Pandemic shattered restaurant dreams, so gourmet chef takes his fried chicken to the streets

Ronnie Muñoz outside his restaurant, Ronnie’s Kickin ‘, in South Los Angeles on Thursday, December 3. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

After eight years cooking at some of LA’s best restaurants, Ronnie Muñoz has taken a leap of faith.

Last January, the 25-year-old chef quit his job at Craft, the Century City restaurant run by “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio, to focus his energy on Ronnie’s Kickin ‘, the spicy fried chicken sandwich pop-up. which he launched from his house in South LA.

Muñoz had spent much of 2019 juggling kitchen chores and working to get his food stall off the ground; he was convinced that 2020 would be his year of escape. Business at Ronnie’s Kickin ‘was growing rapidly, his culinary creations were exploding on Instagram, and he was in talks with an investor about opening a restaurant in Mid-City.

But 2020, of course, had other plans.

In March, two weeks before Muñoz signed a lease for a restaurant space, the pandemic struck. Soon after, his investor pulled out, expansion plans were put on hold, and Muñoz was once again selling chicken from his front yard.

“It was a tough situation, but strangely it ended up being a great stress test, as it forced me to develop the business in a different way,” he said during a cold December evening, looking out of the small one-car garage. which, until recently, served as a kitchen.

Ronnie's Kickin 'Chicken and Fries Sandwich.

Ronnie’s Kickin ‘Chicken and Fries Sandwich. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

After a year filled with challenges, Muñoz has reason to be optimistic. He was able to save enough money to rent a food truck, and the new mobile iteration of Ronnie’s Kickin ‘- with a menu he lovingly describes as “a high version of Buffalo Wild Wings” – will launch on January 6.

“I’ve never worked in a food truck before, but I’m ready to find out,” he said. “It’s a chance to spread the brand name to other parts of the city.”

Muñoz, who grew up in East Hollywood, has been cooking professionally since the age of 17. Fresh out of high school, his first cooking job was at the new-wave pizzeria Stella Barra, where he worked as a line cook throwing pies.

From there, he continued to cook at many restaurants in LA, some of which have since closed: Paley in Hollywood, Mixed Company in Silver Lake, Testa in downtown LA, and Yardbird at the Beverly Center. Soon he had held just about every position a young cook could hold, from pantry to fish cook to pastry chef. Most recently, he was sous chef at Craft.

“I spent a lot of time helping other chefs open restaurants, freelance in different places and learn different skills,” he said. “I’ve always been the guy behind the guy, so to speak.”

But as much as Muñoz loved restaurant food, he was upset about the lack of dining options in Jefferson Park, the working-class neighborhood where he and his brother Juan had moved a few years earlier.

“I was sick of going home after service and having nothing but fast food open,” he said. “That’s when I started to think, ‘Okay, how can I use the finer foods that I love to cook and create something that the neighborhood is going to connect with? It was the dream of the concept.

A fried chicken sandwich seemed like a good place to start.

Fried chicken is seasoned to order inside Ronnie's Kickin '.

Fried chicken is seasoned to order inside Ronnie’s Kickin ‘. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“I had friends running taco stands across the street, so I wasn’t going to serve fancy tacos outside of my house,” he said. “What’s the next best thing that’s accessible and familiar? Fried chicken is that universal comfort food. I respect Nashville’s hot chicken scene, but wanted to do something different and add my own twist to it. “

It starts by brining the bird in herb-flavored buttermilk overnight, then breading it in potato starch and flour so that it develops a crisp, shaggy crust when fried. But the real secret is the frying oil. Much like old school McDonald’s, Muñoz fry everything at Ronnie’s Kickin ‘in pure beef fat, which he says imparts a deep umami flavor that nothing else duplicates.

“Cooking sometimes is painful and it’s not cheap, but the flavor is totally worth it,” he said.

The fried chicken is then coated in a warm but not too hot spice blend that Muñoz prepares with dried habaneros. Then he stacks it on a Larder Baking Co. brioche bun, topped with Calabrian chili aioli, coleslaw, and homemade dill pickles. A bunch of Provence herb seasoned fries – also cooked in beef fat – comes on the side, all for $ 14.

Fueled by half a dozen commercial deep fryers, its menu has since expanded to include tempura fried pickles; chicken fillets mixed with an al pastor spice blend or pepper and lemon seasoning (made from dehydrated lemon zest); loaded fries and quesadillas; and honey-marinated bare wings, served with a tangy mustard barbecue sauce for dipping.

Muñoz also puts his pastry skills to good use, with desserts such as French fries pies, donuts with brown butter powder, salty and gooey chocolate chip cookies and sourdough conchas made from scratch. .

Ronnie's Kickin 'Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Ronnie’s Kickin ‘mouthwatering chocolate chip cookies. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“My dad is from Mexico and my mom is from El Salvador, so I think customers expect me to weave these flavors together, even if I’m not serving straightforward Latino food,” he said. he declares. “I always create, I always try new dishes, because I find that this is what interests customers.”

Before the pandemic, neighbors gathered around outdoor tables for dinner while Muñoz and his team, dressed in custom-embroidered chef’s jackets, cooked on their favorite pieces of cumbia. It was like a real neighborhood restaurant, he says.

Muñoz said that while he was grateful to move Ronnie’s Kickin ‘in a food truck – no longer dealing with an occasional disgruntled neighbor – he felt a pang of heart when he closed in December.

“I think what attracted some people was that I was just a guy cooking in his backyard. I got to hang out with my neighbors and cook them food,” he said. he declares. “Besides, I’m going to miss, like, walking two minutes from my room to work.”

While he still hopes to open a full-service restaurant in the future, Muñoz said his experience over the past year made him realize how much trial and error there is when it comes to went from restaurant cook to restaurant owner. He regularly posts about these business lessons – from managing operational costs to setting up accounts with wholesale suppliers – on his Instagram account, @ronnies_kickin.

From inside his garage window, Ronnie Munoz takes a customer's order.

From inside his garage window, Ronnie Munoz takes a customer’s order. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“The cooks are so dispersed that we are always looking for the best thing to do. Maybe you make $ 15 an hour at one place, but this brand new restaurant is going to pay you $ 15.50, so go for it. It becomes interminable. cycle, and you’re less able to take a risk and build something for yourself, ”he said.

“I was able to save enough to open a food stand, but not everyone has this opportunity. So how can I support my staff and others in the industry so that they can eventually do this? “

Muñoz spent around $ 10,000 to launch his food truck and signed a one-year lease at $ 3,000 per month, hoping that by the end of 2021, the opening of a full-service restaurant could be more viable.

By then, he and his longtime sous-chefs José Gamboa and Benito Giles will have to adapt to cooking in a cramped mobile kitchen and attract new audiences through social media. Muñoz estimates that he will need to earn $ 15,000 to $ 20,000 in income each month before reaching breakeven point.

“There is a learning curve when opening a food truck, because now you have to meet people where they are, instead of them coming to you,” he said.

Ronnie’s Kickin ‘is booked for pit stops in early January at craft beverage stores such as Sara’s Market in Boyle Heights and Hi-Lo Liquor in Culver City.

And once bars, wineries and breweries are allowed to reopen, he plans to partner with businesses that, due to COVID-19 restrictions, are required to have a food vendor on-site in order to ” provide alcohol service.

“When you specialize in fried foods, it’s a good idea to be near places where you drink,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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