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Reinventing the Chicken and Waffle

By Megan O'Neill

Chicken and Waffles: it's not detoxification meal, nor is it friendly to many dietary restrictions, but that's not a requirement here. It's a dish celebrated as a dinner options, yet welcome in the morning. A flour-dredged, golden brown piece of fried chicken is savory comfort on its own; but add a waffle -- soft, nostalgic and vaguely crisped on the edges -- and it's a marriage that stands the test of time.

Chicken and waffles is a meal ruffled in the feathers of a rural American experience. In most cases, that rural American experience is rooted in the South; but southern geography alone can't lay full claim to its lineage. Their western and northern neighbors did eventaully have their way with the upbringing and popularization of the dish.

There's this cyclical renaissance of chicken and waffles, a dish that became quite popular in the 1940's Harlem as a late night feeder for patrons of Wells' Restaurant, a perennial favorite of Sammy Davis Jr. and the likes. Wells', whose kitchen was busiest at 2 a.m. satisfying both breakfast and dinner cravings, was a subsequent stop for people leaving The Appollo or the Harlem Club, a little piece of New York city and American history just south of East 133rd Street. The staple popped up in the West at Roscoe's Houston of Chicken and Waffles, a Hollywood soul food hotspot in the 1970's, and again when Gladys Knight opened her eponymous Chicken and Waffles concept in Atlanta in the late 1990s. So this, you see, is maybe the second or third of the modern cyclical moments in the verve of the dish.

"These upticks in interest in chicken and waffles are part of this ongoing rediscovery of American regional foods by chefs," says John T. Edge, acclaimed food writer, Director of Southern Foodways Alliance and author of "Fried Chicken: An American Story." "And they're digging deeper in America." these chefs aren't interpreting the latest micro-regions of Italy, but instead are staking their pride on the versatility of the American dish.

"There's a great primal appeal to fried chicken," says Edge. "And like barbeque, it's very much a part of our frontier path. It's part of our farm-focused path, our rural path, and it translates well into the present." But this down-home, antipodal pairing might deserve a fresh pair of eyes to transition it from resurging fad into an updated dish.

For chefs like Jeffrey Lunak, Executive Chef at Kaisho in Seattle, interpreting the classic chicken and waffles means going beyond a regional preparation and taking cues from global influences, most prominently Asian ingredients -- a choice that fares well with his Thai Fried Chicken and Kimchee Waffles. The goal was to create a depth in the flavor profiles of the chicken's batter and brine -- think Thai chilies, lemongrass, curry, vinegar -- serving a fried chicken with a sort of pungency. The juxtaposition of a kimchee waffle just made sense, says Chef Lunak, a true protege of the renowned Iron Chef Morimoto. After eight years of working with the Iron Chef, he couldn't help but pick up a few nuances and viewpoitns. "From a creative angle, he helped me look at Kaisho in terms of having confidence that I wouldn't have to prescribe to preconveived notations," says Chef Lunak. That confidence in creativity allows for the merriment of Asian fusion and American fare in both execution and style.

This dynamic duo, a mix of savory and sweet, grease and fluff, has been in our country's culinary repertoire for quite some time, and while combining fried chicken and a waffle may seem like an exercise of exotica, it's not quite that. A quick bread served with fried chicken is not far removed from a chicken and biscuit or Memphis style barbeque served with white brea. "If it was truly exotica, it wouldn't endure," says Edge, who believes the marriage of breakfast and dinner is what's intriguing diners.

At Basico, a modern take on the traditional taqueria in Charleston, S.C., owner Bryan Lewis is calling the shots and pairing savory house-made churros with a sweet tea-brined fried chicken that's rich in color. Brunch patrons clamor for the dish that features local, fresh ingredients and is finished with spiced agave syrup. "Making our dishes familiar is important, " says Lewis, on keeping southern flavors ripe while utilizing traditional Mexican techniques. the churros, a Spanish take on the Belgian component, are light, airy and spiced with cinnamon, sugar, chili powder, chile de arbol and dried peppers.

For Chef Bart Vandaele, Belga Cafe and B.Too Executive Chef, the waffle dishes that are fixed on the pages of his menu are by no means a creative riff on the chicken and waffle enthusiasm, but rather a vanguard for Belgian cuisine. "I've become known as 'the Belgian guy' for putting Belgian food on the map in D.C.," he says. The "Thp Chef" contestant's B.Too opened its doors in May of 2013 and his Pesto Waffle, a second savory opton for the carbonhydrate of the pair, is topped with chicken schnitzel and drizzled with a sweet onion syrup. He presents the dish as a sandwich, and rather than fried, he took a leaner approach to the chicken schnitzel using a slow-cooked chicken thigh.

These are not the hot proteins of Nashville. Most frequently, a chicken and waffle dish is topped with a sticky, honey-sweet syrup, a common component of fried chicken dishes in North Carolina, Verginia, and other upper regions of th South. In Seattle, Chef Lunak is balancing the saltiness of his Thai Fried Chicken by coupling it with coco butter and a five spice maple syrup. And for the restaurant steeped in Asian tradition with nods to French and italian techniques, a five spice maple syrup adds approachability.

At Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminister, Colo., Chef Jeff Bolton is topping his Blue Corn jalapeno Waffle and Fried Quail with a whipped butter chipotle honey agave syrup. Inspired by his grandfather's Cuban heritage and global experimentation of ingredients, Chef Bolton is finding success with components indigenous to the Southwest and flavor combinations that touch on innovative flair. Blue corn flour is used in both the waffle batter and the quail flour, the former incorporating a heavy dose of jalapenos as well.

A small bird with a big flavor, quail is gaining a reputation with diners as a perfectly acceptable substitute for their usual poultry, and the familiarity of a dish such as chicken and waffles gives quail an opportunity to flourish among customers. The bird, small in size and delicate in nature, is quite easy to prepare, and popular quail varieties are hearty, deeply flavore, and its lean body makes it so suitable to be battered and fried Southern sytle.

Chef Danny Trace, whose relationships and interactions with local farmers, offshore fishers and hunting and wild game professionals has expanded his culinary backdrop, is making The Hill Country Quail and Waffles at Brennan's of Houston. Among the neighboring influences that infiltrate the Houston culinary scene, Cajun and Creole cooking is fused with Lone Star State traditions to produce this dish. Chef Trace's version of chicken and waffles, one with a crispy Bandera quail breast, goat's cheese grits, mustard greens and chicory coffee red eye gravy, is a savory interpretation that's rooted in Texas-Creole fusion.

Whether reinvented with substitutions or global and regional influences, white table cloth menus are featuring the best of breakfast and dinner with a spin. This is a new era, a new rise of a rural, down-home staple seen through fresh perspectives and ingredients. Laughs Chef Vandaele, "Sure, the French would say 'Let them eat cake,' well I say 'Let them eat their waffles.'"