How fast food got posh, from truffle mayo Morley’s to KFC omakase

Cute combo: fried chicken is now being paired with caviar at the new Morley’s pop-up   (Caitlin Isola)
Cute combo: fried chicken is now being paired with caviar at the new Morley’s pop-up (Caitlin Isola)

Journey back 10 years and Morley’s was only a cult South London chicken shop. Well-loved, a handful of celebrity fans, but it stopped at good fried chicken, considered branding and a relatively small but loyal fanbase. The idea of a collaboration with the condiment behemoth Heinz — not to mention a pop-up at the fashion crowd’s favourite hotel The Standard — would’ve been largely unthinkable.

Morley’s has transcended its former status. It has gone, for a time at least, upmarket. It is not just the place with excellent wings venturing north of the Thames. Morley’s is now a bona fide brand: arguably it sells “the” fried chicken — the stuff we’d offer to aliens were a group to land somewhere near Carshalton.

At The Standard’s 150-cover Double Standard restaurant, from now until September, are Morley’s chicken drumsticks topped with 5g of caviar (£20). They are to be dipped in truffle mayonnaise. Other dishes include a tower of 20 wings (£40 with fries and sauces), and chicken and waffles in a hot honey glaze (£12). All to celebrate a limited edition Morley’s x Heinz branded fried chicken sauce.

When did fast food become posh? You might also ask KFC, whose biggest success in recent years might be its vegan Quorn burger, hardly the most inspiring move. But now, KFC too is veering selectively into the higher-end. Last week saw a one-night-only “omakase” pop-up in Waterloo. Not expensive — a reasonable £11-a-head — but definitely fine dining in form, with a full six courses on offer. A family bucket it wasn’t.

Setting the Standard: Morley’s goes high-end (Caitlin Isola)
Setting the Standard: Morley’s goes high-end (Caitlin Isola)

Instead, press material insisted, it had been “curated” by the Japanese TikTok chef Akito Greenland, and the night encouraged diners to relax, to let themselves be “put in the hands of the Colonel for a taste sensation like no other.” His 11 herbs and spices have never sounded so unattractive. But why the fuss? To honour the launch of the chain’s new teriyaki burger. Is the group growing out of its Kentucky roots?

Still, the world’s biggest chicken shop rightly identified a growing trend in London for omakase dining — you know, like the £420-per head Sushi Kanesaka. And more to the point, it saw the emergence of fast food ramping up, where food at the bottom of the pricing pile is elevated or at least vajazzled a bit to draw in the crowds.

And so on the menu at a repurposed KFC site — neon lights, high tables — was “yakitori”, or popcorn chicken on a bamboo skewer; “karaage,” where original recipe thighs and wings were paired with a ponzu dipping sauce; and “nigiri”, which saw mini chicken fillets plopped onto sushi rice and “finished with a brushstroke of creamy wasabi-infused garlic mayonnaise.” None of it screamed authenticity, but it was clear to see what the brand was leaning into, perhaps capitalising on the success of the likes of Humble Chicken and Junsei.

Maybe the UK’s traditional fast food brands are seeing the arrival of Popeyes, Wendy’s and Taco Bell from the US and wondering if they need to act to stay in the conversation. Five Guys — another new(ish)comer— didn’t exist here a decade ago, and yet now it’s popular for a fancier sort of fast food, one that is simple and basic by design but that might be perceived to be a level above the high street baseline. In London, a burger in Five Guys tends to top a tenner, which is a far cry from the days of a 99p Maccies.

Lost in Translation? KFC does Japan (KFC)
Lost in Translation? KFC does Japan (KFC)

Here comes Burger King, too, with another new “gourmet” range (around £8.19 for a burger alone). It calls for such delights as chimichurri and rocket leaves. Really? An Argentinian sauce, drizzled on steaks in high-end restaurants, and a salad leaf better associated with Pret? Yes, actually.

Diners are invited choose from Aberdeen Angus beef or crispy chicken and both are paired with a chimichurri sauce made with herb-saddled mayonnaise, garlic, and non-specified spices.

In reality, Burger King has been kicking around with its “Gourmet Kings” range for a year or two now, but it’s stepping things up. The fact remains that brioche-style buns and Monterey Jack cheddar aren’t enough any more. Fast food needs to go posher; it needs to get inventive to stay relevant.

And so how long until McDonald’s steps in and reignites its long defunct “Signature Collection,” done away with in 2019? Back then, these supposedly classier burgers featured ingredients such as beechwood smoked bacon, jalapeño slices, and mustard mayonnaise. And they cost upwards of £5.

Or, more outrageous still, what if the likes of Domino’s and Pizza Hut, by far two brands solidly at the heart of unsophisticated — doner kebab meat on flabby cheese the calling card — decide to get involved?

If this trend is anything to go by, fast food is only going to get more inventive, more outlandish. The world is changing. If top-end restaurants are bringing prices down (see Kitchen Table), the bottom end of the market is experimenting with going the other way. It’s going to be a confusing thing if they ever meet in the middle.

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