Today is National Fried Chicken Day, by royal decree, and we begin our day of comprehensive coverage with more on the announcement of Leghorn, the new chicken stand from Element Collective, which is Chef Jared Van Camp and Chris Dexter and the other guys behind Old Town Social and Nellcôte. This fall they’ll be opening two spots around the Bucktown/Logan Square area named after a popular breed, which if it happens to remind you of a certain cartoon character, well, that’s where he got the name too. The menu is pretty simple— fried chicken sandwiches— but there are some clever twists, as always with these guys. There was a taste of that in the opening publicity, which seemed to take aim at a certain very Christian chicken chain by expressing support for gay rights and offering free Leghorn-branded condoms at the checkout. We spoke with Dexter and Van Camp separately about this new concept, but they’re on the same page if anybody is, so it’s one conversation here, starting below.
So tell us, what’s this fried chicken place all about?
CHRIS DEXTER: It’s a very simple, fast casual, hyperfocused fried chicken sandwich place. It’s something we’ve wanted to do forever— we’ve been working on it for about a year or so.
JARED VAN CAMP: We like fried chicken sandwiches, and we wanted one we could eat and not feel like crap. And there just isn’t a convenient fried chicken sandwich place. So we said, why don’t we just do it?
DEXTER: We wanted something we could craft with care and authenticity. It’s a fun side project for us after doing something as big and as high profile as Nellcôte. You know, with bigger projects, you always have to make some concessions, it takes some twists along the road and becomes not exactly what you intended. This is just a fun little passion thing for us, that we could open in a quick, low-risk way. I mean, even after Nellcôte, we’re really pretty unassuming guys, with no pretense. This is just a place we’d like to go to.
VAN CAMP: After Nellcôte, we can do a 300-square-foot place selling chicken sandwiches in our sleep.
Tell us about the menu.
VAN CAMP: You’ve got some real simple choices— bun or biscuit, breast or thigh, and pickle-brined or Nashville hot— have you ever been to Prince’s in Nashville?
We’ve heard of it. It’s really hot.
VAN CAMP: Oh yeah, we were in there watching people burn their mouths off. So it’s not bone-in chicken, which some might scoff at, I know, but it’s a sandwich, okay? And then there’s some sides— once a week we’ll do french fries fried in schmaltz. We’ll probably do fried chicken skin once a week, too.
That’s nice that you’re doing sandwiches from thighs. Nobody does that, but they should.
VAN CAMP: Oh yeah. Like Wylie Dufresne says, "The chicken thigh is where God got it right."
So where does the rest of the chicken go?
VAN CAMP: We’ve got outlets for the legs and bones. I think you’re going to start seeing chicken bologna or chicken brats at Old Town Social. And we’re going to make lots of stock.
And you’re using the leghorn breed? Is that going to help it come back from near-extinction?
DEXTER: We know there’s some confusion with the name. We’re not using Leghorns, we’re calling it Leghorn because it’s kind of a symbol of what we’re doing. The Leghorn was the most popular egg chicken and it got cross-bred into this super egg-producer. And there’s only a few places where the original, natural breed is still being bred.
VAN CAMP: It would help the breed come back if we were buying them, but they’re egg layers, not good meat chickens. We’re using that name because of our commitment to buying good chickens from farmers we know who use sustainable practices.
With all these chicken places opening, are you liable to run out of that kind of sustainable chicken?
VAN CAMP: It’s a serious question that we’re dealing with. Normally these farmers, they’ll ramp up production for you, but they ask you as a restaurant, are you willing to commit to buying that production, week in and week out. And the restaurant says, well, maybe…
With us, because chicken is all we’re going to do, we’re going to buy about 150-200 chickens a day, consistently. We’re going to be buying from about three different chicken producers. Maybe we’ll do like Five Guys and put up a sign that says where your chicken is from today.
But yeah, we realize that chicken is becoming a hot thing real fast, and with Stephanie [Izard]’s place opening and so on, we need to be in charge of our own supply and help sustain our farmers.
Is it all takeaway or is there seating?
DEXTER: It’s super small, it’s a glorified walk-up stand. There will be a little stand and eat counter, and maybe one communal table.
And then you’ve got your whole pro-gay, pro-contraception thing that seems to be aimed at Chick-Fil-A—
DEXTER: Is there a chain called Chick-Fil-A? I’ve never heard of it.
That was just kind of fun thing at the beginning. We’re just saying that we don’t care about all that, we believe in everybody enjoying good, sustainable chicken. We can make a statement with chicken.