What came first, the chicken or the waffle?
Chicken and waffles originated as the late night snack of choice in the Harlem jazz scene. These days, John Seymour pays homage to the dish’s musical legacy with his restaurant chain, Sweet Chick. Nas is a business partner in the venture, Raekwon the Chef turns up for Sweet Chick parties, and Joey Bada$$ gets creative in the restaurant’s kitchen.
CONVICTS recently caught up with John to get his word on the subtle art of frying chicken, the intersectionality of food and music, and the all-important chicken and waffle gods.
Hey mate. To start, can you tell us who you are?
So my name is John Seymour. I’m the owner of Sweet Chick.
How long has Sweet Chick been around?
Originally, we opened a Sweet Chick on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. That was about three and a half years ago. Two years ago, we opened up the Ludlow location and business is booming.
Can you tell us about the origins of Sweet Chick?
When we opened up the spot in Williamsburg I’d been living there for like 14, 15 years. I felt like the neighborhood needed a local spot and for me, being a native New Yorker, I wanted something that really reflected New York.
And why fried chicken? That’s not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks New York cuisine…
It was kind of news to me when I heard the story about how chicken and waffles started in Harlem. Jazz musicians in the 1920s would finish their sets at four o’clock in the morning. As the legend goes, a guy went into the kitchen and said ‘I don’t know if I want breakfast or dinner,’ and the chef was like ‘Well, I got waffles and I got chicken.’ So history was made. I thought that was an amazing story and it revolved around music, which has always been really important to me. So that was the initial idea for Sweet Chick.
The series we’re running is called Snacky. So tell us…why do you think chicken and waffles make the perfect snack?
Fried chicken and waffles is the perfect marriage of savory and sweet. It’s the type of meal that you can eat any time of day. Chicken and waffles breaks the rules as far as being either dinner or breakfast. We close at 2 AM so you can come in here at 2 AM and get a chicken and waffles. You could also come in here at 11 AM and get a chicken and waffles without feeling like you’ve skipped a beat or been pigeon-holed into dinner or brunch. To some people it’s a breakfast food, to some people it’s a midnight snack and to some people it’s a dinner entree. But it definitely satisfies the craving. It’s comfort food.
Do you think it’s better in morning or better at night?
You know? To me all food is better at night. Especially if you’re a little tipsy. But if you’ve been out all night then it could be really great at 11 AM. But it really depends on the person.
What exactly is your title at Sweet Chick?
The word CEO is kind of weird in the whole Sweet Chick thing. I’m more of like a creative director. The whole aura of the restaurant, the whole vibe of the restaurant is very creative and we want to foster that with other people….I’m living the dream right now. It’s like: why not share that with other people as well?
It sounds like fostering a sense of community is really important for you. ]
Community is super important to me. I’m a native of New York, and you’ll always find me at one of the Sweet Chicks, standing outside talking to people. People I’ve never met, people I’ve known for twenty years. It’s just my personality. I want to know the customers. I want them to be happy.
Has Sweet Chick changed at all since its beginning?
Sweet Chick has evolved since then. We do a number of different varieties of chicken and waffles. We offer food that people can come in and eat five nights a week. They don’t necessarily have to get chicken and waffles.
How can you tell premium fried chicken from cheap imitators?
The brine is going to tell you that somebody didn’t take the time to really think about the chicken. Most people don’t take the time to brine their chicken, and that’s going to leave it dry. Also the crispy factor: you don’t want fried chicken to be super greasy.
And how did you come up with the Sweet Chick recipe? Was it experimentation? Was it grandma’s recipe?
So when we were coming up with the recipe for our chicken and waffles, we set out to be really original, but we were also really looking for that crispy old-school crunch. We went through a variety of different brines on the chicken, ‘til we settled on a sweet tea brine. We just thought it perfectly embodied what chicken and waffles was.
What is the most popular chicken and waffles on the menu?
Our most popular chicken and waffles is the classic chicken and waffles. Second to that would be our bacon and cheddar waffles. People love that. One of my favorites right now is our Nashville hot chicken and condensed milk waffle. That one blew my mind a little bit. I just love that heat.
We have to ask. What came first: the fried chicken or the fried egg?
What came first the fried chicken or the fried egg? Man, that’s a good question. I’d probably have to say the fried egg, because typically you’re going to eat that in the morning. For dinner you might have some fried chicken. I’m going to have to check with god and get back to you on that one.
Bone in or bone out?
I mean you got to go bone in. It’s not fried chicken if it’s bone out.
Coming back to you, so the whole music thing, did you already have connections with the music industry before you started Sweet Chick or is that something that came afterwards?
I’ve always been a big fan of music. I think because chicken and waffles started through jazz, music became a huge part of Sweet Chick automatically and really authentically. The playlists here are amazing and they’re an important part of the vibe. The chicken and waffle gods bestowed rap music upon us…
Gotta show respect to the chicken and waffle gods. Can you tell us about some of Sweet Chick’s artist collaborations?
On our one year anniversary, I got in touch with Raekwon from Wu-Tang. That’s really what started it all I think. We had a party for all our friends and fam and I brought Raekwon through the kitchen and said, ‘Thanks everybody for coming out, the chef has a couple of words to say’ and Raekwon came out of the kitchen. I realized at that moment how powerful it was and how much fun we all had, so since then we’ve stayed connected to the music industry.
Tell us about the Sweet Chick sneakers. How did those come about?
So a friend of mine, Louis Colon, works for FILA. He suggested we make a sneaker with the restaurant, so we did it around a dish, sriracha chicken and waffles. We made 200 pairs and they sold out in like 45 minutes. And it was just an amazing experience to say we have a shoe and that was just crazy.
Do you have a pair?
Yea, I have a few pairs. We have two pairs in the office that are hanging up. As a kid growing up in New York, sneaker culture was really important to me. I still have an extensive sneaker collection. To add those sneaker to my collection is an honor.
Aren’t you collaborating with Nas over in Central Park soon?
So I met Nas a little over a year ago and he was my favorite rapper growing up. Nas decided to partner with me and Sweet Chick and help us open new stores. It was amazing and inspirational and he’s since become the homie. Nas is doing this festival called Live at the BBQ, which was actually his first verse on a Main Source song years ago. We’re essentially putting together the BBQ portion of it. We’re super excited. It’s going to be a great collaboration between music and food.
Sounds awesome, John. Take it easy.