If you watch Top Chef, you know Richard Blais. He’s an ex-winner who appears often as a guest judge. In fact, the man does so much TV it’s easy to forget that he’s a chef, first and foremost. This month Blais is reminding people of his first love — opening The Crack Shack‘s inaugural LA location, at the Westfield Century City Mall on July 21, 2018.
The fast-casual eatery comes complete with the city’s first Moët & Chandon vending machine, to pair with its highly accessible menu of chicken sandwiches, deviled eggs, poutine, biscuits and other “lil cluckers.”
As Blais prepped for the launch, we dropped by to sample the menu — most notably the Los Angeles-exclusive ‘Double Clucker’ — made of two ground chicken patties, cheddar, bacon, avocado, burger sauce, pickles, and fried onions in a soft potato roll. It’s one part chicken sandwich, one part burger and it’s all good.
Other menu highlights include the Mexican Poutine with schmaltz fries (fried in chicken fat), pico de gallo, topped with Jalapeño cheese-wiz and marinated chicken. The fries are soaked in cold water for three days, rendering them crispier. The addition of cilantro is a nice touch and connects The Crack Shack to flavors that West Coasters have become accustomed to. The mini-biscuits are served with a miso-butter, which gives them a nice umami quality. The milkshakes, brought to you by Salt & Straw, are thick and rich — the honey lavender milk-shake, in particular, is very addicting with its bits of biscuit crumbs garnishing the shake. For fans of the underused bits of a chicken, The Crack Shack fries up chicken oysters, very juicy dark meat nuggets that explode with flavor at first crunch.
After gorging ourselves, we sat down with Blais. The chef, with his David Lynch-ian hair and his popularization of liquid nitrogen as a kitchen tool, gives off a mad-scientist vibe, but he was endlessly welcoming as we talked chicken, chemistry, and the future of food.
You’ve said it’s a dream of yours to bring The Crack Shack to LA so what is it about Los Angeles that pairs so well with your menu.
Oh my gosh, well I think really we can filter it all down to one word, and its “fun.” Dynamic and high energy, and cool, and fun. I mean I hate to say it — it sounds really cliché to say that — but if you look around, and especially when the restaurant is filled with people… It’s just got a great, sort of, energy to it and it’s a lot of fun.
I think certainly LA is one of, if not, the funnest city in the US, so it’s a pretty big moment for us. I mean, It’s not lost on us…the fact that LA is such a massive city, and as we’re going through our growth moment, you know. I think although this song says it of New York, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” — for us, that’s sort of about LA.
So this is a pivotal moment for us… And I say that as a native New Yorker.
Here you guys serve Jidori Chicken. For people who do not know what Jidori Chicken is, what is it?
Basically, at the end of the day, it’s a chicken that is free-range and is the chickens feed on GMO-free feed, and it’s a more natural product so… it’s different than what most people get when they’re going to their local grocer. I hate to wax about, you know, its better for you and all of that, but it is better for you… It’s better for you, and also for us, it really drives home the fact that, you know, as you meet some of my partners, Jon Sloan who’s our executive chef and Dan Pena who just walked by and Mike Rosen, you know, we all come from a fine dining background.
I think the term “chef-driven” can get overused but… chef-driven just means we are ingredient-driven first, and especially as we grow that’s really important because a lot of restaurants, once they hit a certain growth point will look to cut corners on cost or to sort of just, worry more about business than just the craft of cooking… So, for me, Jidori is just one of the ways that we provide great ingredients.
And why is the raising of a chicken important to its overall flavor? What about that practice delivers the flavor, would you say?
Sure, It’s more just — again, this could be a whole conversation in an interview in and of itself — it’s the stress of the animal as it’s growing, it’s the additives that get pumped into it, it’s the space that an animal has. That, at the end of the day, whether it’s a chicken or a lobster, really does go into how flavor takes shape. We make note of the fact that a lot of more industrial producers pump yellow dye into their chicken, so that it looks less pink.
I read in another interview that you would like an audio system to accompany food, like as part of the delivery.
Wow, you’re going into the Richard Blais archives!
What sounds do you think go best with The Crack Shack, ya know aside from ’80s pop?
Okay, Well, this … first of all, well played. I appreciate that. This is gonna be weird because now we’re just vibing and we’re getting along. The sound of crispy, crunchy fried chicken, in and of itself, is awesome audio, right? Have you … this is almost another interview but I know you do lifestyle stuff, so are you familiar with Mukbang? If you go on, you probably have seen it before … so if you go on Instagram, it’s all of these videos of someone just eating a bowl of noodles or eating crunchy fried chicken, it’s very big in Korea and in Asia. Where someone basically directs a camera, eating a meal, while also recording audio very close to the item they’re eating. It creates ASMR [“autonomous sensory meridian response” — akin to the euphoric shivers] and it’s … super, super weird and fetish-y quite honestly.
But, there is something about that. Audio does come into play outside of just the energy of the sound system, like when you bite something that super, super crisp or crunchy, there’s a feeling that’s associated with that… The best thing about Crack Shack, specifically with its fried chicken, is that it kind of comes with its own audio. The crunch of fried chicken, to me, is one of the — my stomach literally just growled when I said that — food that is its own audio.
We can do a separate interview on ASMR if you want, because I’ve also been with my … you know, I have a Podcast and I’ve been trying to launch almost a vlog of that, because I also want to just do it. Its super weird to me like “I’m just gonna sit here and record myself slurping noodles or eating potato chips” or whatever, yeah, but it’s supposed to be, to some people, the sound of eating or chewing or slurping or crunching is like the sound of ocean waves… it’s very, very relaxing.
How important is the architecture of the food space?
We have found that its really, really important. Its not just straight food, its not just awesome service or great cocktails or a fun element, like the champagne vending machine.
That the décor and the ambiance, like it all really comes together and we’ve been lucky enough, so far. That’s me knocking on wood. We’ve been lucky enough, so far, that its been all of those things coming together and the vibe is really important for us. We’ve found, now this being our fourth location, families really like hanging out here. Whether it’s a business meeting or a date night or just a bunch of friends celebrating something or a family, that the vibe really, really puts out a really great positive energy.
So, it’s important. And expensive, I guess is another way of saying it. I do like how the LA location has … we play around with this graphic design with the chicken heads on different cultural stars there. They’re on the Beatles in one of our locations. In the last location, it was me but I’ve obviously lost the throne here. David Beckham and Magic Johnson, and Gretzky, and Bo Jackson … I said it in an Instagram post that we’re serving chicken but the décor is serving GOAT.
As a sportsman, I love that.
What would you say the most complex aspect about making fried chicken is? The part that people don’t understand?
Wow, I would say two things: fried chicken and french fries, which we also do…Those foods really, to most people, they sound so simple, right? Like, a burger, fried chicken, pizza, french fries, there’s so much science… The science really goes into the preparation of simple foods like fried chicken where we have a brining process where our french fries take three days, where they have to be cooked at different temperatures and different oil mediums.
So, a lot of that … science stuff comes into play with the fried chicken, so the most important thing is the brining process and then, obviously the frying process so that we get this super crispy, crunchy exterior with this juicy, fleshy interior, chicken meat, you don’t have to get too detailed or weird about it… But that is easier said than done, basically. And it comes down to literally percentage points of salinity and it comes down to a… five-degree difference in temperature in frying oil and those are things that Jon Sloan and his team, over the last four years have, sort of, ironed out through many, many trials.
Our French fries take three days to make, and especially with our growth and our success to this point, it would be very easy for us to say, “You know what, we just can’t make homemade french fries anymore, we’re just too busy.” It would be so much easier for us to find a good product that we could just order and have frozen already and throw in a fryer.
To stay committed to some of those craft geared chef things, it’s difficult. French fries, they are tough to make. Maybe, even tougher than the fried chicken because of the variance of temperature and how long they have to soak in water and when they come from Idaho, how cold they are and the fact that sugars and starches change at different degrees … that’s for our science episode we’ll do later.
I think those are the coolest aspects of cooking, though.
Cause cooking is science, it is just chemistry.
Yeah. You seem like you’re a smart guy, so I was almost going to say … I was almost gonna say nerd, so we haven’t got to hang out long enough, but I think so. I mean, a lot of people don’t care about it… They just care that its delicious and that’s understandable, but to get it to be delicious, there’s a lot of choreography and there are data and metrics that go into making the delicious french fries.
What do you think can come to the kitchen space that would revolutionize the kitchen?
So, as a big tech guy and start-up enthusiast, I think we are right here — not that we have any of this technology right now, but voice activated everything I believe is — first of all, it’s already in some homes… But I think that where the commercial restaurant or kitchen very shortly will be able to see some really amazing things happen, from the business perspective as well as the cooking execution.
If I could walk into my kitchen right now, like I can in my home, and set an oven, and a fryer and a refrigerator temperature by just saying, “Hey oven, turn on to 500 degrees and set the fryer to this and turn the lights on to this.”
I think voice activation is probably the next step and we’re already seeing it in cars and home kitchens and certain appliances, so I think restaurant kitchens will see that pretty soon. I’m sure I could rattle off a couple others, but I do feel like the voice activation stuff is … that’s the next one. We could get into augmented reality, and virtual reality, and stuff like that, and I have done plenty of talks and lectures on it, but we’re probably a little further down the road on the voice activation stuff.
So, there are a lot of great, fast, casual fried chicken joints popping up lately. What sets you guys apart from everybody else?
Wow, and I have not been to all of them, and I do know that’s one of the things that we’re always cautious about… “Oh, well the fried chicken phase has already maybe hit Los Angeles what sets us apart?” And, for me, it’s that it’s not just two items on the menu, so this isn’t just about a chicken sandwich or a bone-in fried piece of chicken. From the outset, we said that we were a chicken and egg restaurant, Crack Shack, is you know, an egg cracking, just in case anyone wanted to know, that it’s not actual crack. It’s an egg.
And our original location in San Diego was truly built from a shack that was on one of our properties next to another restaurant, so we’re chicken and eggs. I like to say it’s a celebration of chicken, but you have to check with my publicist and partners to see if that’s something we’re willing to say out loud, but it is not just fried chicken, there are grilled chicken items, there’s braised chicken, there’s a matzo ball posole, there’s chicken broth, so it is a celebration more of all things chicken and eggs than just fried chicken.
I think that’s really important, especially, in this market we have plenty of vegetarian options and its not just like, “Oh, you’re gonna get a pile of fried chicken and beer.” You can do that, and maybe you should do that on Friday, but on Monday, we have vegetarian options or a grilled chicken sandwich and things that can keep you a little bit more varied with your dining options.
What are some of the core principles that The Crack Shack shares with something like Juniper and Ivy?
Well, thank you so much for asking that question! Juniper and Ivy… all the founders of Crack Shack were the founders of Juniper and Ivy. So, my partner Mike, who basically found me, and then Dan and Jon, who are our other partners, we all opened Juniper and Ivy, which is one of the better restaurants in San Diego and is a fine dining, upscale casual restaurant, it’s the same team.
Our managers right here, this gentleman, Geno, I’m looking at was a server at Juniper and Ivy. Allie was a host at Juniper and Ivy, and I’m gonna get really proud now, but the most amazing thing about this moment and our growth, in general, is that all of these people that were with us as cooks are now chefs, as servers are now managers, as hosts are regional trainers.
That’s the most stimulating thing about growth. It’s not just, “Oh, we’re in another city, this is great.” Its like, “Wow, we’re actually changing our own people’s lives by giving them better opportunities.” So, this whole team came from Juniper and Ivy, so we all share the same ethos with that restaurant, which was: buy great ingredients, treat them creatively, and make sure that the guests have a fun time enjoying the food without being too pretentious about it.
I don’t think a champagne vending machine is pretentious, by the way. I think that takes the pretense away from champagne.