London is not lacking in fried chicken shops. Wander down any of the capital’s main roads at 2 AM on a Saturday and they'll probably be the only place open—housing drunk locals excitedly handing over £2.70 for what seems like a mistakenly large portion of fried chicken. The likes of Morley’s in South London and Chicken Cottage (everywhere) are salvation for hungry kids come school hometime or drunk, broke Londoners on a big one. Budget fried chicken makes London.
There is, of course, a posh way to consume fried chicken. Restaurants like Chicken Shop (owned by the Soho House group, which also runs private members clubs), Chick ‘n’ Sours, and Butchies are a few examples of places that sell a high-end version of the beloved greasy dish. They offer a better standard of meat than your local takeaway, but when it comes to flavour, there’s some debate over whether a £9 fried chicken burger is any better than a Morley’s two-piece chicken in bed on a Friday night.
The guys behind fellow London fried chicken shop, Coqfighter, would have to disagree. When Tristan Clough, Troy Sawyer, and Deacon Rose, arrived in London from Australia, they were not impressed by the city’s fried chicken selection—even the posh versions.
“You have the high street and borough street chicken shops, your Morley's, your Dixies, your PFC, and they're fucking terrible,” says Clough. “They're the stuff of salmonella dreams.”
I try to hide the frustration from my face as Clough insults a precious London institution.
Coqfighter is inspired by the fried chicken the trio ate growing up in Melbourne—late-night, Korean-style, and washed down with a ton of beer. When they came to London, however, this was virtually non-existent.
“Where's the late-night stuff? Where's the stuff I can get in Soho?” says Clough, emphatically. “You can't get a pint of beer in Morley's.”
I concede on this point, my undying commitment to budget chicken shops otherwise unwavering.
In 2014, Clough, Sawyer, and Rose each put forward £500, and committed to starting a restaurant that would fill this gap. They began with a stall at a street food market in Hackney Downs. Back then, the three were, if you’ll excuse the pun, winging it.
“We didn't know what the fuck we were doing,” remembers Clough. “Very little cooking experience between us. We bought all our stock at Sainsbury's.”
“The food wasn't good when we first opened,” adds Sawyer. “Over a couple of months though, we started to figure it, and once we did figure it out, it all happened quite quickly.”
After running the street food stall for a few months, Coqfighter opened as a pop-up in East London bar Birthdays. The trio opened their first permanent eatery in the Boxpark Shoreditch shipping container complex in 2016, and now have two other locations in Croydon and West Brompton.
The Coqfighter menu centres on Asian-inspired dishes, borrowing from the flavours introduced to Australia by way of migration from Vietnam, China, and Korea (“Asian Australians” are estimated to make up around 16 percent of the country's population, as of 2016). There are bao buns with fried chicken, daikon, and coriander; panko-fried chicken burgers with Korean hot sauce; and a more unusual item that I’m intrigued to try: the vodka and sesame battered wings.
The idea for the wings is all down to science, apparently. “I actually stole that from Heston,” explains Sawyer. “The alcohol stops gluten forming in the batter, and when you get lots of gluten in the batter, you get that kind of gummy, thick, batter coating underneath.”
“It's like eating a Xanax,” adds Clough. “It's like sleep time afterwards.”
“The vodka works as a leavening agent, but the alcohol evaporates faster,” Sawyer explains. “When you have a batter forming you have bubbles forming, and when it's quicker you get lots more, which gives you more surface area which makes it crispier.”
I head to the kitchen at Coqfighter's Shoreditch outpost to see the process in action. First, the chicken is covered in flour, before being dunked in the batter, where a splash of vodka is added (at this point, Sawyer pulls down a large bottle of the stuff and offers me some. It’s 3 PM.) The wings are then deep-fried, rested, and fried again, before being garnished with spring onions and chili.
“You know about the brush stuff, right?” Clough asks, appearing with a plate of chicken, two sauces, and a paintbrush. I admit ignorance, and he demonstrates how the wings are served with a brush for diners to paint the sticky, spicy sauce over the freshly fried chicken. It’s a great way of ensuring the sauce doesn’t soften the batter, while also making you feel like you’re in an experimental year five art class.
After painting my chicken enthusiastically, I’m given another instruction: there is only one way to consume this chicken. “You have to have it with a very cold beer,” explains Sawyer. “Preferably a larger.”
“Have a beer before, during, after,” Clough says. “Just continue drinking.”
It may have been too early for the vodka, but I think it’s time for a beer. I don’t make the rules.