A former Chez Panisse sous chef turned chicken-finger specialist has launched a restaurant concept in Northern California that she plans to grow as a “clean” alternative to traditional fast food.
Jennifer Johnson is the chef behind the Hip Chick Farms retail brand of organic chicken fingers and other products, which she launched with her wife and co-founder Serafina Palandech in Sebastopol, Calif. The frozen products are available in about 5,000 stores across the country, including Whole Foods, Walmart and Kroger.
In August, the couple opened a tasting room and lunch counter dubbed Hip Chick Farms’ The Kitchen a few doors down from the company’s headquarters in Sebastopol, where Johnson said she initially planned to test new items and demonstrate product.
“But we’re entrepreneurs and we can’t sit still,” she said.
The Kitchen became a chicken-nugget tasting room, offering flights of different nugget flavors, along with other dishes using their products that got Johnson’s “cheffy spin.”
The enterprise includes the Hip Chick Farms line of frozen products.
Next week, the 75-seat restaurant will also open for dinner, and Johnson plans to add to the menu buckets of bone-in fried chicken, along with the traditional sides — mashed potatoes and cole slaw — and various blue-plate specials.
“It will be like KFC, but a little more interesting and a cleaner profile,” she said. “The chicken will be organic and the sides will be made a little more consciously than KFC, though I don’t want to put anyone down.”
On the menu are vegan alternatives, like tempeh in the style of chicken fingers, along with strawberry and grape slushies made with actual fruit, rather than artificial colorings and flavorings, and iced tea spiked with turmeric.
Johnson marinates her chicken in buttermilk and pickle juice, and it’s breaded with panko. She also uses rice bran oil to fry, which has a high smoke point, and which Johnson said is more healthful.
The buns are made by a local bakery, and rather than fries, The Kitchen serves Yukon Gold roasted potato wedges.
A flight of chicken fingers in original, ketchup or maple flavors is $7 at lunch, and sandwiches are $13. Prices at dinner have not yet been determined.
The goal is to grow the concept.
“This is the mothership. If it takes off, we’ll open up all over,” Johnson said.
Johnson was most recently chef for Ann and Gordon Getty, the billionaire philanthropists, where she cooked meals for children who attended a school in the Getty home. The chef worked previously at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ iconic restaurant known for its commitment to local and sustainable ingredients.
The popularity of Johnson’s chicken fingers led to the Hip Chick Farms line of frozen products, which are produced by co-packers in California and Oregon using organic chicken and turkey that have been raised humanely without the use of antibiotics, and are free of fillers, preservatives and stabilizers.
Johnson said the chicken and turkey served at the restaurant will come from her own local farm.
“People want to know it’s local and organic, that the owners are right there making your food. People like to see and touch and smell things, instead of buying blandly,” she said.
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