Taiwan, including forays into China, Japan, Thailand and India, Edward’s palette expanded and matured. His time in New York City has served to further sophisticate his appreciation for high quality food. Edward has lived in the Chelsea neighborhood where Zai Lai Grille is based for more than seven years.
What is a “pop up”?
A pop up is a store that opens for a temporary amount of time. Zai Lai Chinese Grille is a restaurant pop up that opened for 6 and a half weeks from September to November in 2016.
Why did you decide to found Zai Lai Grille? What were you doing before?
Prior to founding Zai Lai, I was working as an immigration and criminal defense lawyer. I founded Zai Lai because I wanted to provide a homemade, healthy, hearty Chinese food option. I believe the public is ready and hungry for (pun intended) a Chinese option that is fresh and well-sourced, providing food that’s not oily or contains MSG.
Can you describe a typical day?
A typical day begins with morning prep. We have to get all the food ready for the lunch rush. At our stand, we have an employee at the rice station and an employee on oven station. They arrive at 9:30 am. At the rice station, Joseph makes rice, cuts and roasts his vegetables. Joseph will often receive vegetable deliveries. On oven station, Steve roasts chicken, stews pork and makes meatballs. I arrive around 10 am to set up the register, including depositing the money we made the day before and making sure we have enough change for people. I look over the work of Joseph and Steve to make sure the quality stays high. At 11 am, I taste all the food. I don’t want to serve anything to anyone that I wouldn’t be proud serving to my mother. If necessary, I’ll tweak the food by adding some salt here or some vinegar there. From 11 am – 2 pm, we serve our guests. I move over to the Greeter Station where we take orders. I try to remember everyone’s name that has been to our booth more than two times. I offer a smile and try to compliment our guests when I can. I would like our guests to feel known, remembered and cared for. At 2 pm, both Joseph and Steve write their prep lists for the day. This is the work that they need to get done before they leave so they will be ready to go when they arrive the next morning. I review their prep lists noting what food we are low on. From 2 pm to 5 pm, there aren’t many people eating so things are slower. I’ll use this time to go to my office to do any number of things, including run payroll, put together financial reports, work on marketing efforts or pay taxes. Around 5 pm, I arrive at the stand to check in on Joseph and Steve. We make sure food is ready for dinner. I try all the food again. Joseph and Steve leave around 6 pm when they finish their work and cleaning. I leave around 6:30 pm after the dinner employee arrives. The last thing I do every day is to place my orders for the next day. I’ll e-mail our butcher for meat or our grocer for vegetables.
What part of your work brings you the most joy?
What brings me the most joy in Zai Lai is when people come back telling me how much they enjoyed the food. One time, a guest told me about how they had to work a triple: three work shifts in a row, without sleep. She said that she expected it to be awful, but had Zai Lai between the first and second shifts and said that the food carried her through the rest of her day. It gave me a lot of joy to be able to be a part of brightening up her day.
Do you have a favorite food? What is it? What is the most popular dish at Zai Lai Grille?
My favorite food is ribs. I like them any way they come: barbequed, braised or roasted. Zai Lai has a three way tie for most popular menu item: Ama’s Five Spice Pork, Cumin Chicken and Lion’s Head Meatballs.
What is the most important tool for you in the kitchen?
The most important tool for me in the kitchen is the chef’s knife. It is meant to be an extension of my hand. A good chef is as comfortable using a knife as he is using his bare hands.
What is the funniest moment you remember while working at a “pop up” event?
Perhaps not a funny moment, but over time, our staff came up with nicknames for each other. We’ve got Black Panda, Big Panda, Bully Panda and Boss Panda.
Any words of advice for kids curious about how to start a pop up of their own?
Work hard. Anything worth doing is going to take hard work to accomplish. Don’t be afraid to work hard.