DANTE FRIED CHICKEN • Slow Cooking A Superstar
IT WAS A HOT MEMORIAL DAY. After sweating my way to Brooklyn for an outdoor food event, I dripped all the way back to Manhattan where I hauled ass up six flights of stairs in a Broome Street building to meet the wizard behind Dante Fried Chicken, Dante Gonzales. I arrived on the top floor with perspiration weaving river-like down my neck, turning the collar of my dress into an unsexy wet bib.
Dante was prepping dinner for a rooftop picnic and borrowed his friend’s Soho loft for the occasion. Before then he’d been kitchen-hopping Downtown during the two-week period of his semi-covert fried chicken delivery operation called Ride or Fry. News of Ride or Fry spread mostly by word of mouth, but still the number of orders overwhelmed his expectations. Why wouldn’t they? We’re talking about homemade fried chicken delivered at your whim.
The LA-born chef grew up in Englewood and Compton before traversing through several cities and returning to Manhattan, the place he considers home and where his mom grew up. He’s a chef, but his creations resist straight up classification in culinary terms. His specialties, for example, would be typified as “soul food” if ZAGAT had a say, but he describes his peppery, rosemary-crusted fried chicken, addictive tofu nuggets, and homemade pies – like sticky Yam Party Pie – as TransAtlantic African Food. “You can tell he’s from LA”, my friend Meryl pointed out the next day as she and I hovered over seven to-go boxes from Ride or Fry. The cucumber, corn, and string bean ginger “side” salad was strewn with chunks of avocado. Also, Dante seemed equally, if not more, versed in vegetarian as he was in meat. Each covered tray was slapped with a Dante Fried Chicken sticker and differentiated in black Sharpie; they were $10 each.
Ride or Fry encompassed everything that “underground” often suggests: clandestine, exclusive if only inadvertently, and probably under the legal radar. But the two-week stint hopefully paved the way for an entirely licensed four-month food truck in LA starting in July.
Back in New York, I studied Dante as best I could between photographing him and his black sesame cherry pie. There will be a food truck, yes, which will coincide with a radio show, which I figured must resonate more with the driving city of Los Angeles, than it does in NYC. But the goal is to transform eating and cooking habits via mainstream media, like a television show, said Dante who’s led parties for the likes of M.I.A. and Santigold with his famous fried chicken. He admits he’s known among those in the clubbing and music community, but less so by foodies.
I’d recently seen the first episode of The Next Food Network Star and I wouldn’t wish any of the contestants’ forced charisma on this down-to-earth guy who, at that moment, was chatting with me about the grandma who’d inspired him to cook as a little dreadlock-ed kid. “I want kids to be so excited about food that it makes their parents want to eat better”, he effused. His earnestness reminded me of Jamie Oliver, but I like Dante much better.
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There’s something about watching a chef prepare a meal that makes me think of alchemy. His friend, Lily, whose kitchen we were in, didn’t have a rolling pin. Dante improvised, searching the cabinets until a bottle of Yellow Tail caught his attention. He wiped the wine bottle with a paper towel and went to town on a ball of black sesame pie dough, which appeared from nowhere beside the cherry bowl.
I didn’t stay for pie or fried chicken that night, which I regret a little. The sweat factory that was my forehead became relentless and the cry of work was too. Luckily, I scored that seven-box Ride or Fry delivery the following night, so all was not lost. Besides, I feel like I’ll see Dante again. And if not in real life then maybe on TV. amy • june 9, 2010