Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter (Photo: Ten Photos)
There are few places in Chicago with as feverish a following as Honey Butter Fried Chicken. Diners wait in droves for buttermilk-battered birds and seasonal sides (roasted sweet potato salad, creamed corn, roasted garlic grits with chicken crunchies). Come summer, the outdoor patio brims with happy patrons young and old, some sipping “Front Porch Cocktails” like Damn Good Sweet Tea — a refreshing concoction of local white whiskey, Rare Tea Cellar tea, and honey gastrique.
But restaurants can only get so far on food alone; the secret behind HBFC’s success lies in the principles of its founders and chefs, Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp. Their commitment to community, sustainability and service is what makes HBFC tick. The two met in culinary school. After garnering substantial experience at some of Chicago’s finest restaurants, they joined forces to start Sunday Dinner Club, an underground dinner series that drew a cult following for its themed dinners and imaginative use of local produce. Today, SDC operates year-round (read: not just on Sundays).
HBFC opened in 2013 to open arms. It’s no secret Chicagoans love good food. But what they love more is patronizing businesses that operate with integrity; that support local farms and the environment; that serve friendly service 24/7, and warmth and comfort on a chilly night.
We sat down with Christine — music aficionado, dog lover and native Chicagoan — to chat about her booming business, where she eats on her days off, and why Chicago is her kind of town.
Tell us how you wound up in Chicago.
I grew up in the suburbs. And a funny thing happened on the way back from music school … turns out, I’m not good enough of a singer to be a professional musician. So I packed my bags and landed in Chicago at 19 and enrolled in the music business management program at Columbia College. So obviously, I’m a chef now.
Fried Chicken and Corn Muffins (Photo: Ten Photos)
Why did you start your businesses here? What about the city was the right fit?
Kinda by default. I lived here and was offered a job at Blackbird after culinary school, so I knew I was staying put for a couple of years to immerse in that experience. It made sense to start Sunday Dinner Club in Chicago, as there wasn’t really anything else like it in the city at the time. My business partner and co-chef, Josh Kulp, and I had started developing key relationships with farmers for our product. It was exciting to launch something as intimate as home dinner parties in a huge urban environment. The dining community we built was small, but strong and connected.
You’ve made a LOT of delicious food over the years. Can you name some of your favorite dishes to cook at the restaurant/SDC (and at home, if you want)?
Is this like the impossible question where parents are asked to pick their favorite child? Well, I don’t have any children but I’ve cooked A LOT of food. If I have to play favorites, SDC: rossejat and fried rice; HBFC: nachos and kale slaw; home: breakfast tacos. And, I have a secret love of making vinaigrettes at all three. Vinaigrette really ties the salad together.
Favorite restaurants in the city for breakfast, lunch, din, brunch? Favorite bar?
Fried Chicken Sandwich and Pimento Mac and Cheese (Photo: Ten Photos)
You’ve lived and worked in Chicago for years and have watched it change. What do you love about it?
The amazing ability we have to invent and reinvent ourselves as chefs, our food, our concepts and always have people willing to seek and try them out. Chicago’s food community is supportive, curious, and hungry.
What’s on the horizon for HBFC? Any hints?
We are discussing and looking for creative ways to grow our business. Stay tuned.