‘Who doesn’t love a nugget?’ How the fast food favorite became chic | Food
Ayou the Suffolk restaurant in Aldeburgh, the nuggets are made from cod cheeks and served with a seaweed salt and curry tartar sauce. To the Spread Eagle in Wandsworth, London, Pitchfork cheddar nuggets come to rest on a bed of hot onion chutney, with a side of saffron mayonnaise. And, to the White Hart in Welwynconfit chicken nuggets are drizzled with truffle mayonnaise – “the muddiest chicken nuggets I’ve ever seen”, as one commenter on the restaurant’s Instagram Put the. Over a decade since Jamie Oliver did his best to dissuade the country’s children from eating ultra-processed beige bitesnuggets — chicken or otherwise — are back on the menu, going from fast-food favorite to restaurant-worthy fare.
“It’s our best-selling starter,” says James Jay, Head Chef at Suffolk. “I think about one in six orders it.” Its nuggets sit alongside white tablecloth classics such as lobster bisque, steak tartare and scallops – so what’s the appeal of this seemingly simple dish? “It’s comfort food that evokes memory and there’s a playful element to it,” he says. “Ours is actually a pun: ‘cod’s cheek in the nugget’.”
The chicken nugget is undoubtedly the most familiar form of the nugget, and McDonald’s is often credited with its invention. But, while McDonald’s executive chef René Arend was responsible for creating the famous Chicken McNugget in 1979, the nugget’s roots go back to American agronomist Robert C Baker, who, while working at Cornell University in 1957, researched ways to persuade people to eat more chicken. He published his recipe for chicken nuggets in 1963, although his ideas for chicken hot dogs, chicken pastrami, and chicken ham proved less popular.
How did the humble nugget become whimsical? One theory is that the dish taps into the current trend of nostalgia, fueled by the uncertainty of recent years. If you once sought reassurance with a loaf of homemade banana bread, this may be the restaurant equivalent: no culinary surprises. It’s a marked departure from the ambitious and stylish insta-bait that took over many restaurants before the pandemic, but millennials (who have proven to be just as passionate about so much nostalgia as they were on avocados) may have also spent much of the 90s gorging on Happy Meals, and thus hold the particular nugget.
“Our menu is based on nostalgic dishes – we take childhood favorites and make them seasonal, British,” says David Waller, head chef at The Spread Eagle. His cheese nuggets have only been on the market for a few months, but he’s found they elicit that sense of familiarity, “in a different way” from traditional chicken iterations. “People love to indulge themselves with cheese, so it’s one of the most popular items on the menu.”
Earlier this month, nuggets were top sellers at Seed Library in east London, where cocktail innovator Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) collaborated with The Norman cafe; here they came “hand breaded” and with chilli sauce. The nuggets are also a hit at the London restaurant group Bao – its Soho branch sells more than 300 trotter nuggets a week, while beef cheek and tendon nuggets are available at its Fitzrovia and King’s Cross restaurants.
Nugget enthusiast Reis Esiroglu, founder and director of Nuggets – “the UK’s first fast food concept dedicated to the nostalgic favourite” – is not surprised by the current vogue. He has sold over 450,000 nuggets since launching his Essex-based business in May 2020. “Who doesn’t love a nugget? he says. “When we first opened, we were sold out for eight straight weeks.”
While its street-food-style menu — featuring a vegan “cauli-power nug” and vegetarian halloumi nuggets, as well as several variations of chicken — is a far cry from fine dining, Nugs’ nuggets are “definitely a step up.” on it,” according to Esiroglu. The key, he says, is premium ingredients. “We took something simple and elevated it to the best it could be, in our eyes. We use high quality chicken that goes through a 24 hour brining process, then rests in buttermilk, then puts it in our gluten-free flour dredge with lots of seasoning.
Even so, he’s skeptical that nuggets can ever be truly high-end. “You can try to make fancy fried chicken, but it’s not fancy. You want to get your hands dirty.
Similarly, Matt Brown, Executive Chef at Lower back (people behind the national steakhouse chain Hawksmoor) believes that nuggets benefit from their implied coarseness, even in a more sophisticated setting.
“Your nugget needs a certain amount of trash on it,” he says. “Crispy on the outside, oozing on the inside, no weird or controversial ingredients, and you’re about to be a crowd pleaser.” It serves corned beef nuggets with Ogleshield cheese and kraut, but “is working on a fun maple bacon nugget, inspired by a Findus Crispy Pancake.”
Still, not everyone is thrilled with the nugget’s redemption. To the Palmerston In Edinburgh, the crispy pig’s head starter (served with pickles and gribiche) might look like a nugget, but “crumbling and frying pig’s heads transcends the word ‘nugget,'” says the co-founder and chef Lloyd Morse. “We certainly don’t call them that.” There’s still hope for the stud, then? Or maybe even “popcorn chicken”? “I’m going to be labeled anti-nuggets,” sighs Morse, “but if that’s what people want, there’s always McDonald’s.”