Most people love chocolate. (Some enjoy it a lot.) And the crispy deliciousness of fried chicken is pretty much unimpeachable. But chowing down on a bucket of cocoa-slatherd birds? Hmm.
Umami Burger mastermind Adam Fleischman is prepared for that reaction when people find out about his latest culinary adventure, a not-entirely-appealing-sounding fast-casual outlet called ChocoChicken that's set to open its first outpost in L.A. in April (an exact date has yet to be set). "You hear chocolate chicken and everyone has the same questions," he says. "Like, 'What the hell is this going to taste like?'"
The odd concoction isn't based on obvious reference points like mole sauce or soul-food combo chicken and waffles, Fleischman insists. Instead, it's something totally new. "In 70 years, nobody has completely reinvented fried chicken," he says. "There are more-upscale versions of it, but it's still very recognizable. So we said, 'Hey, why don't we take fried chicken and turn it on its ear?' When you taste it, you're like, 'Oh, that's what chocolate chicken is.'"
Okay, but what is it? First, a little background. Fleischman is best known for his hamburger restaurants, which have transformed the beef patty into a precision-engineered delivery system for umami (the Japanese term for a certain sort of savoriness—think soy sauce or mushrooms). Fleischman's signature burger piles on umami-rich elements like parmesan crisps and roasted tomatoes, resulting in a serious flavor upgrade. Since the first Umami Burger opened in Los Angeles in 2009, the chain has expanded to 25 outlets in California, Florida, Las Vegas, and New York City. Fleischman hopes to bring that number up to around 100 over the next five years, with an international expansion to follow. He's also involved with a slew of other food projects, including Neapolitan-pizza restaurants 800 Degrees and artisan ice cream company L.A. Creamery.
ChocoChicken grew out of a cold pitch from two people Fleischman had never met. "They emailed me and I said, 'These guys are either completely crazy or onto something,'" Fleischman says. "So I said, 'Come on over, make me some chicken.' I wanted to see how crazy and stupid they were." The duo—named Keith Previte and Sean Robbins—took him up on the challenge. "I tasted it," he recalls, "and I said, 'Hey, you guys aren't stupid at all.'"
Fleischman tweaked the formula a bit ("I added a few key umami ingredients that really brought it to another level," he says), and the menu will also include appropriately off-kilter sides like white-chocolate mashed potatoes and bacon biscuits served with sauces that include, a bit worryingly, something dubbed ChocoKetchup.
Although Fleischman instantly fell for the ChocoChicken concept, that doesn't mean everyone will flock toward chocolaty fried birds. But his successful reinvention of beef on a bun does suggest he has a feel for the contemporary palate, at least in food-forward cities like L.A., San Francisco, and New York. "We want to change the definition of what fried chicken is rather than trade on some generic way that people have always done it," he says. "We want chocolate chicken to be like Umami Burger: its own thing. It doesn't harken back to what a burger should be or what chicken should be. It's its own category."
All of which sounds intriguing, but it doesn't quite capture what the stuff actually tastes like. Though the unique recipe is hard to explain, Fleischman gives it an excellent shot:
It uses chocolate kind of like an umami ingredient to enhance and make the chicken more savory. Rather than make a dessert-mash-up sweet concoction, it's really a savory concoction. It's almost indescribable. It's really the perfect food. You bite into it and it's crazy juicy, not dried out. We have a brining process that we do for a day. The outside is really dark because of the chocolate. It plays with your mind, because you think it's going taste one way, but then you bite into it and you're like, 'Wow, this is so different from what I thought it would be—but really delicious.' It just tastes like happiness.