Last week food critic Simon Wilson took rookie fine diner Madeleine Chapman to upmarket restaurant The Grove. Then she took him to her restaurant of choice – here are their reviews of KFC.
The wicked wing was divine. Served on thin cardboard and surrounded by carbs in all its forms, the wing was a picture of crispiness. Juicy on the inside with a crunch that could give you goosebumps if you let it. Inside was almost meltingly soft.
Simon Wilson and I went to KFC Fort St at 12pm to avoid the lines and avoid the lines we did, so much so that we managed to avoid people altogether. We ordered two Superstars Meals at the self-service kiosk. Before we went to The Grove, Simon had sent through the full menu so I would know what was in store. It didn’t help me at all in understanding what we ate but I appreciated the gesture. In return, I sent him a link to the Superstars Meal on the KFC website. I’d decided we’d both be having a Superstars Meal because it offered the widest range of KFC menu items. If one felt like making false comparisons, one might call it KFC’s very own degustation.
For his wine match, Simon chose L&P, a classic local fizzy drink that, as a kid, I drank at special occasions and pretended was wine. Fitting. I chose Fanta while silently cursing whoever was responsible for ending KFC’s iconic relationship with Pepsi and getting into bed with Coca Cola. As the late, great Prince famously wrote, Nothing Compares 2 U [the pairing of original recipe and Mountain Dew]. Simon made as if to open his wallet and I cut him off. He’d paid the $582 bill at The Grove a few nights before (it would’ve been financially irresponsible for me to even suggest we go dutch on that one) so I wanted to handle this bill of exactly $25 all by myself. Then we took our table buzzer thing and sat down to nervously wait for our order to arrive.
At least I waited nervously. My emotional investment in our trip to KFC was much higher (I think) than Simon’s investment in our trip to The Grove. Simon likes the finer foods but has never been vocal about any sort of love for The Grove in particular. Meanwhile, my love for KFC has been well documented. Have you ever told someone that a movie was really funny, then watched it with them and died a little every time they didn’t laugh? This was like that. Except Simon had already told me he didn’t like KFC so it was more like telling someone who hates Will Ferrell that they’d love Anchorman. While we waited I pointed out the USB plugs in the wall at the table, a cool idea that’s less cool when you don’t have a USB charger handy, which neither of us did.
That’s all the big-upping I had time for because the food arrived in about two minutes. The plating was pretty good. One piece of original recipe, one wicked wing, one chicken strip, one medium popcorn chicken, medium potato and gravy, medium fries, and a medium drink. That’s a lot of food to arrange and whoever did it very nearly managed to make it not look like a complete mess.
I started with the original recipe because I always start with the biggest item in a value pack. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a pack and then realising you have a whole chicken breast left. Simon started with the wicked wing and, in a move that surprised me, dunked it into his gravy. He then looked as if he were going to bite right into the middle of it and I had a vision of me being responsible for him unwittingly breaking two front teeth on a wicked wing so I yelled out “watch out those have bones!” He paused, looked at me, and said what I believe to be the quote of the year, “you think I don’t know the anatomy of a chicken?”
My piece of original recipe was good but I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was. Either a thigh or a breast. I guess I should’ve asked Simon because you’d be correct in thinking I don’t know the anatomy of a chicken. Whatever it was, it was fine. Sometimes KFC serve up some real dud pieces but this one was perfectly fine. By the time I got around to my chicken strip, I looked up to see that Simon was almost finished already. Suddenly I felt bad. Nobody eats that fast unless they’re having a crappy time. It was like on those wife swap TV shows where there’s always one cool mum who takes the conservative kids out clothes shopping and to get their ears pierced, while the other mum tries to force the cool kids out of their piercings and into a church. In this situation, I was the uncool mum and KFC was my church.
Pretty soon Simon was packing up his empty boxes, except they weren’t completely empty. I couldn’t help but notice there were still chips, popcorn chicken, and potato and gravy left in their containers. I noticed it and I fought the instinct to finish what he hadn’t, because I knew that at that exact moment, 646km away in Newtown, Wellington, my Mum just got angry for no apparent reason. Instead I powered through the rest of my meal and we left. After spending five hours at The Grove, we were in and out of KFC in 25 minutes.
I know a lot of people hate KFC. It’s the epitome of grease and Big Fast Food and very few people who eat it for the first time as adults develop any liking for it. But it’s cheap, and cheap means a lot when that’s all you can afford. Coming from a big family, KFC was and still is one of few affordable options for feeding all of us at short notice (or any notice, for that matter). It’s the saviour of big families. And you can read that as big families or you can read it as brown families, it doesn’t really make a difference.
While waiting for our fifth course to arrive at The Grove, I told Simon about an article I’d read entitled “Do White People Have Cousins?” The article was funny and made an interesting point: “we [minorities] need all the family we can get, whereas white people can go anywhere and be met with smiles, so they just don’t need that extra layer of family cushion.” He was talking about America but it still resonated. The service at The Grove was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, with a waiter who wants to talk to you every ten minutes and is happy to help you with anything and everything. Maybe dining at The Grove is what it’s like to be white. But for everyone else, food that can be eaten with the whole family (your very own community), away from all of that, is most often the preferred choice.
I have a job now which means I can afford to eat at (slightly) nicer restaurants where foods are locally sourced and cooked etc etc. But even with a job I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy from those places when I’m heading to a family gathering of 30 people and need to take a plate. What I can afford, and what will be appreciated, is a bucket of chicken. Even if for that reason alone, there’ll always be a place in my heart and in my stomach for KFC.
I didn’t like it. Who’s surprised? I thought the chips were, I don’t know, less than ordinary. Not making a play to be crispy double-fried moreish morsels of excellence, or stringy can’t-get-enough-of-the-saltiness, or good honest hot-and-crunchy fish-and-chip-shop chips, or patented you-only-get-chips-like-this-at-KFC! chips. Or anything, really. Just, we’ve got to do chips but nobody cares so hey. I thought, ok, it’s not about the chips, except is that right?
It is about the potato and gravy, though. The first question almost everybody has asked me is, how was the potatoes and gravy? And my answer is: very little potato, mostly gravy. I don’t remember it used to be like that.
We had the Superstars meal, which Mad chose. There was no coleslaw, nothing in the whole box resembling a vegetable except the potato mash and the potato chips. Superstars don’t eat greens, apparently.
The popcorn chicken things were like anti-food: not quite flavoursome in any positive way, not at all convincing that they actually contained chicken. Little rubbery balls you could probably use as a flavoured toy for a cat you didn’t like.
The bun was the same soft white bread it’s ever been, easy to mash with your gums if you’ve mislaid your teeth. Mad, who has all her teeth, as far as I know, made a kind of butty with hers, adding popcorn chicken and spoonfuls of potato and gravy. I just thought, ‘no’.
She was in her happy place. I know this because she told me. It was almost the only conversation we had, actually. I couldn’t think what to say and she didn’t seem to want to talk. I felt really bad about that. She had gone somewhere and I didn’t know how to follow.
As for the chicken itself, I got a wing, a thin strip of breast and that ribcage bit they never should serve anybody. The breast was dry, so was the ribcage. The best flesh, the only juicy bit, was the wing. Who ever ate chicken when the best bit was the wing?
What else? I had an L&P. It was all right.
As for the new-style upmarket premises, well, good on them. Turns out KFC can make a restaurant that isn’t an insult to urban design and it’s very popular. So why don’t they do that more often?
Anyway, the universe is one big whole, right, and KFC is its rotten stinking heart. I went out of there and I had a little weep for my friend Connie Clarkson.
Bear with me. On the evening of the Thursday before last, at an event in Henderson Valley Road in west Auckland, just a short hop from the fast-food fantasia of Lincoln Road, Connie launched The Kitchen Project. It’s an incubator for people who want to start up a food business: migrants, and others, who might know how to cook but want to learn the rest of the operation. Especially, although not exclusively, it’s a hand up for women.
A kitchen for product development. A mentoring resource to help with: how to scale up recipes to commercial quantities, how to order and manage food supply lines, employ staff, borrow money, manage cashflow and keep the books, how to build a digital presence and grown a customer base, how to run a stall or a foodtruck or a bottling business. How to survive and how to grow.
The Kitchen Project is about healthier eating, and building communities and empowering the people who most often get most overlooked. It’s about strengthening the local economy: building networks among local food growers and suppliers and their customers and reinforcing the value of sustainable economic practices.
The old world meets the new. Economic resilience and opportunity in the culturally rich but profoundly challenged poverty-stricken parts of the city.
Connie Clarkson is the commercial place operations manager at Panuku Development Auckland. Panuku is the council’s community development agency and is funding the operation with support from ATEED, which is in charge of economic development for council. They’re working with Healthy Families Manukau, Manurewa-Papakura and Healthy Families Waitakere, along with local community groups.
Connie’s been working in food all her life: once upon a time in high-end restaurants and more recently as the woman who put the food trucks into Silo Park and the food stalls onto Queens Wharf. Her great love is “cheap eats” – all the deliciousness of dumplings and curries and noodles and wraps – and the people who make them, the experts of the ethnic cuisines of this city.
Her inspiration for The Kitchen Project is San Francisco’s La Cocina, an enterprise that’s been doing work like this since 2005. Its deputy director, Leiticia Landa, was in Auckland for the launch of The Kitchen Project, advising Connie and her Panuku colleagues and doing her bit to enthuse everyone with the life-changing potential of the project. She told me, pretty bluntly, that La Cocina is “a poverty alleviation organisation”. Connie Clarkson has the same gleam in her eye.
Right now, The Kitchen Project is at proof of concept stage: they’ve called for applications (find out more and apply here) and will select an initial cohort of six to eight participants in March. The funding is secure only till June, and there’s private sector investment to find as well as longer-term support from Panuku and/or ATEED. In time, the participants will be out in the world paying their own way. The Kitchen Project itself has to do that, to a degree, as well.
Connie is my friend and I don’t mind admitting bias. But yes, I do hate KFC. And it’s not because of the disappointment of the food itself: it’s for the same reason I hate The Man Who Ate Lincoln Rd. Not the man himself, he’s ok, but the whole phenomenon of it.
It’s the celebration of crap. The peculiar ability to regard some of the worst elements of capitalism as harmless fun, just because they make a product you like.
I imagine almost everyone would think what Connie is trying to do with The Kitchen Project is a good idea. But not everyone thinks it has anything to do with our fast-food culture. And yet all the things The Kitchen Project is good for are undermined by super-fatty, super-sugary, super-cheap fast food. And with Lincoln Rd, you can throw in another problem: the slack planning rules of the old Waitakere City Council that allowed that urban landscape to become so blighted.
Why does Joseph Parker accept fast-food sponsorship? Why do the Warriors, why does cricket’s Big Bash League in Australia? Don’t worry, I know the answer. Even if it was legal, these days they wouldn’t accept that support from a tobacco company. And good luck trying to find a photo of Parker enjoying any of his sponsor’s products. His trainers would have a fit if he actually ate the stuff.
How is the KFC Fight for Life a thing, when we all know the Holiday Menthols Fight for Life would be absurd?
Am I overstating it? The BBC reported just last week that children in poverty are twice as likely to be obese by the age of five than their least-deprived peers. Twice as likely. (Also, that only one city in Europe has managed to reduce obesity rates: cycle-friendly Amsterdam.)
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have treat food, and I’m not saying treat food has to be good for you. It’s pushing 20 years since I last ate KFC, but I used to eat it and so did my kids. They still do. I don’t think it should be banned. I just wish it wasn’t fetishised. I just hope Connie Clarkson makes The Kitchen Project into something fabulous.
Simon and Madeleine visited KFC on Fort St in the city a couple of days after eating at the fine-dining restaurant The Grove. For their reviews of that experience, visit here.