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Rebecca Ritchey

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“LET’S GET READY FOR CHICKENNNNN!”

So begins another day at Hot Chicken Takeover, the former pop-up shop serving up authentic Nashville hot chicken in Columbus. The phrase, delivered today in a booming voice reminiscent of a boxing ring announcement, has become something of a daily mantra before the waiting crowd is herded in every morning. These rituals are part of what makes HCT unique, including daily team huddles where employees air any grievances, give accolades to their coworkers and focus on an affirmation. This morning’s focus? Teamwork.

“Fried chicken is this great social equalizer in so many ways,” said Joe Deloss, founder and head fryer. “That’s why we have these giant communal tables, because it’s food for everyone and an experience for everyone.”

Each meal starts with your choice of chicken and spice level ranging from Cold, Warm, Hot and Holy. The faint of heart may choose “Cold,” which offers up a more mild heat. The true risk takers can order “Holy” if they’d prefer to see through space and time. The chicken is brined, deep-fried and coated with a spicy cayenne paste, piled on white bread and topped with pickles. To tame the heat there is cool, tangy slaw, mac n’ cheese and sweet tea, recipes handed down from Joe’s grandmother (lovingly referred to as “Ma”) and “battle tested through four generations of people.”

Part of the enthusiasm surrounding Hot Chicken Takeover was the idea that they may run out at any given moment. Similar to the insanity surrounding the cronut or rainbow bagel craze in New York, lines trailed out the door as people clamored in to get their hot chicken fix. But Joe insists this was not a gimmick.

“What’s interesting with the whole run-out thing, the reason it started is because we just didn’t know how to make chicken,” he said. “And so making 20 pieces of chicken was a challenge, then making 50 and 100 and 300. So we always ran out mostly because we just didn’t know how to make any more than that number that we were putting out on the board. We have matured as a company and have tightened it up a bit.”

From its humble beginnings serving chicken out of a window in Olde Towne East, Hot Chicken Takeover has grown to locations at North Market and Clintonville as well as a food truck. They’ve also earned a reputation for being a particularly compassionate company. Proceeds from t-shirt sales routinely go to different charities and they offer gainful employment to those who may need it the most.

“For the last 10 years I’ve been committed to fair chance employment, which intentionally means providing work opportunities to men and women who’ve been affected by incarceration or criminal record,” said Joe. “What that gets us is a team of people that are absurdly engaged and productive. High integrity, high character and just deliver on a crazy experience for our customers.”

As demand continues to grow, Hot Chicken Takeover shows no signs of slowing down, with a third location opening up at Easton this fall. Joe attributes their continued success to a good workforce and a positive response to feedback.

“We talk a lot about bold humility,” he said. “We are willing to lean in to what our customers are telling us because we don’t wrap ego up into the means of what we do. We keep improving because we’re willing to listen.”

Part of the fun of my Eating Books shtick is exploring aspects of literature that aren’t typically of the academic pursuit, namely the food. While my primary focus is bringing fictional food to life, in this column I’d love to examine Columbus through a literary lens. My latest obsession has been the Song of Ice & Fire series by George R. R. Martin, which I devoured as a way of satiating my Game of Thrones withdrawal. Now that winter has come, I am at the height of nerddom. So without further ado, here are my tips for eating like a Westerosi in Columbus.

Pattycake Bakery

Lemon cupcakes

Lemon cakes are Sansa Stark’s greatest guilty pleasure. Pattycake Bakery offers a variety of vegan delights, including their Lovely Lemon cupcakes. These large, fluffy cupcakes are topped with a zesty and sweet lemon icing, perfect for nibbling as you plot your course to seize the Iron Throne.

The Pint House

Beer battered chicken tenders & ale

The Hound is always on the prowl for his next meal and noshing on everything from pigs’ feet to rabbit stew, but he’s mostly associated with brawling for chicken (a perfectly reasonable past time.) The Pint House’s beer battered chicken tenders are certainly worth dying for. Wash it all down with a glass of stolen ale.

The Toast Bar

Bread

The actor who plays Hot Pie recently opened a Game of Thrones inspired bakery in London called “You Know Nothing John Dough” (a missed opportunity to call it “Hot Pie’s Hot Pies”) where you can actually purchase his famous dire wolf bread. In Columbus you can find similarly decadent loaves at The Toast Bar, courtesy of Dan the Baker. Almond croissants, apple cider glazed cinnamon rolls, slices of fresh bread with spreads of jam and butter. Dan’s baked goods rival Hot Pie’s any day.

Wolf’s Ridge Brewing

Direwolf beer and wine

From Dornish reds to Arbor Gold, wine is the drink of choice from the Red Keep to Highgarden. Wolf’s Ridge Brewing satisfies not only your wine requirement, but the aptly titled Dire Wolf beer is a can’t-miss for any fan. Try Dire Wolf’s Russian Imperial Stout, Coco Joy or Coffee Joy on tap. Trust me. I drink and I know things.

Shortly after moving to Boston, I booked a ticket on the Amtrak and met up with my friend in New York. We ended up in a little pizza shop in Brooklyn, the lighting so dim we could barely make out our hands in front of us. We ordered four pizzas at the insistence of our friends, Brooklyn natives who continued to rave about the “best pizza in New York.” We drizzled Mike’s Hot Honey on thick cuts of pepperoni, gooey cheese and flavorful crust, the perfect blend of fire and sweetness, sliding slice after slice down our gullets in an uncanny imitation of ducks swallowing bread.

So when the news hit that Paulie Gee’s was coming to Columbus, I was excited to relive my experience. But while the ambience and the pizza remains the same, owner and head pizza maker TJ Gibbs doesn’t plan on making it a carbon copy of the flagship. This includes menu offerings specific to the city.

“There is no recreating the density of a place like New York. You want to make things organic to Columbus,” he said. “Paulie did a brisket pie in Brooklyn, and I went to OSU and was at Ray Ray’s all the time, so there was really only one person I could call for that. We’re also working with Katzingers. We do a Reuben pizza with them, which I think is one of the top three on our menu for sure.”

TJ is Paulie’s protégé of sorts, having met the pizza maker shortly before graduating with a degree in hospitality. He took a train from Toledo to New York and spent a year learning from the master before opening up shop in Columbus.

“He’s been voted one of the top pizzas in the city, and New York is arguably one of the most, if not the most, competitive pizza climate in the world,” he said. “So it speaks really highly of what he’s doing there. I hope we can replicate that here.”

The dome-like oven, hand-made and imported from Napoli, is a vital part of what makes their pizza taste so unique, in addition to their dough (made in-house every day) and eclectic flavors. But getting the oven to Columbus was a feat in itself.

“They put it in a storage container and then they put it on a boat, so it was at sea for like 64 days,” said TJ. “You have these awful nightmares about a big storm hitting the ship or the container falling into the ocean. We had to tear off the front of the building to get it in there.”

The pizza still tastes just as good as I remember. I highly recommend the happy hour pizza flight for your choice of three different pizzas, which should include my personal favorites: The Monte Cristo topped with Canadian bacon, mild gouda and Ohio maple syrup, and The Hell Boy made up of Italian tomatoes, hot sopressata, fresh mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano and Mike’s Hot Honey (just put it on everything, okay?) TJ has his own preferences.

“The Hellified Porkpie White is a pretty special combination of flavors, “ he said. “I really like white pizzas. Not that I have anything against tomatoes.”

 In November 2015 I packed up my apartment into a sixteen-foot U-Haul and drove 800 miles to Boston. By the time I arrived in Beacon Hill, having navigated the low overheads, narrow streets and steep inclines, I was in the throes of a panic attack. I sobbed into my hands as my boyfriend pondered the whereabouts of John Kerry’s house.

The snowfall that year exceeded 110 inches, the largest in city history. Snow stood as high as our second story Brownstone and every car lining our street was caked in thick sheets of ice. The mayor chastised citizens jumping from their windows into the white abyss, and a Yeti—seriously, a Yeti—prowled the icy streets. I found my new city unfamiliar and strange, and myself strange in it.

Prior to my stint in the Commonwealth I was working as a banker in Columbus. I carried an authority that made me feel useful and valued, but the more I began to look like the suits upstairs, the more depressed I became. I started Eating Books as a creative outlet, a space where I could explore food in literature in greater depth. It was never meant to be anything more than a hobby, and when I quit my job at the bank, that’s all it was.

In Boston I was aimless. I jogged along the Charles River Esplanade. I got off at every stop on the T. Most of the time, though, I watched people: the dog walkers tangled in 12 leashes, seemingly attached to different dogs. The firefighter who said “woodchopper” in that satisfyingly thick Southie accent. The lady in a mink coat who scooped up her terrier’s poop with bare hands and then placed it in her pocket.

I watched all of this completely detached. I liked Boston, but I couldn’t find a way to connect. In an Ivy League city, the M.I.T. and Harvard bound are too busy climbing the corporate ladder. The sense of community feels too broad to penetrate. There’s something about Ohio, about the Midwest in general, conducive to community. The way you always seem to run into a familiar face, that small town vibe permeating in what is supposed to be the fourteenth largest city in America. It isn’t until you leave Columbus that the things you took for granted begin to stand out.

But sometimes things fall apart for a reason. I moved back home. I went back to school. I started a business. At this point my hobbies are successfully intertwined with my career aspirations. Eating Books took off in ways I didn’t expect and now I get to do what I love for a living. I can’t help but attribute all of it to the inner workings of this city, that unique sensibility that breeds camaraderie, not competition. John Kerry might not be my neighbor, but he was never home anyway.