Madeleine Chapman and Simon Wilson dined out at KFC. This is their review, from The Spinoff Book.
Madeleine Chapman at KFC
The wicked wing was divine. Served on thin cardboard and surrounded by carbs in all their forms, the wing was a picture of crispiness. Juicy on the inside with a crunch that could give you goosebumps if you let it. Inside was almost meltingly soft.
We ordered two Superstars Meals at the self-service kiosk. I'd decided we'd both be having a Superstars Meal, because it offered the widest range of KFC menu items. If one felt like making false comparisons, one might call it KFC's very own degustation.
For his wine match, Simon chose L&P, a classic local fizzy drink that, as a kid, I drank at special occasions and pretended was wine. Fitting. I chose Fanta. Simon made as if to open his wallet and I cut him off. I wanted to handle this bill of exactly $25 all by myself. Then we took our table buzzer thing and sat down to wait for our order to arrive.
I was nervous. My emotional investment in our trip to KFC was much higher (I think) than Simon's investment in our trip to The Grove. Simon likes the finer foods but has never been vocal about any sort of love for The Grove in particular. Meanwhile, my love for KFC has been well documented.
The food arrived in about two minutes. The plating was pretty good. One piece of original recipe, one wicked wing, one chicken strip, one medium popcorn chicken, medium potato and gravy, medium fries and a medium drink. That's a lot of food to arrange and whoever did it very nearly managed to make it not look like a complete mess.
I started with the original recipe because I always start with the biggest item in a value pack. There's nothing worse than getting to the end of a pack and then realising you have a whole chicken breast left. Simon started with the wicked wing and, in a move that surprised me, dunked it into his gravy. He then looked as if he were going to bite right into the middle of it and I had a vision of me being responsible for him unwittingly breaking two front teeth on a wicked wing so I yelled out, "Watch out – those have bones!" He paused, looked at me and said what I believe to be the quote of the year, "You think I don't know the anatomy of a chicken?"
By the time I got around to my chicken strip, I looked up to see that Simon was almost finished already. Suddenly I felt bad. Nobody eats that fast unless they're having a crappy time. It was like on those wife-swap TV shows where there's always one cool mum who takes the conservative kids out clothes shopping and to get their ears pierced, while the other mum tries to force the cool kids out of their piercings and into a church. In this situation, I was the uncool mum and KFC was my church. I powered through the rest of my meal and we left. After spending five hours at The Grove, we were in and out of KFC in 25 minutes.
I know a lot of people hate KFC. It's the epitome of grease and Big Fast Food and very few people who eat it for the first time as adults develop any liking for it. But it's cheap, and cheap means a lot when that's all you can afford. Coming from a big family, KFC was and still is one of few affordable options for feeding all of us at short notice (or any notice, for that matter). It's the saviour of big families. And you can read that as big families or you can read it as brown families.
While waiting for our fifth course to arrive at The Grove, I told Simon about an article I'd read entitled "Do white people have cousins?" The article was funny and made an interesting point: "We [minorities] need all the family we can get, whereas white people can go anywhere and be met with smiles, so they just don't need that extra layer of family cushion". The author was talking about America but it still resonated. The service at The Grove was unlike anything I've ever experienced, with a waiter who wants to talk to you every 10 minutes and is happy to help you with anything and everything. Maybe dining at The Grove is what it's like to be white. But for everyone else, food that can be eaten with the whole family (your very own community), away from all of that, is most often the preferred choice.
I have a job now which means I can afford to eat at (slightly) nicer restaurants. But even with a job I wouldn't be able to afford to buy from those places when I'm heading to a family gathering of 30 people and need to take a plate. What I can afford - and what will be appreciated - is a bucket of chicken. Even if for that reason alone, there'll always be a place in my heart and in my stomach for KFC.
Simon Wilson at KFC
I didn't like it. Who's surprised? I thought the chips were, I don't know, less than ordinary. Not making a play to be crispy double-fried moreish morsels of excellence, or stringy can't-get-enough-of-the-saltiness, or good honest hot-and-crunchy fish-and-chip-shop chips, or patented you-only-get-chips-like-this-at-KFC! chips. Or anything, really. Just, we've got to do chips but nobody cares, so hey. I thought, okay, it's not about the chips, except is that right?
It is about the potato and gravy, though. The first question almost everybody has asked me is, how was the potato and gravy? And my answer is: very little potato, mostly gravy. I don't remember it used to be like that.
We had the Superstars meal, which Mad chose. There was no coleslaw, nothing in the whole box resembling a vegetable except the potato mash and the potato chips. Superstars don't eat greens, apparently.
The popcorn chicken things were like anti-food: not quite flavoursome in any positive way, not at all convincing that they actually contained chicken. Little rubbery balls you could probably use as a flavoured toy for a cat you didn't like.
The bun was the same soft white bread it's ever been, easy to mash with your gums if you've mislaid your teeth. Mad, who has all her teeth, as far as I know, made a kind of butty with hers, adding popcorn chicken and spoonfuls of potato and gravy. I just thought, "No."
She was in her happy place. I know this because she told me. It was almost the only conversation we had, actually. I couldn't think what to say and she didn't seem to want to talk. I felt really bad about that. She had gone somewhere and I didn't know how to follow.
As for the chicken itself, I got a wing, a thin strip of breast and that ribcage bit they never should serve anybody. The breast was dry, so was the ribcage. The best flesh, the only juicy bit, was the wing. Who ever ate chicken when the best bit was the wing?
What else? I had an L&P. It was all right.
As for the new-style upmarket premises, well, good on them. Turns out KFC can make a restaurant that isn't an insult to urban design and it's very popular. So why don't they do that more often?
Anyway, the universe is one big whole, right, and KFC is its rotten stinking heart. I went out of there and I had a little weep for my friend Connie Clarkson.
Bear with me. On the evening of the Thursday before last, at an event in Henderson Valley Rd in West Auckland, just a short hop from the fast-food fantasia of Lincoln Rd, Connie launched The Kitchen Project. It's an incubator for people who want to start up a food business: migrants and others, who might know how to cook but want to learn the rest of the operation. Especially, although not exclusively, it's a hand-up for women.
The Kitchen Project is about healthier eating, and building communities and empowering the people who most often get most overlooked.
Right now, The Kitchen Project is at proof-of-concept stage. In time, the participants will be out in the world paying their own way. The Kitchen Project itself has to do that, to a degree, as well. Connie is my friend and I don't mind admitting bias. But yes, I do hate KFC. And it's not because of the disappointment of the food itself. It's for the whole phenomenon of it: the celebration of crap. The peculiar ability to regard some of the worst elements of capitalism as harmless fun, just because they make a product you like.
I imagine almost everyone would think what Connie is trying to do with The Kitchen Project is a good idea. But not everyone thinks it has anything to do with our fast-food culture. And yet all the things The Kitchen Project is good for are undermined by super-fatty, super-sugary, super-cheap fast-food.
Why does Joseph Parker accept fast-food sponsorship? Why do the Warriors, why does cricket's Big Bash League in Australia? Don't worry, I know the answer. Even if it was legal, these days they wouldn't accept that support from a tobacco company. And good luck trying to find a photo of Parker enjoying any of his sponsor's products. His trainers would have a fit if he actually ate the stuff.
I'm not saying we shouldn't have treat food and I'm not saying treat food has to be good for you. It's pushing 20 years since I last ate KFC but I used to eat it and so did my kids. They still do. I don't think it should be banned. I just wish it wasn't fetishised. I just hope Connie Clarkson makes The Kitchen Project into something fabulous.
Extracted from The Spinoff Book - edited by Toby Manhire, illustrated by Toby Morris
Photography © Joel Thomas. 2019. $38
Since this story was first published, The Kitchen Project has become established in Henderson and expanded to Manukau. Find out more: