Whether it’s ordering Chinese-American takeout, trekking into Chinatown or going on dumpling excursions to Flushing, Chinese cuisine has long been a beloved staple of the New York City diet. Chefs Josh Grinker and Tracy Young made their love of the cuisine their life by opening Kings County Imperial in 2015, which Robert Sietsema called “a new definition of Chinese-American cooking.”
The two met in Vermont, cooking at a Chinese restaurant called A Single Pebble. Following a stint with a more French concept in Park Slope, the team—who have been friends for over 20 years and have a natural rapport that makes many mistake them for a couple—came to Williamsburg.
With a tiki-inspired cocktail menu, a very vegan-friendly food selection that includes a shiitake mushroom mock eel (watch Grinker make it in the video above) and sun-fermented soy sauce on tap, they’re dedicated to making delicious cross-continental Chinese food. “We’re not master Chinese chefs or anything; we just love Chinese food and know Chinese technique,” says Grinker. Here, a discussion with the two chefs about their restaurant, recent trip to China and the looming question of cultural appropriation.
Edible Brooklyn: Tell me about the restaurant where you met.
Josh Grinker: A Single Pebble in Montpelier, Vermont. We both went to culinary school at New England Culinary Institute and that was one of the great restaurants around the school at the time, so we both wound up there. We were both wowed by the technique. Tracy describes just coming to work the first day and seeing the ducks hanging, like the Peking ducks, which is this crazy process where you blow up the skin so it separates from the flesh. We used an old bicycle pump at Single Pebble to do that, so we’d pump up the duck like a balloon, and just that technique and that foreignness—sort of a difference of flavors but yet really great quality, it was always super attractive. It was immediate for me.
When I first had my first Sichuan cucumber, it was super fresh and super new. All I had was Cantonese food in New York growing up. This was like, “Oh my God.” And then when we traveled to China and you realize what’s represented in the U.S. is a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of what is in China. In the north, you have more curries. You have more of the sort of Muslim influence to the west. Cantonese is super-different from Sichuan. Shanghai food is its own thing. Each of these is like another country. There are more recipes in China than anywhere else in the world, so there’s a lot to draw from.
EB: What is the division of labor, if you’re both chefs?
Tracy Young: I’ve definitely taken on more of a front-of-the-house, creative director role in the restaurant. A lot of just the aesthetics and working really closely with the bar program. Josh definitely runs the kitchen. We collaborate a lot on recipes, presentation—everything goes through the collaboration process.
We’ve just returned from three weeks in China, where we did a ton of R&D and the whole time were taking notes and thinking of how we can either use certain techniques or take pieces of experiences that we’re eating that we’ve had to create something new. But for the most part, I am on a day-to-day basis out front and Josh is in the kitchen.
EB: What are you trying to convey here specifically with your food?
T.Y.: I think we wanted to create an atmosphere that was comfortable and welcoming, a cocktail program and a beverage program that was really strong and interesting as well, and then in terms of the food, we wanted to stick with a very traditional theme: recipes that we learned in our travels and cooking with Chinese chefs.
But also because we’re not Chinese, we really wanted to pay tribute to the history and the tradition of the food. We didn’t know if we would be able to do all that, but we tried. And so far, knock on wood, it’s been well received. Walking in, you wouldn’t necessarily think that this was a traditional Chinese restaurant—the cocktail program certainly doesn’t speak to that, the music that we play is more indie music—none of that is really that traditional, but coupled with the food, I think it’s been a really good marriage. We hope that it all has a lot of integrity behind it.
J.G.: For me, as a chef, cooking Chinese is easily the most exciting and intense and in some ways unforgiving kind of food, because it’s so hot and the woks are such a different kind of experience. Even if you can juggle a dozen sauté pans on a flattop or a French stove, you have about ten seconds to deal with that wok at that heat before everything just burns and goes away. It’s a completely different thing. The style of dining is completely different and the style of cooking, the flavors and the newness of it—every time I step into the kitchen, it’s an exciting experience.
EB: Are there any new dishes that you brought back from your last trip to China?
T.Y.: We spent the majority of our time in the Sichuan region in the city of Chengdu, which is known for its really bold flavors. I mean, Sichuan peppercorn, chile, a lot of aromatics, star anise, cinnamon, tangerine peel. We ate some incredible food there. We hired a translator who was also kind of a food guru who took us way outside the city. First of all, we brought back some really good ideas just in terms of full-flavored cuisine. We have a dish on the menu right now which is a red chile squid, which we took from a red-oil chicken that we have over there that was on the bone, but we already have a chicken on the bone dish so we tried different proteins, and it’s definitely a big seller recently. But in general, I think it was encouraging to see such amazingly diverse and full-flavored food being cooked and eaten enthusiastically, so I think we boosted our confidence level with the style of, partly, cuisine that we cook here.
EB: How are you affected by talk of cultural appropriation—or, how do you respond to it?
T.Y.: Our first and foremost goal is to cook with respect and with integrity of food that we have a lot of love for. We don’t claim to be better.
J.G.: We’re not reinventing the wheel here. We’re just cooking solid food with the best ingredients we can find. It’s something we just love to do. For us, there’s no conflict at all.
T.Y.: We still feel torn [about the review]. We hope that people understand that the reason why we cook this food, again, is because we love it and we hope to do justice to it.