The Good Food Chef of the Year award, which will be presented at this weekend's Good Food Festival Chicago, goes to Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp of Chicago’s beloved Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
“It’s an honor to be recognized by people for doing a good job at your job. But it’s really cool to be recognized for something besides just being good chefs,” Christine commented. “Our food stands for good business practices, farming, and sustainable ingredients. Recognition for that is humbling and meaningful.”
Christine and Josh have always dedicated themselves to supporting local producers and farmers. As Josh says, “We do it because it just tastes good!”
“We both feel very connected to produce and ingredients from local producers,” Josh weighed in. “We are genuinely, unbelievably grateful for the beautiful food that people are producing.”
Their path towards making good food with good ingredients began when they started Sunday Dinner Club over a decade ago. One destined night, a piece of fried chicken fell into a cup of honey butter that was made for the sides. Christine ran out to the dining room and exclaimed that everyone needed to dunk the chicken in the butter and, before long, Honey Butter Fried Chicken was born.
Honey Butter Fried Chicken is more than a restaurant that produces good food. It's a community pillar that is built upon a foundation of diverse principles with an eye to developing talent and fair practices in the restaurant business. Over the years, Christine and Josh have assembled a team of 40 employees that all feel as invested in the business as they do by running their restaurant on an open-book management policy.
“We open our books to our employees because we want to have everybody involved in the financial ongoing of the business. That includes successes and failures,” Christine explained. “We do a lot of forecasting in this business, so we go in with a financial plan and look at it weekly. As owners, we don’t control or see everything that goes on so it’s important to get the staff involved.”
Their open book policy shares everything except individual salaries. Employees are taught about food costs, financial literacy, business loans, and customer service. Each employee is assigned a line item on the books that they report on during the meeting. The line items are assigned on a voluntary basis. The Honey Butter Fried Chicken team meets once a week for an hour on Fridays for a big family breakfast and business discussion. Attendance is optional and everybody is paid to come to the meeting to promote real value engagement. Half the meeting is spent discussing the business while the other half is focused on customer feedback and how to move forward in the coming week. At the end of the meeting, Christine and Josh initiate an Appreciations Discussion. “We don’t want them to feel disconnected from the business,” Christine mentioned with pride. “They feel invested and everyone is involved in thinking about the bigger picture.”
Since they opened Honey Butter Fried Chicken in 2013, Christine and Josh say that they’re finally hitting their stride in terms of keeping up with the busy-ness of the business. Both think that their biggest accomplishment is the evolution of their suite of benefits, which includes sick days, paid parental leave, and above-living wages.
With regards to their food, cooking hundreds of Sunday Dinner Club dinners over 12 years has helped provide endless inspiration. As they look forward in 2017, Christine and Josh want to continue improving their work culture, be even more responsible with the ingredients and products they choose, and work towards reducing food waste.
“Your life becomes making sure that everyone is taken care of,” Christine added. It’s a challenge but in a good way.”
“Our primary goal is for food to taste good,” Josh described. “We want to take an ethical stance on buying local, being part of our local economy, and supporting the responsible raising of animals. But we’re also making money off of this so we want our customers to feel like they’re eating safe and nutritious food.”
The success of Honey Butter Fried Chicken won’t be tapering anytime soon. The Good Food movement is transitioning from a fad led by the health-conscious to something much more in the norm. As more people become conscientious about what goes into their bodies, there is a higher demand for comfort food that is made well. “The market demands it. People want to eat comforting things like mac and cheese but that are made thoughtfully and at a price that is still reasonable,” Josh explained. “People love it and it’s only going to get stronger and better as producers figure out how to produce ingredients in a more sustainable manner.”Responsible ingredient sourcing and community efforts are not the only aspects that Christine and Josh are advocates for. Both are also invested in changing the conversation around women in kitchens. “This is always a challenging topic for me,” Christine mused. “I don’t know the difference between being a chef and being a woman. I want to get to a time when we’re all treated like equals and we’re all just Chefs instead of qualifying as female chefs. To do that, we need support from our male counterparts to let us all be artists and creators.” Christine has a tremendous support system in Josh, who is actively involved in the James Beard Foundation Women’s Leadership Advisory Committee for the Women In Culinary Leadership program and the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program. “The industry needs to professionalize itself,” Josh accounted.
“We need to give people time to have lives and families. Being able to include women and men that want to build families is important. So our primary call to arms is awareness about these programs.”
Christine and Josh will be awarded the Good Food Chef of the Year Award on Saturday, March 18. See details for FREE attendance to the festival here. You can learn more about this year's Good Food Festival here.
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