This is Right at Home, a series in which Eater explores the home kitchens and cooking habits of fascinating food people. Here now, we go inside Lucas Sin’s New York City apartment.
As New York City shuddered to a stop, Lucas Sin shifted into high gear. Sin, the culinary director at Junzi Kitchen — a fast-casual Chinese restaurant group — and a 2019 Eater Young Gun, is busier than he was before the virus struck. Four of Junzi’s five locations are still open for takeout and delivery. In addition to feeding the thousands of New Yorkers hungry for some taste of the outside world, the restaurants are now providing meals to first responders and food banks, too.
“I was a kid in Hong Kong during SARS. The one emotion that I remember is how important it was to be optimistic and how important it was to be adaptable and flexible,” Sin says. Since he can’t host the fine dining pop-ups he once organized in his already-limited free time, he’s started a new one, calling it Distance Dining. The prepared meals, delivered across Manhattan, feature collaborations between Sin and other chefs and artists, and explore the many cultural intersections of the Chinese diaspora. Twice a week, the chef takes to Instagram Live to explain the dishes’ historical importance, and virtually guides his guests through plating and enjoying their meals. This week, he cooked a three-course Chinese-Filipino dinner.
When the chef finds a moment of quiet, or gets home from the restaurant — where he now works shifts alone, to minimize contact with his employees — the dishes he craves call for only three or four ingredients. “Because the restaurant has been so busy and it’s taking so much of my time, I turned a lot of my cooking to be really, perhaps, simpler,” he says.
On Sin’s table now are many of the same dishes he ate at Hong Kong diners as a child. Then, pocket change was enough to buy toast, eggs, and macaroni soup, classic dishes Sin hadn’t given much thought to until recently.
“I’ve jumped into cooking a lot of comfort food from my childhood,” he says: “Spam, ketchup instead of tomato sauce. All of those adaptations are perfect for quick, easy home cooking. If you don’t want to go outside to buy a tomato for your spaghetti, you can absolutely use ketchup, and stuff like that. There’s a lot of pantry cooking that I’ve been doing that has brought me a lot of joy and sustenance and stability.”
When he decides to cook something a little more complex, and the sparse store shelves turn up a few vegetables and a piece of fatty meat, Sin pulls out his clay pot. Clay pot dishes are, at their simplest, highly customizable rice casseroles. The rice gently steams in the clay, while meat and greens nestle on top, imparting each grain with their flavor. Sin’s is the color of sun-bleached sand, its bottom gently blackened by constant use. When he opened his first restaurant, as a 16-year-old in Hong Kong, he called it Bo Zai, inspired by the Cantonese word for clay pot: bōu jái.
Sin has worked in and operated his own restaurants since before he was old enough to drink, but some of his most valuable lessons came from watching these layered dishes take shape in his family’s kitchen. His father’s most impressive meals were the simplest ones, and many of them came together in a clay pot. “It’s the first dish that my dad ever taught me how to make: clay pot rice with pork belly and Chinese sausage, and taro… It’s maybe my favorite dish of all time,” Sin says. “I certainly think that my father is maybe the best home cook of all time.” With Sin in tow, his father maneuvered through the markets of Hong Kong, stopping to ask an older shopper how to cook the greens they picked over, pausing again to choose a huge, gleaming crab from a favorite fisherman’s stand. Exploring these maze-like markets and watching his father turn a jumble of ingredients into a meal was a wonder.
When he gets home from Junzi, or finishes broadcasting one of his socially distanced pop-ups, Sin gently washes chubby pearls of sweet rice, and layers them into his clay pot with whatever meat he’s picked up that day. “The way I really think about how I cook at home is based not around so much even the ingredients or the dish, but the equipment. So, I like to have one dish be only made in one piece of equipment, because that’s the easiest way to cook.” Once the meal is ready, Sin brings the clay vessel to his table, where he and his girlfriend sit snugly against an exposed-brick wall climbing with vines.
When dinner parties were still a part of life, friends and family squeezed together at Sin’s table almost every night, barely six inches of space between elbows. Sin would light a bed of coals underneath a Weber grill on his small patio, par-cook a fish, then slide it onto the grill and cover it in mounds of hay, where it smoked and smoldered until flesh barely clung to bone.
Sin takes great pleasure in the amazement on his friends’ faces as he lifts the grill cover with a magician’s flare, smoke billowing out into the open air. But with less time, and no dinner invitations to pass out, he’s turning to simpler pleasures. A bowl of ketchup fried rice, for instance, which he’s eaten nearly every night this week. Egg yolk mixed into the day-old rice ensures the grains remain separate. The egg whites becoming fluffy as they cook, a generous squeeze from a jar of ketchup perfuming and coloring the rice. “What’s best about Chinese cooking is that just because it looks simple doesn’t mean that it can’t be historical and interesting and technique-driven,” Sin says. “It doesn’t have to be fussy for it to be thoughtful.”
As the exhaustion sets in each night, and Sin prepares for another day, he relies on an inventory of flavorful ingredients to get him across the finish line. “A lot of Chinese home cooking is developed around these pre-made sauces,” Sin explains. His cupboards and refrigerator shelves are packed with fish sauce, shrimp paste, chile oils, various forms of soy sauce, and a large bottle of Frank’s Red Hot. Spooned over rice or a fatty piece of charred meat, the sauces bolster even the simplest dish.
The enormous blade takes the peel off of garlic and slices through meat, as Sin expertly wields the butcher’s knife he’s been using since he was a child. “It’s the only knife in the Chinese culinary canon,” he says. “So all the cooks use it for everything. That’s the only knife I rely on, and it’s a little sentimental because the knife is made in Hong Kong. We grew up really close to the factory. I’ve always used these knives in my home and now I use them professionally, as well.”
Perhaps no tool in Sin’s kitchen gets more use than his worn-in clay pot. “It’s a perfect one-pot meal,” he says. As the pot heats up and the rice within begins to steam, the air fills with the smell of warming clay. “It’s a super unique taste. You steam the rice very gently until the water has evaporated. And then you keep moving the clay pot around the stove, inch by inch… so that you can get the nice golden crust on the bottom and the rice itself is perfectly cooked.”
And as most New Yorkers shelter in their homes, Sin finds himself in his own less than ever. Most nights, his girlfriend washes rice for the clay pot, or lights coals under the grill so they’re burning hot when he gets home. Once back, Sin shrugs off his jacket, drops his knives, and gets to work. “It feels very different to cook at home,” he says. “It’s like a totally different mindset. I genuinely love coming home to cook.”
An Rong Xu is a photographer based in New York City and Taipei.