Fried Chicken with Break & Gather
I’ve been on a tear recently attending Meetups as if they were going out of style. For all those who don’t know, Meetup is a place where people of all interests and tendencies come together to…well, meet people. It’s essentially the introverted way of being extroverted. For the most part, I sign up for a variety of things, from data science events to nutrition talks, public speaking avenues, and most recently, food meetups. Because of my past history of aggressive food hopping, I was curious to see if anyone actually formed a meetup for hopping.
As my past readers may know, I have done food hopping adventures with my girlfriend and various friends. I define “hopping” as “venturing into a dense fun-food area with 2-3 friends, going to intended (or non-intended) establishments to try ‘what they are known for’, sharing the requisite dish, and moving on to the next establishment via a reasonable method of calorie burn (e.g, walking)”. “Fun-food” is intentionally vague, so it includes beverages, snacks, meals, appetizers, desserts, odds and ends, and alcohol. Planning can be done beforehand or on the fly, but it pays to identify food-dense clusters, and to have some sort of reasonable schedule. It almost always necessitates a bit of stomach space, some stamina, and a data plan that can handle hours of intensive Google Maps usage.
A couple days ago, an email popped up in my inbox that said “Can you make - 7 Course Fried Chicken Tasting?” My eyes widened to the size of dinner plates. Was I free that weekend? Check. Was my girlfriend free that weekend? Check. Hmm…how about my good friend? Check. Traffic on that day? Not bad. Cost? Not a problem. Awesome. Nothing was holding me back (although not much would have?) Either way, I had no excuse. I bought the tickets, sent a “Hallo!” to the chefs, and was on my merry way.
The chicken dinner was a pop-up supper prepared by “Break & Gather” - the two chefs, Cayce and Ryan, were under the wing of a startup called Feastly. The concept at Feastly was rather simple: a chef (or two, or three), professional or otherwise, obsessed about cooking great food, sets up shop either in their own apartment or at a designated Feastly site. They recruit 12-16 paying adventurers and serve up a dinner that they dreamt up on their own. The chefs are expected to bring in whatever influences they previously had, any interesting culinary ideas, histories, and also influences that have motivated them to the current day.
The event was BYOB/W (bring your own beer/wine) - they sent out recommended pairings two days before the tasting. Supported alcohols included dry, acidic rieslings, prosecco, or Chenin blanc. Beer pairings in the form of Icelandic ale were also welcome.
Amy and I took a trip to the local BevMo to see how many of these types of alcohol we could find. Whilst there, a very wise-looking BevMo employee with wire-rimmed glasses asked if I needed help finding anything. I pulled out my phone to show him the recommendations. He winced at the third listing - they were short on Chenin’s because they were harder to find, but I honestly didn’t know any better. French grapes? That sounded okay to me. Like an experienced librarian, he proceeded to very specific locations within the store, and recommended a Chenin, a prosecco, and a German reisling, all within 30 seconds (I had previously spent 15 minutes wandering aimlessly). His recommendations were made with such confidence and positivity that he probably could have sold me urine in a bottle and I wouldn’t have known any better (until I had opened it). BevMo had a prosecco sale, so we got an additional bottle for just fifty cents. Rad.
We got to the Mission district half an hour early and ended up wandering around Trick Dog, the speakeasy. The three of us felt fairly lost, as we were only familiar with the area at night - the presence of light brought an eerie unfamiliarity to the place. With twenty minutes to kill, we ducked into Trick Dog to check out the cocktail selection for some more potential imbibing after the Feastly dinner. We eyed several drinks, told the bouncer we’d take a three hour rain check, and walked next door to the Feastly site.
We didn’t know the code to get in, so we loitered outside of the nondescript building, pretending that we were important, lived/worked there, or otherwise had some official business. A sigh of relief was in order when others began showing up - obviously more experienced than us in the pop-up realm - they had the code, they had their booze, and it wasn’t their first rodeo.
We walked into a converted apartment-ish area - it seemed like an architectural mash of apartment complexes, university halls, and churches. The Feastly space was bathed in soft white light, and opened up into an expansive, natural, and modern looking space. There was a loft, some regular Christmas lighting, and the lingering feeling of “a work in progress.” The building had plenty of natural lighting and the setting sun was certainly an excellent addition to the ambiance. Seating arrangements were in order, and I was seated next to my friend and my girlfriend, with a smattering of others. To my right, web development, left, business and strategy, and across, future Feastly cook - all bright smiles, intelligent comments, pleasant strangers.
I’d never gone to a pop-up before - I recall reading that the place was not health department rated but that didn’t particularly scare me off. My mother’s kitchen is not health department rated either and I eat at there quite frequently. To me, the concept of a pop up is a rather interesting form of trust that can be exhilarating or terrifying, especially since strangers are preparing your food, strangers are talking and listening to you, and you yourself are very focused on taking in the whole experience. In some sense, this can be stressful, and could potentially affect the experience of the meal. To that I would say “yes” - the degree to which we enjoy a particular meal is related to the company that we find ourselves in, the conversations we have, and the surroundings we inhabit, along with the taste, look, and even sound of our edibles.
Our first course was the amuse - pimento cheese with pickled ramps and charcoal crackers. The cheese was sharp but not overly cheesy - the crackers were muted, not chalky, but crisp - a perfect vessel for the cheese. Several patrons inquired what charcoal crackers were and were delighted to find out that they actually did contain charcoal. I didn’t taste it, luckily, but it was a fun fact, as edible (medicinal) charcoal is traditionally used to bind toxins in the gut. Not a bad start, especially since the first course was dually delicious and preventative healthcare (just kidding). Luckily, no one decided to pair the amuse with some BYO-PeptoBismol.
The break was buttermilk biscuits, smoked ham, butter, and some fruit preserves. The portion was hearty, delicious, and even better when both the butter and jam were combined - not surprising in the least. The combined flavors and warmth of the biscuit brought me back to some of the old-school (and still-school?) KFC biscuits. B&G had obviously elevated a humble biscuit several levels in presentation, flavor, and texture. A nice touch, but not too much.
Every meal has got to have some vegetable matter. We were served a baby kale salad with cornbread croutons and a bacon-jalapeño vinaigrette. The baby kale was a beautiful dark shade of forest green and was tender as spinach, minus the sandy, oxalate residue that coats one’s mouth after munching them up like Pop-Eye. The cornbread croutons were something interesting; they provided a sweet, muted, sticky crunch - not stale, but rather, the perfect additive to a delicate salad. The bacon vinaigrette was vibrating throughout the back of the salad, and the jalapeño just pinging through in small bursts. I’ve seen bacon flavors extracted through a variety of means, from aqueous solutions, alcohol mixtures, to lipid immersion (cook everything in lard), so the concept wasn’t entirely novel, but the combination of everything was seriously cerebral. The salad was a refreshing change; I would have preferred just a tiny bit more bacon flavor, but I might just like pork more than the average person.
Buttermilk fried chicken was the first course. Crispy skin, juicy chicken. Mashed potatoes to offset the crunch. These are the very first things I think about when I think “fried chicken.” In this case, the humble potato was replaced with a coarse, textured mix of sweet, honey-infused mashed corn. Usually for fried chickens, the skin is the most iffy part; it can sometimes be hit or miss, given that chefs sometimes double batter, use cornmeal, add interesting things to the batter, or just do plain crazy things in order to convey a different taste, texture, or flavor. Most patrons want a good batter to chicken ratio, juicy mouth-burning chicken, a crunch that is audible and stays on the chicken itself, and excellent seasoning. All requirements were met. *Thumbs up*
Nashville hot chicken was the second course. Saucy fried chicken with a Korean kick. I preferred the crunchy dry fried chicken - the sauce on the Nashville was a bit overwhelming, a tad too bold, and definitely front and center. It was appealing that the spice factor wasn’t overwhelming, but rather, complex and deep. Because the sauce was so bold, I would have preferred a side dish that was more crisp and refreshing. Perhaps some fried green tomatillos, fresh pickled vegetables - something with a bit more water. The acidic nature of the fried pickles were almost spot on - just enough to cut through the molasses on the Nashville, but just silenced enough by the batter.
NYC fried chicken was the third course. Boneless sorta-Japanese-like quality to this ol’ chicken. Definitely the most interesting and unique of the fried party. First off, it was pretty nice that I didn’t have to deal with any bones. (Marketing ploy here for a “B&G’s Breakin’ Chicken,” giving all types of popcorn chicken/chicken nuggets/franken chicken a run for it’s money). On the side - rice grits. I’ve never had rice grits, so that was definitely a new experience. The entire third dish was sort of reminiscent of some fancy Chinese-style salty porridge married to some Southern love, and drizzled with a Japanese-style vinaigrette. Flavor on flavor on flavor. Nice.
Dessert. A play on red velvet - cheesy ice cream with beet ganache. I’m a fan of simple desserts, such as ice cream, cheesecake, and gooey brownies; this dessert had aspects of all three. Amy wasn’t too much a fan of goat cheese ice cream - she has a particular dislike of gamey products. “Tastes too wild,” she says, even in ice cream (Sir, would you like a lamb steak in your ice cream? No.) The ice cream itself was cold (no shit Sherlock), but the use of goat cheese left a “warm” sensation in the back of my mouth. It was as if the warmth and deep-throaty flavor of the goat remained. Interesting. The ganache was definitely the more subtle component compared to the other two elements, but tamed the goat cheese ice cream very nicely. Crunchy times were sponsored by the cocoa-choco crunch. Multi-dimensional.
At the end of the entire experience, we chatted up the chefs for a bit, allowing some time for my friend to nab a couple jars of jam - and to glean a little bit of insight from the chefs themselves, their aspirations, current dreams, and how they fell upon the whole Feastly gig. Overall, it was definitely an experience worth having. My only gripe was that we didn’t get to chat with the chefs enough throughout the night - but that’s the trade-off for somebody actually cooking for you, and ensuring some hyper-precision on a plate.
To Break & Gather. Cheers!