5 Questions with
Chefs Ashley Christensen + Nick Melvin
In the October issue of The Local Palate, we presented the history and methodology behind a Southern classic, Chicken and Dumplings, along with a recipe from Chef Nick Melvin of Venkman’s in Atlanta, Georgia. Chef Melvin is the founder of Doux South Pickles and the menu at Venkman’s showcases his pickling prowess along with innovative twists of classic comfort food.
Atlanta-based writer Tucker Berta sat down with Chef Melvin as well as James Beard nominated Chef Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina to delve deeper into this warm, comforting dish.
TLP: What memories do you have about chicken & dumplings?
Chef Ashley Christensen [AC]: My mom made a super classic version when I was a kid. It was made with white chicken stock, pulled whole chicken, peas, carrots, pearl onions, and just enough ground black pepper. The dumplings were actually made of Bisquick, though at that time (and due to the deliciousness) I had no idea that any shortcuts were taken. She would make this stew of all of the main ingredients (all from scratch), and then she would drop ice cream scoops of the mixed dough into the simmering broth. It was delicious. The dough pockets would cook up perfectly (steam would plume from each one as I spooned through the dish), and they would act like a roux as they cooked, thickening the stew to a slightly glazing consistency. I still remember the copper pot she cooked it in.
Chef Nick Melvin [NM]: Growing up, both of my parents worked but as soon as they came home, my mom went directly into the kitchen and would start cooking. Her cooking was the ultimate definition of comfort. We ate a lot of chicken growing up because that’s what we could afford and she was always looking for new and fun ways to prepare it for us. Some landed stronger than others, but one of my favorite go-to’s of hers was her chicken and dumplings. It was just one of those dishes that when you ate it, everything else just melted away and you smiled. It’s what food is supposed to do to a person.
TLP: Have you modified that dish in any way?
AC: Like a lot of the classic dishes that are embedded in my memory, I’ve riffed on this one time and time again, with new discoveries each time. The most recent version was served this winter at Poole’s Diner, a rabbit confit pot pie with root vegetables, topped with a brown butter and thyme buttermilk biscuit crust. It certainly channels that memory of the copper pot chicken and dumplings from home, even if we’ve dialed out the Bisquick.
NM: Hell no, I didn’t modify it! Even though my mom still lives in Louisiana and I live in Georgia, she would find a way to slap my hand from back home if I did. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
TLP: What’s the “right way” to do the dumplings?
AC: I think aside from using the best and closest ingredients you can find, there’s really no absolute “right way” in a lot of cooking. It’s amazing and inspiring to think of all of the ways. In this recipe, I call out for what we refer to as “fat noodles” or “slick noodles.” I chose this recipe to pay homage my first restaurant, Poole’s Diner, where in its founding decades as a luncheonette, chicken slick was a staple. Under its original conception, folks would line up around the block at lunchtime to run a spoon through this humble yet glorious comfort dish. My father dined at Poole’s Luncheonette back then (before I was even born), and still speaks of it as legendary.
NM: There are a number of different ways to make your dumplings and they’re all good in their own time and place, I feel. I like the drop dumplings personally because they remind me of home. There’s a delicate charm to how they float, quivering in the broth as if they could just disintegrate at any moment, but they don’t. They aren’t heavy but they fill you up. It just reminds me of home.
TLP: What else do I need to know about your dish — what makes it so badass?
AC: I love the connection of the schmaltz in the noodles, and the way it brings light to the relationship between the “ dumplings” and the chicken itself. Also, beer can chicken is just so fun, delicious, and simple. I think the slow-climbing, three-temperature setting technique bares an incredibly tender and flavorful finish on the chicken. I also love how the drippings make it a little dirty, and a lot more delicious. I think the root veg ties it to the season, but their raw state (along with the lemon) keeps it bright and fresh. It’s hard to say which element is the star, which I think of as a great problem to have.
NM: It’s the utter simplicity of it, which also makes it really hard to pull off. Human beings by nature want to add more and change items that are already pre-existing, simple and good. Keeping it simple and letting the ingredients speak for themselves without a whole bunch of pomp and circumstance is what makes this dish a success, in my opinion.
Chicken and Dumplings
from Chef Nick Melvin of Venkman’s in Atlanta, Georgia
TLP: Is this dish available at your restaurant(s)?
AC: Absolutely, in some shape or form. We’ll feature this version of the dish sometime this fall at Poole’s, and riff on it from time to time throughout the other seasons. I find that no matter what’s on the menu, the plays on comfort classics are always the dishes that guests gravitate towards, and ultimately come back for.
NM: It will be available at Venkman’s as a rotating special.