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After spending 20 years in Nashville, and summers slinging Bahn-Mi sandwiches at Bonnaroo, Chef Chen Chen came north to Toronto where he enrolled in courses in culinary skills and small business entrepreneurship at George Brown College. Then, with a vision and passion for Southern comfort food, he began working at Kanpai alongside Chef Andre Burgos with whom he opened a Nashville chicken pop-up. Eventually teaming with Kanpai owner Trevor Lui as well, Chen Chen’s Hot Chicken debuted at Toronto’s Stackt Market, storage-container food pavilion, and the rest is history.

We caught up with Chef Chen Chen to find out more about his love of Nashville hot chicken.

Describe why it was so important to you to bring the taste of Nashville hot chicken to the city of Toronto over any other flavour profile. Are there any locally inspired twists you add to these dishes?

I think Nashville hot chicken is an important food to bring to Toronto, not just the hot chicken specifically but Southern soul food overall. Because Canada is so close to the United States, I was pretty surprised that there was not more soul food or Southern comfort food like mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and collard greens.

As far as locally inspired twists, we have a Schezwan-infused Nashville hot chicken sandwich that represents who I am and Toronto in a way that allows people to see the fusion of culture in the city. The Nashville Schezwan sandwich is a fusion of Asian and Nashville flavours.

How would you describe the taste of Nashville hot chicken to someone who’s never experienced it before?

Nashville hot chicken is a very unique flavour that combines pleasure and pain at the same time. It's Southern fried chicken dipped in a Nashville hot sauce with added spice for people who like more pain. It contains a slow-burning heat with a very savoury flavour and a little bit of a brown sugar tingle on the back end of the flavour profile.

What do you find is the difference between the ingredients and techniques used here at Chen Chen’s Hot Chicken over those you’d use directly in Nashville?

We try to replicate the same ingredients and techniques as much as we can. Here, because there are a lot of people who eat halal, we don't necessarily use pork the same way as they do in the South. Down South, any vegetables are braised in pork fat whereas we use bacon as a bit of a garnish while wanting to cater to everybody.

How did you find inspiration in your dish today using Cattlemen’s® Memphis Sweet® BBQ Sauce and Frank’s RedHot® Sauce? Anything that would be helpful for other chefs or operators to know about it?

BBQ sauce is a staple of Tennessee, especially the Cattlemen's® Memphis Sweet® BBQ Sauce. In Memphis, BBQ sauce is traditionally sweet and smokey so I found the Cattlemen's sauce resembles a lot of Memphis BBQ. As far as the Frank's, everyone loves a good Buffalo chicken sandwich or buffalo wings.

We used our Southern buttermilk fried chicken and tossed it in some Frank's-made sauce with added Nashville spice. This incorporates a little more of a different kind of heat inside the sauce. Ranch is a staple in the South as well, everyone loves ranch, so we wanted to balance the buffalo sauce and the tanginess with the coolness and sweetness of the ranch sauce. We then diced up red onion and sweet pickles to cut the acidity of the buffalo sauce.

What new offerings or ideas have you been working on for the future at Chen Chen’s Hot Chicken?

We want to bring more Southern comfort dishes to the city, not just Nashville hot chicken. One of my personal favourites is buttermilk biscuits, so we're thinking of doing a fried chicken sandwich inside of a buttermilk biscuit.

Also, I'm a big fan of collard greens. They're braised in bacon fat, garlic, onions and warm you up, especially during the cold winters of Toronto.

Any advice, do’s or don’ts, for your fellow restaurateurs?

If you talk to restaurateurs in the city, they probably tell you to "don't" right now, but if you believe in your concept and your work ethic, you're going to succeed. At the end of the day, you can't look at it on a day-to-day result basis, you need to look at it as a long-term plan. Even if it doesn't work or you keep getting beat up, as long as you are persistent and have a good product, I think you'll do alright.

Featured Recipe
Nashville Buffalo Hot Chicken Sandwich


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