Calvin Eng used to hate rice. But growing up in a three-family Cantonese household in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with many of his relatives, he had no choice but to eat it. Rice was a staple of the dinner table, appearing each night alongside a whole fish, a meat dish, at least one vegetable, and a couple of preserved sides, like salted eggs.
Sharp, briny eggs with fatty yolks, which Eng recalls took on the texture of fresh mozzarella, were his saving grace. Adding flavor to the rice helped him get it down. “My mom would tell me if I didn’t eat every grain of rice in my bowl I was going to have an ugly wife one day. I would be licking the whole plate every night,” he remembers. Eng looked forward to the occasional days his mother strayed from Chinese cuisine, trying her hand at chicken Parmesan or chicken cordon bleu. “I was so sick of Chinese food,” he says. “It’s crazy that I’m now into it and trying to pursue it.”
Eng is the 25-year-old at the helm of Win Son, a casual Taiwanese-American restaurant in East Williamsburg that has become an industry haunt for New York City chefs and visiting restaurant folk alike (Nicole Rucker, Maya Lovelace, and Eddie Huang are among the diners of late). As chef de cuisine, Eng isn’t exactly cooking his heritage cuisine, but it’s close. His family is from the Guangdong province in Southern China, where Cantonese is the local fare. For the young chef, making modern Cantonese food is a recent goal — even when he decided to attend culinary school, cooking Chinese food wasn’t the plan.
Throughout his culinary arts and food service management program at Johnson & Wales University and his first gig at Dig Inn as sous chef and recipe developer, he was focused on cooking for a big operation. It was during his two years as chef of Nom Wah Nolita, the fast-casual offshoot of the storied Chinatown dim sum establishment, that he started to change his tune.
“Working there, hanging out with Wilson [Tang, the owner of Nom Wah] and the people he introduced me to, and being right near Chinatown definitely pushed me to pursue Chinese food more.” Eng says.
He contacted Eater Young Gun Trigg Brown (’17), the chef-owner of Win Son, in search of a job. Brown, who is not of Taiwanese descent, said he wasn’t hiring a line cook, but allowed Eng to trail anyway. “I loved the food and I loved the space,” Eng says. “I love a high-energy kitchen with a small, tight team where you’re constantly grinding, moving, and pushing food out, which is exactly what Win Son was.”
During the trail, Brown and Eng clicked. Brown, along with his business partner, fellow Eater Young Gun Joshua Ku, decided to offer Eng a role as chef de cuisine, allowing Brown to step away from the kitchen to develop another project with Ku, which is now the buzzy Win Son Bakery.
Since May 2018, Eng has been leading Win Son’s kitchen, cooking the Taiwanese-American menu he inherited from Brown. While the dishes retain their skeletons, Eng has the authority to constantly tweak the recipes, altering ingredients seasonally and changing techniques. “I have professional cooking techniques and I also have homey, Asian-auntie cooking techniques, so it’s a good mix to bring to the table,” Eng explains.
Brown encourages Eng to add his own specials to the menu — as long as the front of house is educated about the dishes. “He wants the servers to explain that I’m Cantonese and Win Son is a Taiwanese restaurant, while pointing out how my influences show on the menu,” Eng says. “It’s about telling the right story.”
Recently, Eng added a large-format poached chicken special, a classic Chinese dish that he spun with Win Son flavors. He tapped into the traditional food he resented as a child, reengineering his uncle’s poaching method to accommodate a larger scale. The result is a juicy half bird poached in ginger, garlic, scallions, and other aromatics, served with rice, chile vinegar sauce, and a teacup of broth per person. Shared family-style for just $21, the plate embodies the restaurant’s key tenet.
“The intersection of flavor and value is a line Trigg talks about, and it’s embedded into my head now,” Eng says. “It’s the intersection of how good it is and how affordable it is for the guest to have it.” He considers this sweet spot when he’s designing dishes for Win Son, as well as when he eats out himself.
He plans to instill this belief at the core of the future restaurant he’s dreaming up. “No one is taking Cantonese and changing it up,” Eng says. “All the Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown are very good, but they’re traditional, old school. No one in New York is doing anything new and exciting. That’s what I want to do.” He is inspired by the new Cantonese cuisine at Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco and Happy Paradise in Hong Kong, but envisions New York influences, a more casual space, and an affordable menu.
Though his own restaurant is Eng’s ultimate target, he’s working on a cannabis-infused chile oil business on the side. Modeled after Lao Gan Ma, a chile oil with a cult following, Eng’s Loud Gan Ma is a combination of his own chile oil recipe and a weed oil he created. With a high demand from friends already, he believes there will be a lucrative revenue stream as soon as New York legalizes marijuana. “You could have a restaurant in New York that’s successful and packed every night and still live paycheck to paycheck,” says Eng. “You need to have other sources of income to have a decent life.”
For the time being, Eng is happy to be in a role with room to grow. Now that he’s properly trained his sous chefs, Brown wants him to concentrate on creating new plates for the permanent menu. That means applying his creativity to his extensive knowledge of Taiwanese and Cantonese cuisine, and always minding the intersection of flavor and value.