At Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood, Christine Cikowski serves a menu mindful of just how comforting food can be, especially when made with high-quality ingredients sourced from local farmers and enhanced ever so subtly with chefly touches. Opening the restaurant in fall 2013 served as the culmination of several elements for Cikowski: putting her and Co-Chef/Managing Partner Josh Kulp’s ideas into a brick-and-mortar restaurant; continuing the community they built around Sunday Dinner Club, which they’d founded in 2005; and creating a business at which they’d want to work, backed by business principles that embodied valuing employees. “It was challenging to put ourselves out there, and humbling to open a restaurant and actually have it be successful,” Cikowski says. “I think our progressive business practices set us apart, like paying employees living wages, on the path to thriving wages in the future, and offering health insurance and good quality of life. We can see the positive effects of offering these benefits, and it’s changing people’s lives for the better, which in turn changes our business for the better.”
Honey Butter Fried Chicken and its core tenets stem from Sunday Dinner Club’s foundation. Sustainability. Thoughtful seasonality. Minimal adornment. Top cooking techniques, but not so over the top to outshine the food itself. Delighting guests without overwhelming them. Of course, Sunday Dinner Club—which serves up to 15 dinner a month and not just on Sundays—goes beyond a fresh take on comfort food to include any culinary category in which Cikowski and Kulp want to cook. “It’s amazing we’ve been able to maintain Sunday Dinner Club for more than a decade now,” she says. “Most people start an underground restaurant to become a restaurant. Our intention was always to to foster a dinner club, a community of people who come together and eat these meals that transcend genre.” Ultimately, that loyal group of diners became the foundation for Honey Butter Fried Chicken’s fan base and its earliest and ongoing support system.
She grew up with parents who loved to cook, bake and garden, and she had worked in restaurants since she was 16, Cikowski didn’t follow her passion for cooking until she was 27, enrolling in Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago. The career switch came after having worked an office job selling wine that didn’t fulfill her creatively, and she found herself spending her paychecks at the farmers’ market and her free time pouring over cookbooks and recipes. At culinary school, she met Kulp, and the two of them began hatching plans for Sunday Dinner Club after reading a New York Times article on underground dining. Cikowski worked at Blackbird in Chicago for 20 months after graduating and consecutively launched Sunday Dinner Club. Her experience at the award-wining restaurant grafted onto her personal chef philosophies, from how to run businesses to cooking high-quality seasonal food and putting menus together.
Cikowski lives on “the quiet side” of Logan Square in Chicago. When she’s not working the floor and greeting customers and creating or adapting systems at Honey Butter Fried Chicken, or imagining the next menu for Sunday Dinner Club, she can be found writing for her website, www.achefwhowrites.com, or planning her next getaway, especially if that travel involves seeing live music (at one point she was a professionally trained singer). “I travel as much as I can because it always gives me great perspective and a touchstone to nature and to life in the larger world. It makes me a better chef, a better writer, and a better human.”