We'll always have Kiev

It’s gone from elegant Sixties supper to supermarket staple, but in the right hands, the Chicken Kiev is still king. Tim Walker discovers how to make one that’s regal, not retro.

When Jesse Dunford Wood took charge of the kitchen at the Mall Tavern in Notting Hill, west London last year, he had a simple, loveable idea about what he was going to cook there: 1970s classics, reheated. Fish Fingers, Arctic Roll and Neopolitan ice cream have all graced his menu. For the Royal Wedding, he produced a “Cup O’Soup” served in commemorative William-and-Kate mugs (the pub will, after all, be the couple’s local whenever they’re at Kensington Palace). He’s particularly proud of his Cow Pie, fresh from the pages of The Dandy. And yet there’s one dish that unexpectedly outsells all of its rivals by at least two-to-one: the Chicken Kiev.

Chicken Kiev means different things to different people. As far as my grandparents were concerned, it was an exotic treat from behind the Iron Curtain, to be ordered in restaurants when one was feeling especially sophisticated. To my parents, it was the original ready meal, first sold frozen by Marks & Spencer in 1979. I grew up on garlic, a flavour remarkably unfamiliar to British palates just a generation earlier. Now that it’s such a staple addition to the suburban freezer cabinet, however, Chicken Kiev has all but disappeared from restaurant menus. Two of the finest minds in food criticism – who both happen to work yards from my desk – could think of just three London chefs who cook the dish, besides Dunford Wood.

There’s a scene in Mad Men, in which Don Draper orders the Kiev at a Manhattan restaurant, Jimmy’s La Grange; when the New York Times reviewed Jimmy’s in 1965, around the time of Don’s visit, it described the dish as “almost mandatory”. The same might be said of the Mall Tavern’s incarnation, a near-perfect globe of golden breadcrumbs, served on a hash brown and a bed of coleslaw, into which seeps a volcanic ooze of garlicky butter. It’s this that I’ve come to eat, at the risk of an afternoon’s bad breath. More importantly, Dunford Wood is going to teach me to make it myself. The 33-year-old chef is a specialist in modern British cooking, who trained under Michael Caines, Rowley Leigh and Michel Roux, Jr.

Last month he won the Rising Star Award at the annual Tatler restaurant awards. In his kitchen, there’s a large monochrome photograph of his grandfather in chef’s whites, cooking up a storm at the Savoy Hotel sometime in the mid- 20th century. So food runs in the family, then? Not exactly: his grandfather, Tom Stacey, was an intrepid foreign correspondent, who’d been sent to the Savoy to research an article from the lighthearted end of his repertoire. (“A bit like you,” Dunford Wood jests. Only without the intrepid foreign correspondent part, I reply.) Now in his 80s, Stacey still pops into the Tavern each afternoon for a pint of ale. We begin with me taking direction on the boning of a chicken, which you won’t need to do if you can find yourself some good-quality chicken breasts, predetached from the bird. Given my lack of professional-grade knife skills, that seems the simpler option – though I can, at least, perform the simple task of slicing away the two ends of the breast to produce a more rectangular slab of meat.

Dunford Wood instructs me to carefully fold it between a double-layered sheet of cling film, to keep it intact as I bash it with a meat tenderiser. I hammer the breast into a thin circle that is almost translucent, and evenly so, when I hold it up to the light. Next comes the garlic butter – and this is the time-consuming bit.

Luckily, Dunford Wood has some he made earlier, but he explains how it was produced: peeled cloves of garlic are brought up to the boil in cold water and strained 10 times over (“You can do it five times at home,” he assures me), before being gently cooked in vegetable oil, by which time they dissolve into a purée at the slightest squeeze between finger and thumb. “You end up with something that’s softer than garlic and not so punchy; it’s got the sweetness of garlic without all the power.”

When it’s put into a food mixer with equal quantities of soft butter, plus a handful of parsley and some salt and white pepper, it becomes a stiff mix that will ooze when cooked, the chef explains, rather than dribble or squirt like the supermarket version. With an ice cream scoop, I carve out almost-balls of the buttery garlic, which go into the fridge to set.

Meanwhile, some recently hardened balls appear, Blue Peter-like, around which I fold my flattened chicken breast to create the Mall Tavern Kiev’s familiar spherical shape. I twist the package in cling film like a lollipop, then send it to the freezer to solidify. “Traditionally, you’d have a whole chicken breast,” says the chef, “and you’d make a little pocket and stuff it with garlic butter. We’ve changed its shape. Occasionally a customer will send it back, thinking they’ve mistakenly been served a Scotch egg.” After a spell in the cold, the ball of chicken-wrapped butter holds its shape sufficiently to survive a double pané: rolling it in flour, then beaten egg, then breadcrumbs – and then in the beaten egg and breadcrumbs again, until the pink of the chicken becomes indiscernible. Finally, this bread-encrusted ball goes into a deep fat fryer for two minutes – and here’s where an average kitchen may find itself illequipped – followed by a hot oven for 10 minutes. At the Mall Tavern, the finished Chicken Kiev is laid to rest on a shredded cabbage, lettuce and carrot coleslaw (made with mustard vinaigrette, not mayonnaise, to add acidity to the rich, buttery main event), and that magnificently crispy hash brown. The hash brown, claims its creator, is a darn sight trickier to get right than the Kiev itself. Maybe you should stick to new potatoes if you’re trying this at home.

So popular has his Kiev become, that the chef is off to Ukraine to find out more about its history. The dish’s origins have been disputed, with one Russian food historian reportedly claiming it was created not in Kiev, but in Moscow in the early 20th Century. Trying to sound like an intrepid foreign correspondent, I inform Dunford Wood that I once ate it in St Petersburg, where they served it on the bone on a bed of white rice. It wasn’t a patch on his. “One of our serious Kiev eaters, who eats it at least three times a week” he boasts, “is actually from Kiev. But his girlfriend can’t understand why we find that so funny. Apparently nobody really eats Chicken Kiev in Kiev.”

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