When we had an opportunity to put two powerhouse chefs in dialogue with each other around menu innovation, chefs Amy Alarcon and Tiffany Derry seemed like an ideal match. Alarcon is a longtime corporate chef currently leading the culinary innovation team at Popeyes, and independent restaurateur Derry is a former fan-favorite Top Chef competitor and current television host and food advocacy and social justice activist. They certainly had one major thing in common — stories to share about how to innovate around a fried chicken sandwich. Little did we know how many other links there would be between the two.
Derry is using her Baton Rouge, La. and Beaumont, Texas history to go deep on southern cooking at her Roots Chicken Shak chain and Roots Southern Table restaurant. Alarcon is using her platform at Popeyes to bring the essence of unique Louisiana cooking all over the globe. But in a broader sense, the pair had a lot to say to each other about how family drives everything they do, and how important it is as female leaders in the industry to learn to advocate for self. We sat in on a conversation between the two chefs.
TD: I came from a really large family, and food was just how we connected; it was always super important. Especially letting each person in the family have their thing, letting them cook their special dishes. Thanksgiving at my house was like eight proteins and 20-plus side dishes because everyone has that dish they make so well, and everyone else wants them to shine. So, food was always very important to me growing up, and my first job was at 15 at an IHOP.
AA: My family lived on its stomach! We were all literally close to food, the chicken that was running around the yard at breakfast was on the plate at dinner. I am only a generation removed from farming, and we always had a big garden at home. “Farm to table” wasn’t a concept, it was just how we lived everyday! Growing up, we didn’t get grounded or have privileges taken away if we did something. We got awoken on Saturday morning with the sunrise to go weed the garden. And I started in restaurants in college when I needed to earn spending money.
TD: I think those experiences at a young age in restaurants really shape us.
AA: I fell in love with the culture and environment of the work, the camaraderie, the creativity, it is so special and unique. Working in that restaurant is what made me decide to go to culinary school, and I was in the first class of the The School of Culinary Arts, which was part of the Art Institute Atlanta.
TD: I feel like we are twins! I went to the Art Institute as well.
AA: And we have that Louisiana connection! Which is one of the things I love most about my job, is how rooted the brand is in Louisiana cooking. I feel like I am a part of giving opportunities to people all over the world to have a “staycation” in Louisiana. You know there is no food quite like it, with all the wide global influences on the cuisine, and I just am so moved by being able to take all of that in and reflect everything that is Louisiana and share it back out. There is a real personal satisfaction in that.
TD: I think that is so important, to really know where the food you cook comes from, giving it that identity, and exploring all the cultural influences. Part of that for me was realizing that I was fighting the food I wanted to cook. All over the culinary world, if you are Black, especially if you are a Black woman, whoever meets you immediately asks if you cook soul food or southern food. So, my whole career, I was focused on showing that I can cook everything. I made myself a promise to get out of the country once a year to explore all the foods in the world.
AA: That is such a smart thing to have done. I always tell young people just starting out that the best thing they can do for themselves is to get a passport and get as many stamps in it as possible!
TD: Exactly! Travel really has always influenced me, but in some interesting ways, it also started to make me more confident about realizing that I was pulled to cook the food I was raised on. That I couldn’t allow my career to be guided by a desire to push back against assumptions about what a Black woman “should” be cooking. That is the evolution that all my travels and explorations gave me the courage to admit that I want to cook my roots! I want to honor the care my grandmother took in presenting a dish, that I want to dive into the African connections to our food, that I am excited to tell those stories through food. That actually, my highest purpose is to celebrate my upbringing and to give voice to those in the South and their contributions and remind people that we are more than just fried chicken. Of course, a lot of what I am doing right now IS fried chicken!
AA: When I first shifted into R&D work, it was for a newly formed company called AFC, or America’s Favorite Chicken Company, the company that at that time owned Popeyes and Church’s, and I started with them on the Church’s side. Going to culinary school in the early 90’s, I wasn’t aware that culinary jobs for restaurant chains was a “thing”. It wasn’t what I had expected to do when I went to culinary school, but I realized that … working in this capacity would allow me to have a different life, to be able to have a family of my own and a little more stability, which can be so difficult for women in our industry to achieve. I think being a parent has been the most valuable “training” for managing people and projects.
TD: Okay, that is amazing, no one ever talks about being a mom as training for the workplace!
AA: Organizing my time, multitasking, managing diverse personalities, these are things my girls have taught me. Being a mom just makes me absolutely a better manager and a more efficient employee, and if our industry would embrace that and create support systems around it, they would have a much more skilled workforce, and it would be amazing for women. I had to learn quickly in my career to advocate for myself, to be the person who was asking for what I needed, and I have been very fortunate to work for companies who were supportive of me in those ways. And now I get to travel all over the world to bring the food I love to so many people!
TD: Okay, so, I have to talk about the chicken sandwich. Because I did not know that you do a lot of your testing in Houston, and I was there with my cousins, and they kept raving about this chicken sandwich. We were out late and needed a bite and they took me to eat it, and I was amazed. I was like “Okay! This is a great sandwich!”. And then almost a year later I saw all the buzz and I thought it was a new sandwich, and didn’t know why you would change it, but then I realized I just got in on it early!
AA: Houston is just a great market, and we test a lot of items there. But developing that sandwich was like a master class in how collaborative product development should be. We took our time to get it the way we wanted, and that was about more than just the sandwich, it was about the restaurant environment, the way it needed to be executed to not overtax the staff, the new equipment our franchisees would need to invest in to make it work and be profitable. Getting the batter right, nailing down the flavor and texture of the brioche bun, sourcing the best pickle. And since most of our food is eaten off-site, ensuring that it is delicious not just right out of the fryer, but in an hour. We didn’t want to launch anything that we weren’t proud of.
TD: Those details matter so much, especially the infrastructure, which no one talks about. Don’t even get me started on packaging! My restaurants are tiny. Every inch is used to a purpose and is thought out perfectly. We only have four fryers. So, for my chicken sandwich, while I knew we needed to have a regular and a spicy version, we do not have the capacity to do two different chicken preparations, so I had to find the ideal hot pepper to add to the sandwich to make it a spicy version that still incorporates the identical piece of chicken as the regular. We don’t have ovens, but I wanted to be sure the cheese was properly melted, so we started torching the cheese, which now has become part of the show and people are always taking videos of the cheese getting toasted.
AA: Media is so key to having a pulse check as to what is working, what isn’t, and as a tool to find some inspiration for direction.
TD: Media is in everything I do. I cannot do TV and not have restaurants, and my restaurants thrive because I am on TV. It is hand in hand. For me, my places started with just word of mouth, and in part because people were posting such great pictures on social media. In fact, most of the best photographs I have of my food are from regular people who post their pictures and tag me!
AA: It is just wonderful how you are using your platform to create your brand; you are the chairman of the Board of Tiffany Enterprises! That is so inspirational to me.
TD: Well, it is not often I get to meet people doing what you are doing at your level, and I just so appreciate that even though you are doing it for such a huge company, you personally are doing it in a lot of ways from the same place in your heart that I do for my own small but mighty company. Have to give you a little love for that!
AA: I think we both approach our work from that feeling we got from our families, we both just want to feed people and make them happy and get personal reward from feeling good about what we put into the world.
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