I'll be perfectly honest with you: I've never eaten KFC before.
I mean, sure, I've made my fair share of finger-licking jokes about eating out of a "bucket." But to the best of my recollection, I have never, knowingly, invested in the Colonel's secret recipe, never been "zung" by a burger, never wondered about the blend of 11 herbs and spices, and never nibbled a Kentucky Fried nugget.
I have eaten fried chicken though, particularly in that hen heaven Berlin, where your deep-fried clucker comes with potato salad and a lump of bread that looks like a sun-damaged elbow, or atop a steering-wheel sized pile of rice and chickpeas with pickles served out of a goldfish bowl.
So when the invitation came to try my hand "behind the scenes" at one of London's central KFCs, I accepted it in a heartbeat. Of course. Firstly, as someone who believes in the welfare of farm animals and casual workers, I was interested to see just what goes on back there, among the hot oil and the industrial sized sinks. But also because I would do a shift as an undertaker, bricklayer, beautician, cleaner, sewage worker, primary school teacher, or seamstress if it gave me a better understanding of what thousands of people do every day to make their living. Especially if I get a free dinner into the bargain.
Arriving at the restaurant, I am struck at first by the sight of a giant, human-sized plastic tub of chicken nuggets. I later see a PR woman with the sort of eyelashes that make you wonder what feathers smell like, wearing it over her chest and head, dancing behind a tray of barbecue sauce.
The reason I have been invited to KFC, which is the reason you too may be invited to KFC in the near future, is that this international chicken business has decided to launch a "behind the scenes" night in 100 of its branches across the UK. It's called KFC Open Kitchen and gives customers a glimpse into the world of breaded chicken, pressurised frying, and mayonnaise guns.
I'm all for such a scheme. It's good for us to think about where our meat comes from (in this case, a plastic bag of chicken chunks carried out of the fridge room in a silver pail), who's cooking it (a man in KFC cap and beard net who, like most KFC staff, will probably be on national minimum wage), and quite what catering on this scale means (a lot of perfectly food going to "donation" because of strict logistics and unpredictable ordering patterns).
Before being allowed behind the counter, we slip into something a little more high friction. Specifically, a pair of rubber overshoes that flap about like car tyres and would, in theory, stop me from deep-lunging over some spilt oil to end up head-first into a pile of raw chicken. I also put on a natty white apron with the words "Open Kitchen" perfectly placed for me to look like I am advertising an open ribcage, and—oh yes!—a hair net and black baseball cap. I look like a very lost dinner lady on her way to a William Hague rally. It is one of my best looks.
Walking into the kitchen, past glowing boards and golden racks of fried chicken, I'm struck by quite how small it is back there. Of course, there are three of us taking the tour at once, but when you think how many people would be on a regular shift at any time (up to ten at a busy period) and that many of them will be carrying recently fried items, it's sort of amazing that things don't go awry more often. I have to squeeze between two men just to get to the sink—possibly pinning them against two large, stainless steel, pressurised deep fat fryers in the process—so I can wash my hands thoroughly with both soap and then hand sanitiser.
Rob, the KFC chief operations officer, had given us a quick PR chat before we came in to explain that this event is, for him, all about "trust" and "transparency." Rob has three kids. Rob is wearing a chequered KFC shirt and uses the word "proper" and "real" a lot when talking about chicken. But, suddenly, standing beside a metal hatch with the words "escaping steam and oil will result in severe burns," I start to wonder if this is the "proper" "transparency" Rob had in mind.
Next, another KFC official, wedged up against a white tiled wall, talks to us about the chain's "secret recipe" while fondling a silver bag of what looks like astronaut food. This, he explains, is the legendary herb and spice mix that is added to powdered egg and milk mix, and soft white flour. He directs our attention to two massive—I mean, half my height—cream washing up bowls full of fluffy white powder. Into this Julio, the manager, tips nine pieces of rinsed chicken and invites us to "have a feel." Apparently it takes ten good sifts to get the wings, thighs, and breast coated, while the legs are double dipped.
If you'll excuse me just a second, I have to bring something up —how can a chicken be divided into nine parts? Why is there only one breast? I genuinely mean to ask but, at that exact moment, I'm ushered towards the flour tub to have my go at rubbing a wing (which you have to sort of tie a knot in before frying) and a thigh. I give them a shake, thump my wrists together to get off any excess flavour dust, and add them to the tray.
What this tiny corner of the kitchen is like on a hot Saturday night, with all fryers going at once, staff rushing back and forth with buckets of raw chicken and trays of fried fillets, under the watchful eye of the computerised supply management system, not to mention your manager, I can't imagine. Maybe it's better than I imagine. But maybe it's a lot worse.
Because of the way ordering and cooking happens in KFC (chicken is fried before it's been ordered so there is always a ready supply of food when the customer walks in), a huge amount goes past the decreed "acceptable" waiting time and has to be thrown away. The manager tells me that it is in fact "donated" but at one point, I watch a man dump an entire tray of eight cooked, still very much edible fillets, into a big black bin bag. Maybe he was wrong. But I imagine it happens a lot. After all, I don't know how long a cooked piece of chicken stays good, or how long it takes to get these to the people for whom they are donated.
Anyway, after the breading and the frying, it's our turn to try making a burger. Again, this is done in a space about half the size of your student single bedroom. The space around us is, at most, half a metre away from a wall or worktop. According to the area general manager, who shows us around this section, a regular member of staff (someone paid national minimum wage) will produce four burgers a minute. From bun to box. It takes me 36 seconds just to make one. But that's the expectation—four burgers a minute, often for hours at a time. Toasting the bun, squeezing on the mayonnaise from what looks like a mastic gun, plonking on the fillet (taken with tongs from one of the trays by your head), adding a pinch of lettuce, closing the box, turning around, and passing it through to the counter.
Not to be an unrelenting fun sponge but just think how many cardboard burger boxes that is. Cardboard boxes that, just minutes later, are thrown in the bin. You don't have to be a climate scientist to see that there may be some sustainability issues here.
We exit the kitchen and move into the dining area. I take a seat at a table in front of Jack, KFC's innovation director, and open up my box to look upon my work. A soft white bun with a squirt of chipotle mayonnaise, a fried piece of chicken, and enough lettuce to fill the palm of my hand. It tastes nice. The mayonnaise is nice. Deep-fried food is always nice, isn't it?
I look at a little blackboard next to my right elbow that tells me KFC sold 1.3 million gallons of gravy last year—the equivalent of two Olympic-sized swimming pools. That is an awful lot of un-recycled plastic gravy tubs.
As we eat, Jack tells us about the "heritage" and '"Southern roots" that KFC is proud to celebrate. We're also given a delicious corn on the cob, some fries, and another piece of fried chicken. This may well be the one I plucked out of a tub of flour just moments before, I think, eating the skin in handfuls.
KFC change their interior design every five years, Jack says, and like to stay in touch with big food trends.
"Will KFC ever provide a free range option?" I ask. After all, Hellman's use free range eggs in their UK mayonnaise and Starbucks only serve eggs from cage-free hens. And, with a market share like KFC's (they sell around 14 million pieces of chicken a week and have over 890 restaurants across the UK), they could definitely negotiate a reasonable price for free range chicken. They could probably transform the way Britain farms chicken.
"Our main focus is flavour," Jack tells me, looking a little awkward. "I mean, we care about welfare—our chicken is all Red Tractor and all the meat on the bone here is from Britain and Ireland. But, you know, we have to stay competitive. And flavour is what's most important to us."
It's not the best excuse I've heard. It's actually not really an excuse at all. Free range isn't just a flavour choice, but it is important to a lot of people. And this could surely be an opportunity for KFC to lead something rather significant. Instead, the conversation moves on to black pepper mayonnaise and the "Dirty Louisiana Burger."
Rob comes back over and tells me that KFC never employ people on zero-hour contracts, but that they pay national minimum wage, rather than living wage. I wipe barbecue sauce off my cheek. It is, by now, 9 PM and I am full in that sort of hysterical way that makes you want to keep eating until your toes go numb. Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend" comes on the stereo, the giant plastic tub of chicken nuggets is leaning against the wall like a deflated bouncy castle, and I've taken off my hair net. I've eaten more chicken in the last two hours than in the two months preceding it and enough mayonnaise to lubricate a train engine.
It's time to go home, I think. And eat some vegetables.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2017.