As anyone who's been on a bus in London at four in the afternoon will know, school kids love cheap and greasy fried chicken and chips. And why wouldn't they? In no other situation can you get your hands on such salty, succulent goodness for just under two quid—and in less than two minutes.
But you soon realise that the "chicken" you just bought is actually old bird claws and miscellaneous objects drowned in oil. Plus, all that batter is giving rise to a whole generation of kids that look like they're wearing fat suits—except they're not. Fried chicken is the best, but it's also really, really rank.
So, how can we solve this conundrum? When Jamie Oliver tried to revolutionise unhealthy meals in a bid to tackle the childhood obesity problem, he got a lot of flak for failing to fully recognise the difficulties faced by families in poverty. And when he took his show to the USA, he got an angered response from parents who claimed their kids would never eat salad because they like pizza, goddamnit!
However, one guy in Tottenham—home of what was dubbed London's "fast food mile"—thinks he has the answer to fighting the fried chicken problem… more fried chicken!
It's actually better than it sounds. Last week, Benjamin Rymer started a campaign on Kickstarter to open "Chicken Town," a not-for-profit social enterprise serving healthy versions of fried chicken, along with sides like corn, coconut rice, sweet potatoes, and crispy slaw. All the money earned will go back into the restaurant, as a social hangout for kids who usually get kicked out of fast food chains.
"Chicken shops are part of going out in London; you fall out of The Dolphin and into a chicken shop," says Rymer, who thought up the idea with business partner Hadrian Garrard, of London charity, Create. "You feel guilty about it, and it makes your hangover ten times worse. But you realise that there are kids going there everyday, just by default. They've got £2 and need somewhere to hang out—it's as simple as that. So we thought we'd do a junior special for the same price as down the road, except ours will be much tastier."
Rymer maintains that the key to ensuring Chicken Town's offerings will be tastier than your average greasy chicken shop is in the ingredients and preparation.
"We're getting really good herb-fed, free-range chicken and we'll steam it for 35 minutes on about 80 degrees, before using a combination of spices and bread crumbs, and flash-frying it in rapeseed oil," he explains. "That's how we end up with a piece of chicken that's much better than the frozen bit of chicken that's come from Brazil, and has been fried for half an hour. That's about as rank as it gets. They ram loads of MSG in that stuff too."
Of course, there's no getting around the fact that fried chicken is pretty unhealthy, however you dress (or oil) it up. Chicken Town is basing its venture on the fact that their version is better for you than fast food chains, but then almost everything is, bar crack cocaine or cronuts.
"If they're using a flash-frying process, then the only oil that's absorbed is used on the outer coating, so that's slightly better for you to consume," says David Tchillingirian, a registered nutritionist at Nutrinsight. "But the big problem with fried chicken restaurants is actually poor quality chicken, so if they're using good quality meat, then that's way better for your health. Chicken like this can be consumed every day by young people as part of a balanced diet and that's fine."
Chicken Town may be onto something nutritionally, but its mission to "serve up delicious fried chicken with a happier twist" still swerves into style-over-substance territory. Rymer is keen to quash that idea.
"We can't just open a trendy chicken shop with a chalk board outside for Instagram and expect kids from that area to engage with it," he says. "We want kids to feel welcome in the restaurant, that's the key point."
Another idea the Chicken Town project hopes to dispel is the notion that kids won't like the healthy version of fried chicken.
At first, I thought these kids would be too tuned into eating MSG-laden KFC-style chicken and they wouldn't even like what we were doing. But we've made Szechuan-spiced chicken thighs with wild garlic butter on a brioche bun for some kids and they all loved it. At one point this kid said, Oh my God! This chicken sandwich is deep!
"At first, I thought we had to make it as plain as possible, like these kids are too tuned into eating these MSG-laden KFC-style chicken and they wouldn't even like what we were doing," Rymer says. "But we've made Szechuan-spiced chicken thighs with wild garlic butter and maple syrup pickled red onion on a brioche bun for some kids and they all loved it. At one point this kid said, Oh my God! This chicken sandwich is deep!"
But how are they able to sell free-range chicken and salads for just two quid?
"It will be cheap because we're going to be a non-profit registered community company," Rymer explains. "So the idea is that you come in the evening, you have a banging dinner and the profits for that subsidise kids foods in the afternoon. Tottenham is an area that's poor, so people will know that their money is going back into the community."
Rymer hopes that in addition to being a place to hang out after school, Chicken Town will create jobs for young people who are interested in getting into the food business. If you're at college, you can go and work for the restaurant part time and they'll train you in hospitality—so you've got that skill set for life.
Building on this idea, the project will also incorporate an apprenticeship scheme for young people who want to become chefs.
"The idea is that as they develop and get better in the restaurant, we can recommend those people who can go into partner restaurants," explains Rymer. "We don't want to try and stop them from eating all the other food, but I think there's loads of kids that are into food, so we want to engage with them on that level."
Frying up a load of chicken to feed to school kids sounds counterproductive, but Chicken Town's if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em mentality is a line on combatting childhood obesity that hasn't been tried before—and God knows we need more options.
Either way, it's something to mull on next time you find yourself on a hungover, dead-eye Netflix binge; elbow deep in a finger-lickin' family bucket.