On a mile-long stretch of Tottenham High Road in north London, there are at least 10 fried chicken shops. These greasy fast-food joints are a feature of poorer city neighborhoods in the U.K. They serve chicken deep-fried from frozen, drowned in salt and ketchup. In an area with childhood obesity rates well above the national average, it’s a standard after-school snack for teens.
Chicken Town is trying to change that. It’s a nonprofit restaurant hoping to provide a healthier chicken meal to Tottenham’s teens. “As much as people love chicken here, we want them to love healthy chicken,” says Sapphire Elliott, one of Chicken Town’s managers.
Fried chicken seems an odd health-food choice, but Ben Rymer, Chicken Town’s creator, thinks it’s a great way to engage locals in a conversation about eating more healthfully. “You can’t really dictate to people what they want. You just have to give them choice,” Rymer says. It doesn’t make fried chicken suddenly saintly, but Chicken Town’s offerings are more healthful than the alternative.
The Chicken Town birds are sourced from a provider in the north of England — grass-fed and free-range. Instead of spending 15 minutes in a deep-fryer, the chicken is first steam-cooked. Then it’s steeped in spices and buttermilk, covered in breadcrumbs and flash-fried for 30 seconds at high temperature – just long enough to brown the crust and lock in juices.
The thinking is that the short frying time means the chicken and batter absorb less cooking oil. But there’s not a lot of research on the topic — and one study last year suggested that flash-fried fish, at least, wasn’t necessarily lower in fat than its deep-fried counterpart. Sherri Nordstrom Stastny, a nutrition researcher at North Dakota State University who conducted that study, tells The Salt that a precooked chicken like Chicken Town’s “may indeed absorb less oil; we would have to test it in our lab to find out for sure.”
Working with local government officials, Chicken Town has tested the nutritional makeup of its meals. The local government has given some starter funding to the nonprofit project because of its focus on serving up more healthful chicken. Rymer says preliminary results suggest the restaurant’s flash-fried chicken is indeed several times lower in salt and fat than its local competitors.
Chicken Town’s plan is to open in the evenings as a sit-down restaurant, serving the higher-end version of fried chicken and sides that have become popular among London foodies in more trendy neighborhoods. This evening trade will subsidize lower-cost portions of the same chicken for local schoolchildren and young people coming in at lunchtime and after school.
For £2 (U.S.$3) — about the same price as other chicken shops in the area – Chicken Town’s “junior deal” includes two pieces of chicken and two sides: like mashed potato, baked sweet potato wedges instead of regular french fries, and baked beans and coleslaw. Customers who take advantage of the deal don’t get to choose their sides – which means chefs have control over the health credentials of each portion.
“We have a running joke: ‘The chicken is the carrot that makes the kids eat carrots,’ ” Rymer quips. And indeed, there is a grated carrot salad on the menu, he says.
Rymer says the junior meal is capped at a total of 800 calories – still pretty high-calorie on average. The team debated whether the calorie limit should be lower. The kids “could be going home and eating dinner – but on the other hand … what if they’re not?” says Rymer. Tottenham is one of London’s most deprived boroughs, with many local families on low incomes.
They also realize they can’t solve Tottenham’s obesity problem single-handed. More than 28 percent of 11-year-olds in the local area are obese, compared with the national average of 19.1 percent.
Chicken Town has been open only a few weeks, and reaction to the food has been positive, on the whole. “Some people have said it tastes ‘weird,’ ” says head chef Georgio Ravelli. “It’s because it tastes like chicken.”
And besides the quality of the food, the restaurant plans other benefits. The owners will be reinvesting profits in organizing visits to farms for school children, and running cookery classes.
One prominent feature of the local environment may be under threat, says manager Sapphire Elliott: “If we ended up closing all the chicken shops, I’d be happy.”
Kerri Smith is a science journalist based in London and an editor at Nature.