2015 Chicago Rising Star Community Chefs Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken

2015 Chicago Rising Star Community Chefs Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken
May 2015

Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski are founders and co-chefs of Chicago’s beloved, decade-old Sunday Dinner Club, a tradition that transformed the warm welcome of Sunday supper into a thriving business—and also transformed Kulp and Cikowski into community heroes.

Before opening Sunday Dinner Club, Kulp worked the kitchens of Chicago’s Tweet and Restaurant Magnus in Madison, Wisconsin. Before that, he was a fifth grade teacher in the Bronx, but something closer to hearth and home was calling. With the inception of the Club, that dream became a reality, with Kulp serving multi-course dinners alongside Cikowski.

Before Cikowski collaborated with Kulp, she cooked in more traditionally professional environs, gaining formative experience at Blackbird and Milk & Honey Café. But she envisioned something a little more intimate. That vision, the Sunday Dinner Club, was an almost instantaneous success, building community among industry professionals, as well regular folks, based solely on word of mouth. It was also the birthplace of the signature dish that would drive Kulp and Cikowski’s next venture. Along with business partners Jen Mayer and Chris Jennings, Kulp and Cikowski opened Honey Butter Fried Chicken.

When they’re not keeping the city well fed and connected, the duo is involved with Restaurant Opportunity Center United and has traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby congress as restaurant owners, advocating for an increased minimum wage and number of sick days. They also write about food, travel, and their progressive business philosophies that drive their home cooked career and keep the grassroots conversation going.

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Interview with Chicago Rising Star Community Chefs Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?
Christine Cikowski:
I went to music school but a career as a professional singer wasn’t for me. So I moved back home to Chicago and enrolled in a music business management program and worked in the wine industry on the side. That’s when I began to see that I was more interested in food than music. So I changed schools and went to Kendall College, where I met Josh.
Josh Kulp: I was a teacher in the Bronx, but I cooked in college. I came back to it after realizing that I wanted to eat more than teach. Christine went to work at Blackbird after graduation and I was working at Pastoral.

CH: How did Honey Butter Fried Chicken come about?
CC: After graduation, we started Sunday Dinner Club about 10 years ago. It started with eight people, but through word of mouth, friends, and family, it has evolved and grown into 5,000-person subscriber list. It really picked up and got a lot of attention last year, with lots of support from the chef community. Sunday Dinner Club is a labor of love and allows us to explore different cuisines. We like integrating and exploring different cultures and add that to our personal tastes. We played around with themes and cooked the same menu for a few weeks before changing it up again. We did a lot of things that could work as a restaurant, but fried chicken was what we wanted to carry out. We now have the opportunity to really elevate the experience and have better service.
JK: We’ve created a space where people can sit down and talk to each other. It’s very communal.

CH: How has the restaurant grown since you opened in 2013?
We're busy. We were on a show called “Check Please,” which is a local TV program. People who watch it actually follow through and visit the restaurants that are featured. We’re 50 percent busier this year than we were last year.

CH: How are you involved in a local culinary community?
CC & JK:
We're trying to build businesses that are responsible towards the community and people who work for us. We implemented a system with paid sick days and time off. We also do open-book financing. All staff is aware of our finances. We give them financial ownership, having staff manage their individual components. We're big supporters of Restaurant Opportunity Center, which traditionally focuses on supporting employees. We went to D.C. to lobby Congress to increase minimum wage and give employees mandatory sick days. The restaurant world can be a hard place. We want to make sure they wake up and actually want to come into work every day.

CH: What is your favorite dish you've ever made?
I don't know if it's the best dish I've ever served, but I love making eggplant parmesan. Baking the eggplant instead of frying it, and then assembling the layers of sauce, cheese and eggplant yields a lighter, less mushy version.
JK: We're incredibly lucky at Sunday Dinner Club because we have literally cooked hundreds of different dishes from cuisines around the world. My favorite might be Rossejat de Fideos. Kinda like a paella but with angel hair pasta and an incredibly rich, deep sofrito topped with a dollop of garlicky aïoli and usually some chorizo and seafood. Rossejat is true soul food.

CH: What is your five year plan?
We’re in the dreaming stages of what to do next, with the restaurant and with our lives. We’re working on a possible expansion in the next year, but we don’t want to replicate the restaurant exactly. We’re chefs and we love good food, but we’re also trying to build businesses that are responsible to the community and to the people who work for us.