What would food be without condiments, sauces and seasonings? In the Instagram era, where experience and presentation have become ever more important, some of the most popular dishes are those that feature a jug of cheese sauce being poured over a burger or a grilled sandwich dipped in gravy.
Of course, these accompaniments should taste just as good as they look, and this is where their significance is elevated even further. First and foremost, condiments, sauces and seasonings should add flavour.
One food product renowned for accommodating different flavours is chicken. We all know it can be pretty plain on its own, but brought to life with marinades, glazes and spices. You would assume that a restaurant like Clutch Chicken, the five-year-old fried chicken restaurant in Hackney, is well versed with upping the flavour of chicken with sauces, condiments and seasonings. And you’d be right.
Every dish on the menu is blessed with a whole lot of flavour as standard, and guests can choose from a variety of sauces to add. Of course, we’re not talking your average peri peri or barbecue.
What’s on the menu?
The first thing that Clutch Chicken co-owner Anthony Ussher tells me is that the condiments, sauces and seasonings are inspired by eating and travelling – not bad experiences to go on. The result is something quite delicious and unique. What Clutch has ended up with is jerk chicken croquettes with banana ketchup, Korean fried cauliflower dipped in black vinegar and mirin sauce, and crispy chicken skins with vinegar salt – and that’s before you even get to the fried chicken wings, thighs and tenders.
“All of the wings are covered unless you ask for plain and you can have honey butter and sesame, naga fire or soy garlic glaze,” explains Ussher. “The thighs are the same with a choice of three flavours or plain with homemade gravy, which is inspired by a place called Texas Fried Chicken in Dublin. The difference with the tenders is that they have a lemon and parmesan coating as standard. Unless you ask for the chicken plain, all chicken has sauce.”
If guests want more variety, they can choose from a selection of sauces to add on the side, including truffle aioli, smoked jalapeño ketchup and mango habanero. While the increasing popularity of powerful flavours is plain (excuse the pun) to see, we are often told that traditional sauces are still favourable and should therefore be available. At Clutch, however, you won’t find standard tomato ketchup. There are two reasons for this: one – all of the sauces are made in-house, which inevitably leads to experimentation and twists on the classics. Secondly, Ussher’s determination to make healthy fried food, knowing exactly what’s going in, without sacrificing flavour.
Homemade, but better
“We make everything in-house, right down to our mayonnaise,” says Ussher. “The advantage to me is the taste and knowing exactly what’s going in – I love dirty food, so I try to make it as clean as possible.”
Ussher makes everything in-house and is truly inspired by his experiences of life and travel, from the gravy in Dublin through to the black vinegar and mirin sauce, which he has also looked to replicate following a visit to a backstreet place in Hong Kong.
While you can see why homemade sauces and condiments have their appeal, they come with their challenges. It is a long and arduous process for one.
“We could experiment for six months and then not end up using that dish,” says Ussher. “We’ve trialled a million different types of dishes – different jerk dishes, different honey variations on our wings. They might be good enough to serve at home, but not outstanding enough to serve in the restaurant. There’s three of us who taste-test (Ussher, co-owner Niamh and trained chef Tom) and if one of us is unsure, then we won’t serve it. We do blind tastings twice a month on what we’re working on.”
An even bigger challenge than time is consistency – the potential danger of more than one person making a sauce and if guidelines are not followed. It is why Ussher describes it as a fine art form; instead of paint, he uses pastes and oils, and instead of a paintbrush, he uses a wooden spoon. He explains the process of making the banana ketchup.
“It’s actually quite an easy sauce to make – you just follow the same principle as you would normal ketchup, but we use bananas instead of tomatoes. It’s the same with our jalapeño ketchup – instead of tomatoes, we use jalapeños. But we had to make sure that the crunch was right with the banana ketchup and that the sauce wasn’t too thick. As soon as we did the banana ketchup once, we knew we were onto a winner.”
Ussher’s desire to make healthy fried food is inspired by his own diet and lifestyle, but recent and ongoing changes to the menu are being driven by that of the general public. Yes, even this fried chicken restaurant has succumbed to the demands of the vegan.
“Veganism is quite a big deal now,” says Ussher. “We’ve made veganaise and tofunaise – that’s where things are going. For the next few months, we’re going to try and work on dairy-free and meat-free sauces. That’s the main thing pushing forward. Our chicken dishes are done, so we’re going to step up vegan and vegetarian options for fried food, including vegan sauces.”
While Ussher and co may be catering to vegans more and more so, there is one group that Clutch risks excluding. The restaurant fries with nut oil and Ussher states that it is “the biggest part of our concept” due to its high smoke point and having no added cholesterol. He claims that customers won’t end up feeling bloated and the body burns it off easier, ideal for those with an active lifestyle.
“For us, the benefits of using nut oil outweigh the number of people who are actually allergic to nuts,” he claims. “Whenever possible, I wouldn’t fry food unless it was in nut oil.”
To support his argument, Ussher ends our conversation with a story that involves the USA’s love of turkey – not a narrative you’d expect from an individual who’s looking to make fried food healthy.
“I actually came up with the idea when I was on a shoot in Alabama about seven years ago and I bought a turkey fryer,” he recalls. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a whole turkey being fried, but you brine it and butter it up two or three days beforehand, and then dip it into a 230°C burning vat of peanut oil. You fry it for three minutes per pound, so in 40 minutes you have the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten in your entire life. I find turkey to be quite boring – everyone in this part of the world does! – but I understand now why Americans love it so much because they fry it. It becomes a completely different bird.”