From Park Side to PinKU

Marshall’s diversity helped Xiaoteng Huang grow, eventually flourish

MINNEAPOLIS – When Xiaoteng Huang was 10 years old he started fifth grade at Park Side School in Marshall after emigrating from China knowing no English. Now, at the age of 27, he is the co-owner of a busy, well-reviewed new restaurant on University Avenue in Minneapolis.

Huang said he was well-received in Marshall.

“Because there was not much diversity in Marshall 17 years ago, you’d think my transition would be difficult, but it was quite the contrary,” he said. “There was no bullying, just natural curiosity. I can’t think of a better way to grow up than in Marshall. The people were genuinely supportive.”

One time after Huang visited China he brought his classmates back some Chinese currency. Years later he has had former classmates tell him they still have the Chinese money he gave them.

His parents worked for Schwan Food Co. in the information technology department. Huang’s father had been a physicist in China, and his mother was an English teacher.

“Those are good jobs in China, but my parents wanted to provide me with the best opportunities,” he said.

Their occupations didn’t transfer well to the United States so in the 1990s, they went back to undergraduate school and studied computer science.

“They worked very hard to provide for me,” Huang said. “I didn’t have to worry about anything.”

Huang appreciates being a “1.5 generation,” as he calls it. He has lived in both China and the United States – he’s not a first generation American nor a second-generation American.

“I’m so fortunate to have that immigrant drive, that work ethic,” he said. “We don’t take things for granted.”

After Huang graduated from Marshall High School in 2007, his parents moved to the Twin Cities. Huang briefly attended Southwest Minnesota State University and then attended Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., graduating with a business degree.

He then worked at Target, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and IBM. Huang said he gained “transferrable skills” from working at these companies, skills that he uses every day at the restaurant. While working for various companies he kept his goal in mind to have his own business – he combined his business acumen with his lifelong interest in food – authentic, affordable and fresh food.

In 2014, he quit his corporate career and started working at Chipotle and Noodles & Company to learn the “nitty gritty” work of the restaurant life, he said – including washing dishes for four hours at a time.

“That’s the best way to learn,” he said. “People thought, ‘why would you work there with an Ivy League education?’ But you have to make sacrifices, be humble and learn – earn people’s respect.”

Huang said Chipotle and Noodles & Company are very good at what they do and he wanted to learn from their business model, bring it to the world of Japanese food.

Wanting to learn more about Japanese food, in the summer of 2014 he Googled a sushi class and found the next one was taking place in Stillwater. The teacher, John Sugimura, was a protg of Master Sushi Chef Katsuya and worked at Katsuya’s California restaurants before returning to Minnesota, where he has taught culinary classes and acted as the private chef for over 5,000 guests across the country using his multi-generational recipes. Huang and Sugimura clicked and PinKU Japanese Street Food was born.

Huang said with his youth and relative lack of responsibilities, it was a good time to take a risk.

He was attracted to Japanese food because it employs a “healthier cooking technique, it’s simpler, it’s pure protein – people feel good about it after they eat it,” he said.

The name PinKU means “pink,” the color of fish before it’s cooked, Huang said. It represents the restaurant’s vision.

“We stay true to our ingredients,” he said. “Our storage space is comparable to what you have in your house. We don’t have a walk-in cooler, so we are forced to buy everything fresh every morning.”

The fish is flown in every morning, he said, from Norway or Hawaii.

Sugimura is the creative partner, and Huang handles the day-to-day operations.

Huang remembers in a seventh-grade career class, when he was asked what he would like to be when he grew up. His answer was CEO – the head of his own company.

He hopes young people are inspired by him and his story.

“I would like the younger generation to get more involved, make a difference, be more engaged with the world,” he sad. He realizes people who came of age during the Great Recession might be more pessimistic, but, “it’s easy to complain – you have to do something.”