A Healthy Dose of Honey Butter Fried Chicken
By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 6, 2011 4:00PM
Last month, I reported that the owners of Sunday Dinner Club, Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski, were planning to open a new restaurant called Honey Butter Fried Chicken. No real details were available, aside from the main dish. A couple of weeks ago when Christine told me that they were going to debut the product at Dose Market, I asked if I could tag along. I had no idea what I was in for.
6:58 AM, Sunday, December 4: I don't think I've ever been in River North before 7 AM on a Sunday. It's so early, I found street parking less than a block away from Dose. It's quiet and dark - no sign of the organized chaos that's approaching.
7:03: Speaking of Dose, the lovely people there must think I'm a crazy stalker, because I've been pacing back and forth in front of the entrance for about 10 minutes. Better look casual.
7:15: "Do you think we're going to need more than one fire extinguisher?" yells Jen Mayer, one of the partners in the future restaurant. The Sunday Dinner van (named Big Blue) pulls up with Christine, Jen, her staff, four deep fryers, four huge boxes of oil, a giant pot for discarded oil, what looks like ten thousand pecan tarts, tubs of buttermilk, chicken parts, spices, gloves, knives, tongs; in short, everything you would need to create a tiny restaurant from scratch.
Only now do I realize the scale of what is about to happen. Most vendors at Dose are tabletop operations - they bring products and sell them. Maybe they slice or mix. But Christine and Josh are going to set up an entire prep and fry kitchen. In three hours.
7:27: First problem. The convection oven that was provided won't hold the pans that they have brought. Christine isn't happy. Unfortunately, she goes outside where i can't hear her talk to the rental guys, and so maintains her air of semi-dignified authority for the record.
As the staff unpacks, the quantity of prep that I see is astounding. I'm glad I just showed up and didn't have to make 1000 scoops of honey butter in individual cups.
7:32: First spill - a cart tipps over and everything falls to the ground in a cacophony of metal. "We have to wash all this!" yells Christine.
7:48: My notes read "General giddy pandemonium." Setup is starting in the unfamiliar space. "We've been up since 4 AM," Christine points out.
The first thing to come together is the battering station, which Christine and Josh immediately decide should be hidden from public view behind some folding screens. By 7:55, nomenclature has already appeared - it's "The Batter Room." As in, "Look at all of those powerful women in the batter room!"
8:03: The Batter Room. "You know, I've never actually had the fried chicken," remarks one of the Honey Butter cooks. "Ugh, I've had it like 75 times this month. I just want a pizza," responds another with a groan.
8:05: "Stand there. Pretend that you're frying something," says Josh, instructing his new fry cooks on proper technique. "Make the station your own." The fry area is coming together - four deep fryers, now filled to the brim with canola oil. Josh tells me that he has a minor concern about electricity. "Tripping the circuit brakers is our biggest worry this morning. Without electricity, we're just serving chicken resting in oil."
8:30: The plan is to start frying by 9 AM, and luckily things have begun coming together in the Batter room. "Get two people battering the hell out of that chicken!" orders Josh. In the front, Christine stops dragging tables and looks at the clock. "I'm going to get myself an apron and start being a chef," she remarks. "Now, where is my oven!?"
8:35: Batter training. Every chicken has been cured in salt for 24 hours and then rinsed. Each piece needs to go into a pan of flour, where every last bit of it is covered. It gets submerged in buttermilk and then put back into the flour for a final coating. "There's definitely an art to flouring - try to keep one hand dry. Every time you touch anything other than chicken, swap out your gloves," reminds Josh. The cooks, who continue to be a bit giddy and excited for the day, comply. "I bet you didn't expect your chicken to be fried by the Marx brothers," one remarks.
8:40: In the front, Christine has started on the side salad. Until this very moment, it hasn't clicked in my head that they are planning to serve not one, but three dishes out of this makeshift kitchen. The side salad is a combination of roasted delicata squash, sweet potato, parsley, cilantro, pickled onions and a lime vinaigrette. We taste for seasoning, and decide it needs more salt.
9:00: No oven. "I guess we can do it without an oven, but it's not ideal," says Christine, making the best of things.
9:02: "We've got a new oven for you!" A Dose Market tech comes in, wheeling a large convention oven. "I love you!" says Christine.
9:10: "Tent City is done," comes a cry from the back. In order to isolate the frying area (which is actually outside), they have put up tarps and installed a propane heater. The very first batch of fried chicken has just come out of the fryer. "Try to get the crusties out," instructs Josh, referring to the tiny fried bits stuck to the bottom of the fryer baskets. After the chicken is out, it is seasoned with smoked paprika, and the smell of the aromatic spice fills the entire room. "I think we should give everyone five minutes to taste the chicken," says Josh. Five minutes is given. "Does everyone think it's good? Are we set? We need to know before we sell it to 2000 people," says Christine.
9:15: Cutting the maple bourbon pecan tart into squares. I taste it for the first time, and it's amazing. "It's like we have an album, and every song on it is a hit single," remarks Chris Jennings, another partner in the restaurant.
9:25: Writing the menu. "I hate to bring this up in a Dan Quayle sort of way," I say tentatively, "but I think you mis-spelled potato." The front, which was a bare table 30 minutes before, is beginning to look like a restaurant counter, with a menu, samples of the product and baskets of Honey Butter Fried Chicken buttons to give away.
9:30: Stocking the racks with fried chicken. The plan is to stay 4-5 full pans of drumsticks ahead of demand, and to put each pan into the oven for a minute or two before serving. "The best thing about fried chicken is that it's a little enclosed case of hotness," says Josh. He tells me that it can stay hot for up to two hours after frying, but they want to make sure it's fresh, so they only plan to let it rest for about 45 minutes.
9:50: The rep from Death's Door Spirits wanders over to the Honey Butter station. "Whoa, this is way more complicated than making 1000 drinks."
9:55: Final meeting in the Batter Room. "I can't believe we've just pulled together an entire restaurant! Go team!" yells Christine to the whole bunch.
For the first few minutes after opening, things don't look so good. People are looking a little wary of fried chicken, especially at 10 AM, and I surmise that some of them may not realize the extent of the operation. If potential customers think the chicken has been fried elsewhere and brought in, it isn't nearly as enticing. They change their spiel slightly.
10:08. Honey Butter Fried Chicken's first sale. "I came to Dose just for this," explains the gleeful customer. "Dip the chicken in the honey butter," says Josh. "It'll make you very happy.
10:21. The front table. A customer approaches, child in tow. "Mommy, I want juice!" cries the child. "They don't have juice, honey, they have chicken." The child is not impressed.
10:40: The first real line. Chicken has begun to sell as fast as Christine and Josh can serve it. Customers are very intrigued by talk of the new restaurant. "So, is it going to be Southern fried chicken?" asks one customer. "We like to think of it as Chicago fried chicken," responds Christine.
11:00: Chef Sarah Grueneberg, of Top Chef fame, shows up for some chicken. There's visible excitement in the line, and several people tell her how much they enjoy her on the show. At the same time, a few customers are annoyed by the price, which they think is too high. "$4.50 for a drumstick?" one exclaims in annoyance, but buys it anyway. He comes back five minutes later with a huge grin on his face. "How was the chicken, sir?" asks Christine. "Dangerous," remarks the customer, before taking one of their buttons.
By 11:45, when I have to depart, word has spread through the market, helped along by the fact that all of Dose now smells like smoked paprika. Several customers have remarked that this is the best food at the market, and they've already sold 250 pieces. Everything I am wearing and everything I brought with me smells like fried chicken for the rest of the day.
Later that night, I check in with Christine, who tells me that the line never stopped and they sold 750 pieces. "It was a great coming out party for our HBFC," she tells me, and I wholeheartedly agree.
This is the first in a series of behind-the-scenes articles on Honey Butter Fried Chicken, covering the new restaurant from concept to opening. Keep watching for more!