Wing’s Diner: Buttermilk and Scarred Arms

Fried chicken

Wing’s Diner, a much buzzed-about fried chicken pop-up currently operating out of the kitchen at Small Bar on Bristol’s King Street, has a more complex recipe than might at first be obvious.

Fried chicken, chicken and waffles, wings, dirty fries… Wing’s Diner seems to talk with an American accent. But when Kevin Bradshaw and Wayne Chung break down their cooking techniques a hidden influence emerges.

“We take the American aspect of buttermilking our chicken,” says Kevin, referring to the practice of marinating the chicken in buttermilk for 24 hours. “On the Asian side, we double-fry it. You do the first fry, let it rest, and then do the second fry when the order comes in, which gets the skin good and crispy.”

The name of the operation is another subtle clue: Wayne is Wing, and the apostrophe that looks at first like a typo actually indicates his ownership of the business.

“My parents ran a take away in Kingswood, called Chung’s Fish Bar,” says Wayne. “I’ve always cooked and been around cooking.” He shows forearms peppered with small burns from years spent operating deep-fat fryers. “Scars everywhere! That’s from frying fish, chicken balls, that sort of thing. The seasoning and the double-fry, that’s what I learned from my parents.”

“We used to work together in a law firm on Queen’s Square, in human resources and IT support, and we also used to live together,” says Kevin. Indeed, there is something brotherly in the way these two softly-spoken young men interact with each other, only underlined by their matching black t-shirts and red baseball caps. “We used to cook for each other and have… not cook-offs, exactly, but we would try to do outdo each other,” says Wayne. “It was therapeutic.”

After ten years working in an office, Kevin, now 35, took some time off, went travelling, and on his return began working as a cook on the summer festival circuit. Meanwhile, he and Wayne made frequent trips to London for gigs where they were inspired by hip fried chicken operations such as Chick’n’Sours and BIRD. “Seeing how busy they were, we started thinking, why isn’t there anything like this in Bristol?” says Kevin. “We started frying at home, trying techniques. We bought some books on frying chicken, tried some different recipes, different sauces. About two years ago we thought, let’s go for it – let’s do a pop-up supper club for some friends.”

It didn’t go well but was successful enough to convince them that there was the seed of something in the idea and so, after a few more such events carried off with increasing polish, they moved into operating pop-ups in short stints at various pubs around the city. They settled for good at Small Bar at the end of 2017 and expect to stay there, if not for good, then at least for the foreseeable future.

In general, attempts to reinvent or elevate junk food (or street food if you want to be dainty about it) can often be a disappointment. I don’t recall being impressed with many of the products of the supposed gourmet burger boom of the past decade, for example, and don’t get me going on the upstarts who had the nerve to attempt to reboot the East End beigel from a converted Renault van within spitting distance of the legendary 24-hour beigel shops of Brick Lane. Fried chicken, though, seems a fair target, being much talked about on imported TV shows such as Man vs. Food and in the American foodie press but hard to find in the UK outside high street chains. There is no native tradition to trample over, and plenty of room for improvement.

Wayne and Kevin aren’t pretentious and won’t be lured into criticising KFC or local legends Miss Millie’s – “There’s a time and a place,” says Kevin – but have clearly identified a gap in the market for something a cut above. “We do want people, hopefully, to be able to taste the difference between a KFC breast burger and one of ours,” says Wayne. But accessibility is also important which is the primary reason they don’t lean on organic or free range in their pitch. “We try to source higher welfare meat when possible but we can’t be charging £15, £20 for a meal that is essentially comfort food,” says Wayne, brow furrowed. As it is, £10 for a two-piece chicken meal with fries or rice feels highly competitive with standard pub grub prices, which is a fairer comparison.

But what about the food – is the bubbling hype justified? Some of the side dishes and specials still feel like works in progress (purple sweet potato waffles didn’t do much for me, for example) but the chicken, the main event, is as close to perfect as I’ve ever encountered. A golden crust of peaks, troughs and promontories, crunches like cornflakes. The meat is heavily (that is, correctly) seasoned, and the buttermilk renders it moist despite the rigours of a double-dip in hot oil. The thigh is challengingly fatty, a quite intense textural experience, while the breast is milder, cleaner and only a little less satisfying. Sweet pickled daikon (radish) and various sweet, sour and spicy sides cut through the salt and richness. The lack of bones might offend purists who like to see the remains of a vanquished enemy spread before them at the end of a meal, but it works for me, making for a neat eat in a busy bar.

But never mind my opinion – what does Wayne’s Mum think? “She really likes it,” says Wayne, not sounding quite convinced, “but I think she’d prefer me to be running a Chinese take away.”

Disclosure: I ate at Wing’s Diner twice out of my own pocket but Wayne and Kevin also provided a portion of chicken during my interview with them.

The Famous Bridgwater Manchip

Bridgwater Famous Manchips

I ate my first manchip when I was around 8-years-old.

Dad pulled up outside in the sky blue Cortina and came running into the house – actually running — holding a paper bag transparent with hot grease. He was shiny-faced with excitement, a rare occurrence in those days of night-shifts, money troubles and headaches.

“Manchips! Bloody manchips!”

He said it as if my brother and I should know what a manchip was.

We, thrilled to see Dad thrilled, couldn’t wait to see what was going to emerge from the wrapping.

“Ooh, ow, hot, Jesus wept!” he said, throwing the thing from hand to hand.

This was why he’d been in such a hurry: the manchip, we learned, is a dish best served dangerously hot.

There were two in the bag; my brother and I got half each.

What we were presented with was a pocket of flaky, rolled pastry filled with semi-molten jam and dusted with granulated sugar. It was lardy and not especially sweet, the jam a mere smear. It was, frankly, a let-down after all the hype but we played along and ate up while Dad, apparently reverting to childhood for five bites, made yum-yum noises and licked jam off his factory-scarred fingertips.

Perhaps we confessed our disappointment or maybe Dad just guessed but, either way, I never saw another manchip. That is, until December 2017, with my 40th birthday looming, when I made a return trip to the old home town.

Walking up Cranleigh Gardens and waiting to cross St John Street I saw a chalkboard sign outside Judith’s Bakery: “Bridgwater Famous Manchips Sold Here”. Bridgwater’s famous manchips? This being the 21st century I Googled it while I waited for the lights to change and was astonished to read that, yes, the manchip is Bridgwater’s own contribution to the culinary catalogue.

The origins of the manchip, like those of most even slightly interesting things, are vague. They are sometimes also called ‘manchits’ or ‘manchets’, and the Oxford English Dictionary traces the similar ‘manchet’, meaning fine wheat bread, back to the 15th century.

A more obvious Bridgwater connection occurred to me, though: I was at school with several Manchips, and the Manchip or Manship clan has been a prominent one in Bridgwater for a couple of centuries. In fact, if you look up distribution of the surname Manchip in 1881 you find that every single one, give or take, lived in Somerset.

Nobody seems to have pinned down the exact origins of the Bridgwater manchip though Glyn Hughes has tracked down a 1938 reference to lardy pastries using that name which would seem to demolish the popular myth that it was a response to rationing during World War II.

Armed with the variant spellings I was able to find a tantalising reference to ‘french rolls and manchets’ in the precis of an 1885 book about St Mary’s Church in Bridgwater and (this is a bit complicated) an 1899 letter to the Taunton Courier in which a correspondent recalled a Taunton baker, Mr Betty, “famous for the excellence of his breakfast manchips” (20/09). Perhaps most useful, though, is this letter to the Taunton Courier printed on 22 June 1946, which contains reference to the foodstuff itself:

The reference to Manchets in last week’s Herald carried my memory back 50 or 60 years to the days when small boys went through the streets of towns in this part of England very early in the morning, crying “Hot Rolls and Butter Manchets” or “Buttered Manchips” or “Buttery Mansions” or some other variation of the last two words. These Manchets, Manchips, or Mansions were a plain kind of flat dough cake, or tea cake, kept hot, cut open and buttered for breakfast…. [As] far as my memory serves me they were eaten in my young days only, or at any rate mainly, at breakfast time.

That’s odd, isn’t it? No jam. Not notably lardy.

I’m going to keep looking for more information but here’s my current assumption: ‘manchip’ was being used to describe a kind of fancy roll in Somerset during the 19th century but its use dwindled until it was reinvented during or after World War II as something sweeter and more pastry-like.

Regardless of its origins, my second ever manchip, eaten hot on the platform at Bridgwater station as I waited for a train back to Bristol, was delicious – fat slicking the tongue, just enough fruit acid to tame it, and flakes of pastry falling like gold leaf around my feet. Once I’d dusted myself down and wiped my fingers on the paper bag, I knew I owed Dad an apology.

Working Class Discernment and the Humble Avocado

An avacado viewed from above.

There’s a version of what being ‘working class’ means (usually championed by those who aren’t) that suggests a kind of pig-like, unquestioning gluttony — which implies that thinking about what you eat and drink, and expressing a preference, is bourgeois pretentiousness. Real first-against-the-wall stuff.

I’ve always found this weird because the working class family I grew up in talked about food and drink all the time. I’ve written about this before, albeit in a subscriber-only newsletter hardly anyone reads, so I’ll quote myself:

During meals, we invariably talked about what we were eating, how it could be improved, and how it compared to previous experiences of the same dish. Even if it was just egg and chips — ‘If you get a good heat on it, the bottom frills up and goes crispy, which is how it should be.’

It was partly because we were determined to squeeze as much pleasure out of life as funds would allow: wasting money on a bad dinner is annoying when you’re wealthy, but heartbreaking when you’re not.

We had a favourite chip shop, which changed frequently as we monitored the quality of the food with successive changes of management: their chips are over-cooked, the fish batter is greasy, they’re cooking it all in the same oil which isn’t at the right temperature for either. We turned our noses up at most bought-in pies but loved Holland’s Potato & Meat. (I still do — that buttery crust, the creamy quality of the potato… Oh, yes.) We debated who made the best roast potatoes — Mum, Nan or Aunty D? (It was, and still is, Aunty D — sorry, Mum.) Was a brand-name brown sauce worth the extra money over the supermarket’s own version? (Yes — less sugary.) We talked about cheese at Christmas when there was more than one to compare. When she had time, Mum made bread, and we all knew it was better than the supermarket stuff — crustier, more flavoursome, with a crumb that fought back.

I also remember Dad and his friends debating the quality of local ciders (Rich’s had the right balance of price and quality), beer (homebrew especially) and whisky.

And a bit more that’s just come to me: my late uncle, a former tank driver, latterly a mechanic, used to take account of particularly good meals he’d eaten to tell me about when he saw me. Sometimes, he’d keep back a slice of especially good bacon or a slice of particularly impressive boiled ham for me to try, serving it up with oil-blackened fingers. Food is love and all that.

I was thinking about this today because I’ve just eaten a particularly fantastic avocado. (95p from Lidl, avo fans — bigger, better, cheaper and more reliable than those from any other shop in town, for reasons unknown.) Stop, don’t hate me!

See, avocado defeated my family the first time we tried it in about 1984, when we were temporarily between homes (because, money) and living with Nan and Gramps. Mum had read about them in a magazine and, as we all liked to try new things, got one at the supermarket. The problem is, it was marketed as an ‘avocado pear’, which set up quite the wrong expectations. Then, on top of that, we had no idea what a ripe avocado felt like so this specimen had the texture of a cricket ball. I can still remember the sensation of eating it — the kind of tannic bitterness you feel on the skin of your teeth. We all tried a bite and grimaced before it went in the bin.

So for years I didn’t think I liked avocado until a holiday in Spain in my twenties where a woman running a market stall asked my partner and I if we wanted one ‘¿Para comer?’ That is, to eat now. She grabbed at them, prodding with her fingers until she found one that was just right — not in a twee lifestyle aspirations way but like a production line operator weeding out dented cans. The one she selected and hurled into a paper bag tasted like vegetable velvet and I felt (as I too often do) a surge of annoyance: why had I been letting middle class people keep good stuff like this to themselves? Good cheap stuff, too — denied to me through lack of experience rather than shortness of funds.

So, I like avocados now. Not because I’m a traitor to my people, or because I’m trying to impress anyone, but because they taste good.

Unless… Well.. You don’t think the act of writing this might betray a lingering anxiety, do you?