(THE WASHINGTON POST) - The story sounds like the plot of a B-grade comedy: A chef who worked for a decade at Chez Panisse, the pioneering California restaurant that reminded Americans that ingredients actually have a season, decides to launch what she and her partner call the world's first chicken nugget tasting room.
Yet, it's true: Last month in Sebastopol, California, former Panisse sous chef Jennifer Johnson and wife/business partner Serafina Palandech opened the Kitchen, a lunch counter and tasting room devoted to chicken nuggets, the staple of kid's menus everywhere.
The same mystery meat that has inspired more speculation than the Kennedy assassination. The processed snack that some crave so fiercely they'll call 911 when their orders don't arrive fast enough. The junk food so maligned it inspired a movie in which chicken nuggets turn elementary school kids into zombies.
Johnson and Palandech are fully aware of the nugget's less-than-savoury reputation, which is a large part of the reason they got into the business. The couple's Hip Chick Farms is "taking something that's not considered healthy and making it beautiful", Palandech said during a phone interview.
Their nugget mission actually began more than four years ago when the couple entered the frozen-food market with a line of chicken fingers, meatballs and other products.
Hip Chick Farms' "farm to freezer" products are available in more than 5,000 stores coast to coast, including Mom's Organic Market in the Washington, DC, area. A 230g box of the nuggets/fingers costs about US$8, or S$11, at Mom's.
You might remember that a few years ago, McDonald's went on the offensive to dispel rumours that the chain's McNuggets were made of chicken beaks, viscera, pink slime and roadkill. (Well, perhaps I exaggerate in the ingredient list?) The resulting video from 2014 only raised the ire of some critics, who complained that Mickey D's glossed over the thorny issue of industrial farming practices, including growth-promoting antibiotics. (You know, the drugs that may be contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans.)
Hip Chick Farms wants to be fully transparent with the ingredients of its nuggets and fingers. According to the company's website, the "chicken and turkey in all of our products is humanely certified, free range, natural and organic poultry that are raised without antibiotics or added hormones. The organic product is non-GMO. All of the chickens and turkey are fed a high quality, vegetable diet and grow naturally with plenty of room."
This is "organic for the 99 per cent," said Palandech, an event planner and fund-raiser before co-founding Hip Chick Farms. "Chicken sandwiches for the 99 per cent."
The inspiration for Hip Chick Farms' nugget-based business grew from Johnson's 16-year stint as a personal chef for Ann and Gordon Getty, the billionaire couple and philanthropists who established a Montessori school in their home for a grandchild.
Johnson made her own chicken nuggets for the children attending the school, applying the locavore and organic lessons that she learned while working under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. The nuggets were a hit.
One of the keys to Hip Chick Farms' success in the frozen-food market is that Johnson has created nuggets/fingers that do not require dipping sauces.
Instead, Johnson mixes dry ingredients right into the breading, Palandech said, injecting her snacks with the flavours of ketchup or maple syrup. There is no need to reach for a jar of barbecue sauce to enjoy these nuggets.
At the couple's modest 50-seat restaurant in Sebastopol, the bites are offered with housemade sauces, just in case you suffer from that rare form of Alien Hand Syndrome, in which your arm unconsciously searches for some place, any place, to dunk a chicken nugget.
At the Kitchen, you can order nuggets in three flavours: maple, ketchup and original (seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika, among other ingredients).
But the Kitchen also serves - you knew this was coming, right? - a flight of all three chicken nuggets. "Of course we do," Palandech said, laughing.
If this sounds like Johnson and Palandech have a sense of humour about their nuggets, they do. Yes, they are dead serious about producing high-quality chicken nuggets that do not require a forensic scientist to reveal the ingredient list.