Baked's Matt Lewis: It's Hip to Be Chick-Fil-A
From time to time we like to know what's going on inside the heads of the people who actually make the news in the world of food. Here, Matt Lewis of New York's famed Baked bakery (and author of the cookbook of the same name) weighs in on his curiosity — and frustration — with everyone's freaking Chick-Fil-A obsession.
My friend, who is the kind of girl that logs and photographs almost everything she eats, recently shot me an enthusiastically all-caps email: DONT FORGET TO SAVE ROOM FOR CHICK_FIL-A AT THE ATLANTA AIRPORT. This is the kind of email that stirs my inner rage. First, I HATE all caps emails, the print equivalent of nails on a blackboard. Second, and worse, this friend is the sort of critical palate who might knock down her Del Posto Yelp review because the Garganelli Al Ragu Bolognese was overcooked by a barely perceptible half-second. Yet here she was, screaming at me in an email message about the glories of a fast food joint from the South. The girl with an Omnivore's Dilemma pedigree was elated about slumming it. And she's not alone: there are untold thousands of otherwise perfectly sensible self-aware foodies who fall all over themselves for Chick-Fil-A, the culinary equivalent of being a Catholic schoolgirl by day, and a dirty little whore by night.
That old high-low appeal
Chick-Fil-A is certainly not alone in its seemingly inordinate attention from the food media. At the moment, food blogs in New York are tracking Sonic Drive In as if the food were being prepared by David Chang and Jesus; In-n-Out is discussed amongst New Yorker's as their favorite restaurant in Los Angeles; and (God save me) Dunkin Donuts coffee is suddenly chic in the same way that mixing a little bit Target with a little bit Marc Jacobs is fashionable. I am still not sure what to make of all this. After all, there's a certain perversity to your lefty, locavoracious, Alice Waters-worshipping friends cozy up to the fast food counter, dropping six bucks on the value meal and then going home to write a letter to their senator about the use of corn syrup in colas (just for the record, Chick-Fil-A grilled chicken contains at least 35 ingredients, including my favorites: polysorbate 80, yellow 5, blue 1 and artificial flavors).
While I understand the love for In-n-Out (in my humble opinion, it's the best fast food joint by a factor of at least ten), when it comes to Chick-Fil-A I think somethimes that I am perhaps the lone curmudgeon. I don't understand how a population obsessed with organics, local produce, grass-fed beef, and free-range chickens would be so vocally in praise of a chain that is neither progressive in its food policy (it's not exactly a Chipotle when it comes to responsible sourcing and purchasing) or its company directive (it is entrenched in the Southern Baptist religion and is a large donor to the purely evil group Focus on the Family). But a mere mention of the chain produces an obsessive reaction on the food blogs (a post on Eater about the possibility of Chick-Fil-A coming to New York's East Village generated a commenter maelstrom — commenter 17: "PLEASE GOD PLEASE!!!!!!!!"), and in conversation there's similarly swooning praise. But I remember Chick-Fil-A as not always having been so remarkable.
I went to school at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and there was a Chick Fil A in the food court of the local mall. It stood there, for my entire 5 years, without being remarkable. I remember their revered chicken sandwich about as much as I remember a Denny's grilled cheese or a Taco Bell Chalupa — notable, at best, for being cheap and hangover-worthy. Not one of my friends or acquaintances ever recommended a trip to Chick-Fil-A unless we happened to be at the mall Chess King (close proximity to the food court). But given this surge of love for the chain, I decided to give Chick Fil A another chance. They still close all the locations on Sundays, so I swang by a Charleston, SC branch on a late Saturday afternoon and ordered a chicken sandwich.
But the sandwich was mediocre — the chicken itself was decent, but not exceptional, and the bun was just bad. Oh, the waffle fries were nice ("nice" in the southern sense, where it really means "not good"), but McDonald's has nothing to worry about. Nothing seems to have changed since my college days except for the addition of a Peach Milkshake to the menu. I would most likely have been just as happy at any fairly decent fast food chain. But Chick-Fil-A does have one thing going for it: the service is scary-good. It's quite possible that I may have never been treated better in my entire life.If service this amazing requires selling your soul to Focus on the Family, I might be tempted to sign up.