I will not lie to you: I absolutely bloody love fried chicken.
I love it so much that, having already accepted an offer to go ‘behind the scenes’ at the KFC on Tottenham Court Road, I then turned down a subsequent offer to play football on the actual pitch at Wembley as it clashed. Hey, I couldn’t let the colonel down, could I?
I was never allowed to eat fried chicken in my youth; besides, there was no fried chicken emporium in my particular town even if I had wanted to go against the wishes of my parents.
Not, that is, until Dixy Fried Chicken opened up when I hit sixth form. Thank God it never opened earlier, as I would have been the size of a house throughout my teenage years. In your late teens, though, you can eat what you want and your supercharged metabolism will let you get away with anything – and boy did I make use of that physiological gift, guzzling down buckets of the stuff there, and at my local pub, via its legendary ‘Bucket O’Chicken’, which consisted of six pieces of chicken lovingly prepared by Mel the landlord, a man whose culinary skills extended to pressing a button on a deep fat fryer – which I assume was never cleaned – and hoping for the best. It usually took at least half an hour for the temperature to dip below ‘molten’, with the anticipation merely adding to the eventual glory of its consumption.
Of course, before long, I discovered the daddy of them all: KFC. I love all of London’s chicken shops and your Perfect Fried Chickens and Kenssy Fried Chickens and all the rest, each with their army of relentlessly cheerful workers and ludicrously cheap prices, but KFC has always – just about – managed to retain that slightly rarefied air to its wares. Sometimes you really want a bit of drunken dirty fried chicken and six hot wings for a pound (which you can always barter up with a cheeky smile), but when you’re ‘dining out’, KFC is still the place to head.
So the chance to go into the belly of the beast was too much to resist, particularly when it was the Tottenham Court Road branch, an emporium which I knew like the back of my hand having been a constant post-boozer staple for the past decade of my life.
I headed over to my appointment and realised that there was a good chance that this location – 71 Tottenham Court Road to be exact – had a viable claim to be the actual best place in the whole of London. Why? Because not only does it have a KFC, it has a Maplin.
When the apocalypse comes, there is no doubt in my mind that I shall pitch my tent in the middle of the road here and do nothing but eat fried chicken and occasionally wander out into the wasteland and browse some audio adapters and disco lighting. And I would see out my days fully content with my lot.
Here I was: KFC. The home of fried chicken.
PRs were buzzing around the joint, with other journalists and ‘content creators’ milling about furiously trying to get their Facebook Live streams going, or footage from every angle to take home, or strong quotes from the chain’s COO about sustainability – but not me.
I was there to soak up the atmosphere. To feel the ambience. To bask in the warm glow of knowing that today I would be seeing the magic first hand. The only ‘hot take’ I was aiming for was a three piece variety meal, lovingly crafted by my own fair hand.
Naturally, there was a giant soft drink outfit and a giant chicken nugget outfit.
You may justifiably ask why I did not go further and don the outfits but suffice to say that when I dressed up as a can of Spam to welcome guests to the 1999 Spam Awards ceremony, I said to myself: “You will never improve on this in terms of dressing up as a giant food item, so don’t even bother, no matter how tempted you may be.” I have always stuck to that sage self-given advice and it has never let me down.
I surveyed the current decor of this KFC branch, which was refurbed a couple of years ago and feels a little too refined for my tastes. I reminisced about the old days, the grimier times, where I’d hunker down with my variety meal after another excellent session of setting the world to rights with my mates and look out onto a rainy TCR outside. No, I reluctantly concluded, they couldn’t last forever; they had to move with the times, even if that meant a sort of real life Pinterest board for fried chicken, which was missing only a photo of someone doing yoga poses holding a mighty bucket for one.
Before I got started, some policemen turned up searching for sustenance, confused by the presence of bouncers, who were there to keep the general public out for the duration of the event. It reminded me that, within the four walls of KFC, we are all equal. Policeman, royalty, pauper: your status matters not when you are united in a love of fried chicken.
Eventually, I was ushered into the inner sanctum.
This is where, not to put too finer point on it, shit gets real. We, as humans, have an amazing capacity to separate what we see on the dinner table from those cute pictures of farmyard animals frollicking around and it’s good to be confronted with the reality occasionally. We were told that KFC sources its chickens from the same place as Sainsbury’s – so it’s good stuff – and that it meets Red Tractor standards, but it’s not free range, and that is a shame. I would pay more for that if they offered it. But it is what is is, and what it is, is delicious. And it was time to make some.
Julio, the manager, describes how a chicken is divided up into nine pieces, which are then covered in KFC’s famous secret recipe herb and spice mix. We’re invited to have a go, and I take my pieces, rolling them around in the soft, flour-like substance.
Here I am, rubbing away.
The ‘special stuff’ arrives at each restaurant in this unassuming silver bag. Hilariously, I learn that, much like a volatile bomb, the mix is kept separate, with two different factories producing half of it and neither knowing what the other one does. At the latest possible point, the two are combined to create the crucial KFC ingredient. It’s probably for the best, since exposure to the full recipe would probably send a man insane.
And, er, that was it.
Yes, once you’ve rolled the chicken in the covering, it’s ready to go into one of the highly-mechanised deep fat pressure fryers, all perfectly tuned to cook at the ideal temperature for the ideal length of time.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, just how do they make it so finger-lickin’ good every single time? – but I thought there might be slightly more to it than that. On the other hand, it is just a piece of chicken covered in a blend of 11 herbs and spices which is then deep fried. I mean, it’s not like the thing’s coming out and tapdancing a Fred Astaire routine is it. Although I make a mental note to suggest that to KFC innovation director Jack when I get to talk to him later. Maybe they’ll give me a job. I’ve even got the tagline for it: ‘finger clickin’ good’. God I’d be good at that job.
Still, that wasn’t all there was to do. No, next I would try my hand at putting a chicken burger together.
Reader, I won’t lie, this wasn’t too tricky either, but then I wasn’t doing it at 1am while being shouted at a load of drunk oafs and trying to manage the overall stock of chicken on the endless banks of computer screens that surrounded us, so I’m in no position to judge.
Toast your bun in the hotel-style vertical conveyer belt thing and grab your chicken fillet.
Squeeze a dash of barbecue sauce on while holding a needlessly camp pose.
Whack on a bit of lettuce, close up your bun and – voila – one fillet burger.
I retired to the dining area to taste my wares, and reflect upon entering the hallowed area ‘behind counter’.
God, it was delicious. My chicken piece was brought over to sample. That was great too. God I love fried chicken.
My thoughts went back to those McDonald’s birthday parties that used to run when I was a kid. I only got to do it once, and the competition over who exactly would be my friend to take ‘backstage’ was absolutely fierce. I’m pretty sure tears were shed that day by the unlucky souls who thought they were in with a shot of going round the kitchen but were cruelly denied.
I thought about how lucky I was to be able to do it in KFC. Even if the whole process wasn’t quite as wondrous as when I was 11, it was still bloody brilliant.
And I even had a KFC cap and apron to take home with me.
Just one thing though had been bothering me throughout the process. Why did they take the decision to change the chips from fat to thin a few years back? It was a colossal moment for KFC and one that I, for one, was fully in favour of.
Jack explained that, after feedback from customers, they’d simply put it out there to the public, and they had delivered their verdict and they went with the popular vote. Simple as that.
He also added that it had been, quite literally, a ‘hot topic’. Nice one Jack.
I was happy. I’m always happy after a KFC (well, just before the grease guilt kicks in). But there was to be one more twist in the tail. One unexpected flourish to finish off my excellent day.
The PR suggested I try a dessert. A dessert? I realised I had never had a dessert in KFC before. I didn’t even know they existed. Once you’ve gorged yourself on chicken there’s usually no room left. But today I would cover new ground. It was time to broaden my horizons.
She brought out a Malteser ‘Krushem’. Here it is.
All I can say is thank God I didn’t discover that in my teens, or I’d be dead by now.
And I’d never have got to go round the KFC kitchen.
(Images: Dave Fawbert/Freuds)
KFC is holding open kitchen events across the UK on 6 May. Head here for tickets