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After writing a couple of weeks ago about the preopening hype around the long-awaited Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale, I finally went last Friday night. My family and I enjoyed it all—chicken and nontraditional sides and patio—and my youngest son made an entire meal out of their schmaltz-confited mashed potatoes, ordering just under 10 percent of the entire batch that had been prepared for the night, but one thing I was surprised to discover was that the fried chicken was boneless.
Both the breasts and the thighs have been deboned (making it a little hard to tell the diamond-shaped planks of meat apart), with only the drumsticks left as is. I think the bone gives a piece of chicken more variety in flavor and texture, and is generally a good thing, but it's one factor of several in making good fried chicken, so its absence didn't bother me a great deal—a concession to modern diners who don't know how to gnaw around a bone, I figured. I was a little surprised that in all the coverage I hadn't run across that fact, but happy from schmaltzy mashed potatoes and Thai-tinged creamed corn, I didn't think about it once the chicken was all gone.
Others, however, have been more critical, expressing skepticism that what has been proclaimed the best fried chicken in the city by food media would turn out to be, as they put it harshly, "chicken fingers." I don't think that's fair—chicken fingers are a frozen mass-produced product, and Honey Butter buys locally raised chicken and butchers and brines them themselves each day—but it is true that "artisanal chicken" and "boneless" don't tend to go together. So I sat down with chef and co-owner Josh Kulp to find out why they made that choice—and to answer the second question it raises, which is, so what do you do with all those bones and all the by-products of whole chicken (besides, obviously, making schmaltz-confited mashed potatoes?)
Michael Gebert: So first off, how much chicken do you go through a night?
Josh Kulp: On a busy Friday or Saturday it can be about 150 chickens. We're cutting them into eight pieces, so we're getting about 1,200 pieces a night out of the kitchen.
Where do you get the chickens?
Miller's Amish, in Indiana. We had to find a processor that could meet that demand, and we are very concerned about being responsible with all of our food choices, so we feel good about Miller's. They're humanely raised chickens, hormone free and antibiotic free, and they are from the region.
We butcher whole chickens here. We went back and forth for a while whether or not we would order parts, because you can actually order machine-cut chickens. We tried them before we opened, and never quite felt good about the butchering process. There's just something you miss when you don't have a human doing the butchering. We're pretty particular about how we want the chicken to come out, so we went with whole birds. Plus, you get all the benefits of all the other parts—all the bones, all the wings, all the fat, all the skin, all the chicken tenders, that you can do other things with. So we're trying to make use of the whole bird.
That seems to be pretty recently, that you started doing the boneless chicken. Why did you go in that direction with it?
My business partner, Christine, and I are chefs, and that was a hard thing for us—we think the bone ought to be in everything. If we're roasting meat, we want to roast the bone in it. But we did a lot of testing where we were brining the chicken overnight. And we just kept doing it side by side, the breast with the rib cage in and the breast with the bone out. When we fry it, we're frying at a pretty low temperature to kind of get the crust to set up and to get the skin rendered; we leave the skin on, so we want it to render under the crust. But we found in a side by side comparison when all the conditions were the same, that the chicken was really pleasant to eat without the bone, and we didn't lose any juiciness. We were actually able to cook the chicken without the bone about a minute faster, and I think some of that actually helps increase the juiciness.
So we feel very good about it. And I do think there's something nice about being able to eat your way through a whole piece.
Was part of that driven by customer response, from people who don't know how to eat anything with a bone in it after growing up eating chicken fingers?
I think it was honestly our tastes. Every time we'd do a boneless thigh, when you were able to eat that whole thigh, in all its fatty juicy deliciousness, without stopping, there's something really satisfying about it. Again, I love a roast chicken on the bone. My mom, whenever we had chicken we'd throw the bones to her, because she'd eat the marrow out of every single bone.
One of my concerns was that people would revolt, and say, you can't do fried chicken without the bone. But 99 percent of the people who come through here are supersatisfied with it. You know, when I go out to eat, because I'm a chef, I think too much about stuff. And I think, this is the way you do pizza, and this is the way you do burgers. And what I always say to people is, the coolest thing about cooking is, there's a million ways to do things. There's so many different ways. And this is just one, that we've arrived at, that we think is delicious. And so far people seem to like that.
But yeah, if you'd told me ten years ago that I was going to do chicken without the bone, I would have said that's stupid, you can't do fried chicken without the bone.
So you have all these bones, and all these other parts. Then what?
Once we've taken the breasts and the thighs and drums off we end up with a carcass for each chicken, we have two wings, two tenders, and then a pile of skin and a pile of fat. And we are doing something with every one of them. We also have some plans because—we have some chef friends who are knocking on the door, hoping to score some chicken bones. Because we honestly have more than any person should have.
When you butcher 150 chickens a day, you have more chicken bones than God, and we're turning as much as we can into stock—in fact, we're doing them more as demis. We put the chicken bones in the biggest pots we have back there, cook them down for several hours, then change them to a smaller pot, cook them down more, and then we'll take what was 150 chicken carcasses and turn it into three quarts of what we call "chicken gold." Totally gelified, golden chicken stock, chicken demi. If you took that and just put it in a bowl with some water and a little salt, you'd be very happy with your life.
We just added to the menu schmaltz-confited potatoes, that's just potatoes cooked in chicken fat, but then we upped it a notch this week where we also confited some garlic in chicken fat, then we whipped them into mashed potatoes and they're schmaltz-confited garlic mashed potatoes, and then we're putting a rosemary gravy on top that's made with a chicken-fat roux and some of the chicken-gold chicken stock. So you're getting rosemary chicken-fat chicken-stock gravy on top of chicken-fat confited potatoes. Which is a pretty good thing.
Another thing we're doing with the bones is, we're thickening some stock into a potpie filling which we're doing a corn-bread streusel on. We take the chicken tenders and put that in the potpie. The chicken tenders are also getting confited, and then we shred them up and put them on nachos—we're doing these awesome nachos with cheddar cheese sauce and candied jalapeños and shredded chicken.
The wings, a few times a week we're doing chicken wings with a chile-honey butter glaze, without the bread battering, just a nice glaze on them, spicy and sweet. We're doing soups all through the winter, obviously chicken based. One of my favorite things in the world is just chicken soup, with roasted carrots and thyme. Humble stuff, but superconcentrated.
Do you think you'll be able to make enough other things to keep up with the amount of fried chicken you're making?
You know, especially since we just opened, and we're called Honey Butter Fried Chicken, people want fried chicken. But as they come back a second or third time, now they're interested in trying out those nachos or trying out a potpie. The sales in that stuff are picking up. But the answer to your question is, we'll probably never keep up with all the bones we have.