Story by Amelia Levin
It may seem unconventional to eat fried chicken without the bones. But at Honey Butter Fried Chicken, there’s no better way, and the regularly packed house with lines out the door proves that. In fact, Chef/Owners Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp spent years researching farms and testing different chicken-cooking methods using the Amish chicken they selected before opening Honey Butter in 2013. Critics be darned—this fried version is finger-licking good.
Cikowski and Kulp had a unique challenge as operators of their hybrid quick-service restaurant in Avondale: Source antibiotic-free, humanely raised poultry from a sustainable farm or farms, while meeting extremely high volumes: Honey Butter runs through 40 pounds a week—that’s about 14 cases, or 1,300 pieces of chicken, daily.
After countless tests, they landed on Miller Poultry, a Northern Indiana-based supplier of antibiotic-free and organic chicken raised on Amish farms throughout that region and in parts of Southwest Michigan. Using a network of Midwestern distributors, Miller Produce has been able to thoroughly supply the Chicago market, sending fresh, whole chickens to Honey Butter through Lex Meat about every other day.
Family-owned since 1942, Miller Poultry sources chickens from Amish families who raise them in smaller flocks. They are “cage-free,” meaning they are free to roam within the chicken house and have access to vegetarian feed, natural light and ventilation, rather than being “pastured” outdoors, where flocks can be challenged by cold Midwestern weather, disease and potential airborne contaminants. The chickens are both raised and processed according to Temple Grandin’s humane practices and procedures.
“Ideally we would source pasture-raised but these types of farms have very limited supply so it was a tradeoff,” says Kulp. “For us, the more sustainable option as a quick-service fried chicken restaurant was choosing a high-quality, superior, cage-free chicken so we could bring our fried chicken to as many people as possible. We considered a variety of factors, but we didn’t want to consider any product we didn’t feel was ethically and humanely produced.”
Milo and Annas Miller originally raised turkeys on Pine Manor Farms, the original home of Miller Poultry and a former dairy farm. It wasn’t until 1974 that the family would begin began raising broiler chickens, and four years later, hatching chickens themselves. By 1992 Pine Manor was processing 16,000 chickens per week. After several expansions throughout the year, Miller Poultry, currently owned by the next generation, Galen Miller and his family, processes 35,000 chickens per day by working with a network of small farms. The family also maintains strong ties to the community and remains active in local charities.
For two and a half years before opening Honey Butter, Kendall grads Cikowski and Kulp scoured cookbooks and old recipes, then went through rounds of testing to determine the juiciest, tastiest way to cook chicken. They tried brining, curing and no brine. They tried bone-in, boneless and a mixture of each. Ultimately they decided on the brined and boneless fried version. A serving portion includes a boneless breast and thigh, and bone-in leg.
“When you have a big bone in the middle of chicken thigh, frying makes the outside of the chicken cook way faster than the inside and this can dry out the meat and lead to overcooking,” says Kulp. “By frying at low temperatures, we make sure the chicken gets cooked in 10 minutes and skin renders and crisps up perfectly. We wanted to keep the chicken juicy by not cooking at too high temperatures or too fast.”
Fried chicken purists might balk at the boneless pieces, but Honey Butter’s technical cooking approach has created a wave of cult followers.
“We struggled with the boneless approach and asked ourselves if people would like it—it’s not something we took lightly,” says Cikowski. “But we approached the process from a cook’s standpoint and tried to figure out the best way to make the chicken taste great.”
A team of three prep cooks come in at 7am to “divide and conquer” the chicken butchering each day, says Kulp. Using an assembly-line operation, one cook takes the breast off, the next cook takes the legs off and the third cook de-bones the thigh.
The boneless breast and thigh and bone-in legs for the main dish at Honey Butter are immediately brined for at least 18 hours in a mixture of water, salt, sugar, citrus and aromatics, while extra chicken tenders (boneless thigh pieces) are used for an array of seven sandwiches as well as chicken and grits. The huge walk-in cooler helps make room for the endless brining containers.
After brining, the chicken gets double-dipped in buttermilk and coated in a blend of smoked paprika, garlic and onion powders and other freshly ground spices along with all-purpose flour an a touch of rice flour, which adds a little extra crunch when fried in one of the restaurant’s three 90-pound fryers.
Butchering in-house not only ensures freshness, it helps Cikowski and Kulp make sure they use every part of the animal—one of their sustainable missions. Schmaltz—or chicken fat—from rendered skin is used for making gravy and flavoring mashed potatoes. And those leftover chicken bones? They become the basis for what Kulp calls “liquid gold”: a flavorful chicken stock used for potpies, gumbo and more. Leftover wings are roasted in the oven, flash-fried and tossed in sweet chili and honey Buffalo sauce for a unique spin on the classic.
Nearly a decade ago, little would Kulp and Cikowski realize that their popular underground dinner club, Sunday Dinner, would later serve as the launching pad for HBFC and the perfect test market for their fried chicken recipe. The signature honey butter came later, though.
“We developed honey butter for our biscuits one day, but then spread it on the chicken and the rest was history,” says Cikowski.
Paired with crispy-soft Johnnycakes, green curry-spiked creamed corn and mac n’ cheese—Honey Butter Fried Chicken has become a thoroughly modern comfort food oasis.
Amelia Levin is a certified chef and recipe developer who combines her love of food with her passion for writing. She is a regular contributor to Edible Chicago. Find more of Amelia's work at amelialevin.com.
Article orginally published in Edible Chicago's Summer 2015 issue. Photographs from the Honey Butter Fried Chicken Facebook Page
For more visit honeybutter.com