Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2021: Lucas Sin
Lucas Sin is on a mission to perfect General Tso's chicken. His goal: to make a version of the sticky-sweet, deep-fried poultry dish for Nice Day, his modern American Chinese restaurant in New York, that retains its crispness when delivered, with a sauce that's viscous but not gloopy, garlicky but not too hot.
General Tso's is one of the most popular items at American Chinese restaurants around the country, and yet, according to Sin's research, there is no standard way to make it. He has combed through cookbooks, spent hours scouring the internet, tasted as many versions as he could track down, and spoken on the phone with Chinese chefs around the country, but no one can agree on what makes General Tso's so distinctively delicious. Some say the key ingredient is honey; others swear by the addition of ketchup; one chef is certain that the sauce needs brown sugar. Sin and his three-person research and development team's solution? Combine them all.
The General Tso's chicken at Nice Day embraces ketchup (for its sweetness and red color) and several types of sweetener (brown sugar, white sugar, and honey); soy sauce and vinegar round out the sauce. Sin omits cornstarch and water from his recipe. "Adding water will just make it soggy as it is being delivered," says Sin. He is correct. The version that arrived at my hotel door had just begun to slide into that blissful textural point of crispy-gone-soggy—emphasis on lingering crispy. Mission accomplished.
Sin grew up in Hong Kong. As a middle schooler, he went to summer camp in the United States, which is where he was introduced to American Chinese food. Every Tuesday night like clockwork, he remembers, a Honda would pull up to the camp dorms just before curfew. The driver would pop open the trunk to reveal Styrofoam containers of fried rice, General Tso's chicken, and sesame chicken that he would sell for $5 each. "The first thing I realized was I cannot tell the difference between orange chicken and sesame chicken and General Tso's chicken," Sin says with a laugh. "It was all the same thing. But it was delicious." It left an impression.
Cooking became a long-term side hustle for Sin. In high school, he ran a pop-up restaurant out of an abandoned newspaper factory in Hong Kong. After moving to New Haven, Connecticut, to attend Yale University, the pop-ups continued, now in the basement of his dorm, where he cooked everything from zhuzhed-up instant noodles to five-course menus. "At some point, we were doing like 250 covers a weekend," says Sin. While other students were chasing internships, Sin spent his summers cooking in restaurants in Japan. One summer, while working for chef Yoshihiro Murata, the chef-owner of Kikunoi in Tokyo and Kyoto who is celebrated for both preserving and innovating Japanese foodways, it struck Sin that he could be bringing Murata's approach to Chinese food.
When Sin returned to New Haven, his friends Yong Zhao and Wanting Zhang suggested that they open a fast-casual Chinese restaurant called Junzi, with the idea of combining Chinese culinary traditions—like knife-cut noodles and Cantonese barbecue chicken—in new, accessible formats. They opened locations in New Haven and New York City. During the pandemic, Sin converted the downtown Junzi location into a Nice Day outpost, where he re-engaged with the story of American Chinese food.
Over the past few years, Chinese American restaurants—most of which are independent family businesses—have started to close at an "insanely rapid rate," according to Sin. The pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian racism only accelerated the trend. "The sons and daughters of these restaurant owners are going off to law school and medical school and whatnot," says Sin. "And the restaurants are really, really difficult to run logistically because they're open six to seven days a week." Sin is hopeful that Nice Day will not only honor and preserve these restaurants—in some cases literally, by taking over the operations and converting them into Nice Day locations, but also by increasing the appreciation of American Chinese food.
At Nice Day, Sin spends most of his time doing research and development, building recipes and techniques that are scalable, like sweet and sour sauce with traditional hawthorn berries, or sesame noodles that don't get soggy, as well as nontraditional creations like a flaky egg roll wrapper stuffed with tender hamburger meat and gooey cheese, and a comforting macaroni made with a sauce of sharp cheddar and Chinese sausage and dotted with crispy tofu. Shake shake shrimp, a dish inspired by McDonald's, comes with a choice of sauce on the side—the diner combines the two when they are ready to eat, so the shrimp retains its appealing crunch.
Sin may have a degree in cognitive science, but speak with him for five minutes and it's clear he is working on a PhD in global Chinese cooking. He can casually rattle off the history of chow mein, or break down the regional differences between Chinese American cooking in Michigan versus Seattle. He appears to think in Venn diagrams of how Chinese cooking techniques and flavors overlap and connect with other cuisines of the world.
Nice Day will soon expand into a second location in Long Island. Sin has national aspirations for the brand but is building up his empire methodically, creating detailed training documents to teach people how to make the food quickly, building a steady and reliable supply chain. Sin wants Nice Day to push Chinese American food in America toward sustainability—and not just from an environmental perspective. "It needs to be sustainable when it comes to people: their mental health, their financial sustainability. That's the biggest thing."
Photos by Alex Lau