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September 25, 2016

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Ben Vaughn: KFC’s new Nashville hot chicken is not all it’s clucked up to be

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KFC Nashville hot chicken.

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KFC Nashville hot chicken.

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KFC Nashville hot tenders.

If you’re like me and hear KFC, you get a mental image of the good ol’ days when Mom would walk through the door holding a bucket of KFC for dinner, and it was the best thing ever. You would enjoy it without hesitancy. It’s a crispy chicken treat.

You knew it wasn’t the healthiest of all things but comfort food nonetheless. The days when you’d find the red-and-white bucket of chicken in your refrigerator waiting to be eaten for breakfast the next day because it is even better the second time around.

But have you heard? Good ol’ Col. Sanders has changed the chicken game and is hoping on the hot chicken bandwagon. The hot bird has gone national.

Restaurants and chefs have attempted to re-create Nashville’ signature, iconic hot chicken. Some are good, but most are failed attempts at the original and lack character. Yes, fried hot chicken has character. There are likely a few Las Vegas eateries attempting to stab at the popular Southern favorite but ultimately fall short.

Maybe it’s a confusion of spices, and technique, or maybe some think it’s a wet bird similar to Buffalo-style chicken. Who knows? It could be in the water. Like the re-creation of San Francisco sourdough bread, it’s never quite as good anywhere else other than the Bay Area.

The colonel has hopped the culinary border resulting in a new menu item for KFC Nation. It’s called Nashville hot chicken, but don’t let the name fool you. It’s not all it’s clucked up to be. I think on that scale, it’s a little shameful, and a tad sad. It is surely not Nashville hot chicken, and I’d like to clarify why.

I have eaten my fair share of Nashville hot chicken, some with pickles and a few slices of Wonder Bread, and others with waffles I say this proudly with no regrets, except for my fried chicken waistline.

Hot chicken is a thing, folks, and it is a Nashville thing. Nashville has been doing it right since the 1930s. It is becoming more widely recognized nationally and more available across the country, so KFC decided to hop on the bandwagon.

What does it really mean to be authentic Nashville hot chicken? It is a recipe born and raised in Nashville. Maybe that explains why I feel the need to hold on to what makes this place home. I’m thrilled to see the attention hot chicken receives on a national level, and I love it when chefs nail recipes in other great food cities.

I think it only contributes to the overall awareness of how incredible this spicy bird really is. If there’s one thing I love most about food, it’s the stories and cultures behind the food. Like most iconic food items, there’s a story.

Way back when, a man named Thornton Prince III was a womanizer. He was out particularly late one night, and his girlfriend at the time decided to get revenge when he requested a fried chicken breakfast the next morning. She made it with extra spice in hopes of hurting his palate, and I suppose his insides. I admire the creativity.

Instead, Prince loved the chicken. He created his own recipe and opened Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack — still open in east Nashville today. Spicy fried chicken has been served in Nashville for generations. However, the kind of hot chicken that leaves your body as fast as it entered it started after one woman’s revenge backfired.

I could say that I am confused as to how KFC can slap its label on hot chicken and get away with it, but I’m not. It is the marketing of the times. What I am confused about is why a company that says it is so original is in need of something whose origin and originality isn’t its own.

I get the idea of marketing the fantastic spicy bird to a national level with a semi-trusted brand in fried chicken business. The timing couldn’t be more appropriate. But without hesitation, KFC with its 11 herbs and spices is now selling hot chicken to the country, even with a mock setup of pickles and slices of white bread.

Hot chicken is more than a recipe that can be mass produced by any Joe Schmo, and that’s why KFC is in the doghouse with those brave enough to admit that although KFC is spreading the hot chicken love, true hot chicken comes with expectations. KFC also is forgetting that the best part about sharing food is always the stories behind them.

Taste and lore are equally appealing. It just goes to show that this is only another business decision to get KFC on the road to redemption and appeal to a new customer. It was never about the chicken. Well, that’s not true. It also is to get back some credibility after super-sizing giant chickens.

There, I said it. KFC can still technically use the word chicken, but we all know something’s up with the size of the birds, and we’ve seen the photos. #amiright The website has a whole page dedicated to how the chicken is cooked. “What large breasts you have.” “Thank you, I got them from KFC. “

If you’re going to win the hearts of consumers, you need substance. There is no question that a youthful consumer is the face of change in today’s world being the largest target demographic for any business to reach. And it makes sense that this is the demographic that KFC wants to target.

Although the target demo is as consistent with its money as Prince was with his mistresses, more often than not, this youthful consumer will spend more money than necessary on items for a richer experience. Take a look at social media. What can I say?

Most of the demographic I speak of are experience chasers tied down to nothing but authenticity. I think it stems from the fact that they are bright and have learned that cheap items come at a cost. And that cost shows in our health and environment.

Although their bank accounts are dwindling with each student loan payment, they still crave the best bang for their buck. So, truthfully, is the KFC hot chicken movement really going to move at all?

It is in a way flattering, but mostly insulting. A fast-food empire is going to give this soul food some much-deserved attention nationwide. #praisehand raised high! On the contrary, it is nothing more than a ripped-off version of authentic hot chicken.

And claiming your chicken as Nashville hot chicken does not make it such. You don’t see Bojangles, Popeyes or Chick Fil-A trying to coin a version of someone else’s food. Authentic hot chicken doesn’t belong in a box with microwavable instructions.

Sorry, KFC. I wanted to give you a chance after all the wonderful memories we’ve shared. And the fact that your biscuits are delicious and my mouth is watering thinking of them right now. But it seems that this is only another idea cooked up by corporate.

Good luck, and for the next marketing move, I believe that you should add Chicago-style pizza and Philly cheesesteaks to your menu. That will help round off the entire concept.

@BenVaughn

Ben Vaughn is a chef, author and TV personality known as a host for the Food Network. Ben’s latest book, “Southern Routes,” chronicles his journey to find the best-kept food secrets in the South from the Carolinas to Texas. “Southern Routes” is published by HarperCollins.

Ben resides in Tennessee and serves as CEO and culinary director for his restaurant group Fork Knife Spoon. Ben’s new brand of Southern Kitchen food trucks hit the streets in Las Vegas. Follow all the action from the mobile kitchen @SoKitchenLV. @BenVaughn also is host of “The Breakfast Show,” a TV series that premiered in the fall.

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