Kiwi chef Morgan McGlone lives and breathes fried chicken at his chain store Belle's Hot Chicken. He tells Chris Schulz how he devised the perfect chicken sandwich.
Most people throw roast chicken between buttered bread, smother it in aioli, and call it a chicken sandwich.
Morgan McGlone's version is a little different.
"It's a toasted bun with a little bit of clarified butter," he tells Weekend. "We have a nice piece of skin-on chicken thigh fillet, no bone. We have a sauce that goes on top, Good Good Sauce. In that sauce we have mayonnaise, yellow mustard, pickled vinegar, tomato sauce, pickled jalapeño and peppers. On top of that, we have a nice piece of American cheese. And then on top of that is iceberg lettuce and shaved onion."
Phew. But McGlone's not telling us the entire truth. Let's get the New Zealand-born, Australian-based chef to go into a little more detail about that chicken thigh.
"We brine the chicken. After that, we'll flour it (and there's) a 10-hour gap where it sits in the fridge where it starts to create a glue. That's what makes it fried chicken."
That, says McGlone, is his secret: coating the chicken in seasoned flour, infused with 12 herbs and spices. Why 12? "It's one more than the Colonel," quips McGlone about his biggest competitor, KFC.
Each piece of chicken is gently cooked in a deep fryer for up to 12 minutes. After it's removed, it isn't finished: McGlone places the cooked chicken pieces in a metal bowl, sprinkles celery salt over them, then tosses them in cayenne pepper and paprika oil.
Finally, he adds chilli to bring them to the desired temperature. At his fried chicken chain Belle's Hot Chicken, there are five options: Southern, Medium, Hot, Really Hot and Really F***in' Hot. That last one arrives a deep, dark red colour, and it lives up to its name.
Why does McGlone do this? What made him take a humble chicken sandwich to insane levels of perfection? Why does he plan on expanding his eight-store operation to more than 100?
Was becoming a fried chicken king always his goal?
"No way, no way, no way," he replies. "Never would I have thought I'd be into chicken."
But then McGlone glances around the table in front of him, one at which 20-odd people are happily munching on his products, and he loudly, proudly, declares: "It's a good sandwich, eh?"
McGlone's first restaurant was called Flinder's Inn. Based in the Sydney suburb of Paddington, it was a rollercoaster ride.
"The first 16 months were unbelievable," he says. "The next eight months, reviews were still good. Then Masterchef Australia started, and everyone that winter wanted to stay home and watch Masterchef."
McGlone went from "cooking what we want, making great money" to losing 80 bookings a week. Then 120. Then 200. He struggled to pay suppliers and was forced to close. "It shakes you up," says McGlone. "You go from, 'Everyone loves us, everyone's talking about us,' to, 'Where's everyone gone? What happened?'"
He recovered by heading to Charleston, in South Carolina, where he started working for Shaun Brock at Husk. He went back to basics. "I had a failed restaurant. All I wanted to be was the prep chef. I wanted to cook the grits, I wanted to clean the shrimp."
He was there for three years when Brock asked him to be head chef at a new restaurant in Tennessee. It wasn't a popular decision. "I'm not from the South," says McGlone. "A lot of people had an issue with it (but) Shaun went into bat for me. The guy gets my food."
Brock taught McGlone how to make Nashville fried chicken. And that's when McGlone had a brainwave. "I thought, 'I could really make some money out of this gig. This is what we should be doing'."
So he returned to Australia and started Belle's Hot Chicken. "It's the same recipe," says McGlone. That southern style has inspired other menu items too: collard greens, slow cooked in beer and smoky bacon hocks; and tato tots dunked in cheese sauce, thickened with jalapeños and beer. As his website promises: "Damn good times."
In Australia, McGlone owns seven Belle's Hot Chicken stores: three in Melbourne, four in Sydney. Visit any one of them, and you'll find beer and wine flowing, hot wings served on buttered bread with sides of pickled vegetables and paprika fries, and plenty of those chicken sandwiches being devoured.
He has plans for major expansion. "I had this vision: I want 100 stores," he says. "I still want 100 stores." He's finding it hard: finding the right staff, keeping up quality control. It hasn't all gone to plan: he closed a Belle's in Melbourne's affluent suburb of Windsor because residents treated fried chicken as "their dirty little secret, not their main gig".
In New Zealand, McGlone's introduced Belle's slowly at occasional pop-up restaurants. That's where Weekend meets him, at Ponsonby's Long Room, where, in August, he hosted a three-day fried chicken takeover featuring a shortened Belle's menu.
Is he testing the waters for a New Zealand store? McGlone's a little wary after the Melbourne closure. "I'd love to," he says, then warns: "I don't know how it would translate. Pop-ups work really good: you're there for a few days and everyone gets in. When you're a full-time gig, it's kind of hard."
McGlone's vision is to turn Belle's Hot Chicken into something like Danny Meyers' Shake Shack: ubiquitous, worldwide, a quality experience no matter which store you visit.
If he makes it to 100, you'd have to imagine at least one of them is somewhere in New Zealand.
Here's the definition of a busy rooster: across the second half of 2018, McGlone is racking up more airpoints than many achieve in a lifetime.
After his Auckland pop-up store, McGlone met up his wife, chef Trisha Greentree, in Wellington, who he hadn't seen for about a month. Then he flew to Copenhagen for another pop-up. On the way back, he ticked off stops in Singapore, New York and Tokyo.
The travel doesn't end there. He checks his mental schedule and says that by the end of the year, he'll host pop-ups in Singapore, Hong Kong, London and Dubai.
In the middle of all that, there's time for a holiday. "We've rented a villa in Sicily," McGlone says, where he'll spend two weeks with Greentree, and friends and family.
Surely chicken will be off the menu? McGlone laughs, and says: "I'll do spit chicken over a fire." Chicken, it seems, is on his menu for a long time to come.
Fried chicken five ways
There's more than just KFC on offer when it comes to fried chicken. Here are five other options next time you've got a hankering for deep fried bird.
Mexican at Mexico
Mexico remains the standard-setter in Auckland's fried chicken scene, a dish so popular there'd be a riot if was removed from their ever-changing menu. Mexico's fried chicken ($16) comes in a bowl with two mayos, jalapeño and chipotle, and the trick is to get equal amounts of both in every bite. Across November, they're also offering a burger called a Fried Chicken Torta ($16). A vegetarian option, with cauliflower, is also available.
American at Peach's Hot Chicken
This food truck offering is the closest thing to Belle's, a southern take on fried chicken with a sandwich ($13) that includes a crispy fried chicken thigh, homemade aioli and pickles on a brioche bun. But they're also known for their sides and a secret menu that includes fried chicken on top of mac and cheese. Check their website for locations, get there early because they're known to sell out, and if you want to test your limits, ask for "holy cluck" - the hottest chicken on Peach's menu.
Japanese at Renkon
Renkon might be a cheap and cheerful Auckland franchise, but its take on fried chicken is under-rated. Order the karaage fried chicken as a main ($12.50) and it will land on a bowl filled with rice or noodles, slaw, spring onions and a large dollop of mayonnaise. Make sure you stir the creamy mayor through the dish: if you've requested it spicy, it can get hot.
Korean at Bird on a Wire
At Ponsonby Central's Bird on a Wire, a Korean Fried Bird Burger ($16) comes with a chilli fried egg, kimchi, gochujang mayonnaise and slaw. The chicken is crunchy, crispy and delicious, and if you eat it right, the yolk from the egg spills over like a second dollop of mayo. They also do a buttermilk fried chicken ($15) which comes with two sauces: garlic and sriracha mayo.
Taiwanese at Kai Eatery
You can't miss Kai Eatery's bright orange container store near the Auckland Central Library. Show up for lunch and you'll have to join the queue - it can get busy. It's easy to see why: their Heihei bao ($8 each) are huge, packed with spicy fried chicken, slaw and a delicious sauce. If you're really hungry, you can get their specialty, XL fried chicken ($10), a giant slab of chicken packaged in a pouch. Hot tip: ask for the "extreme" version and they'll sprinkle all four house rubs over it.