Getting there first
Chick-fil-A's new sandwich has Charleston origin story
Chick-fil-A’s cauliflower sandwich just rolled out in test markets this week, but Charlestonians got a crack at its predecessor a decade ago.
“I remember it quite clearly,” Chick-fil-A lead culinary developer Stuart Tracy said of his first encounter with fried cauliflower, which occurred when he was chef of Butcher & Bee in Charleston. To prepare for a 2013 Charleston Wine + Food dinner with Zahav chef Michael Solomonov, he worked a shift at his Philadelphia restaurant.
“Fried cauliflower with labneh was a staple of his, and somehow, I’d never thought to deep fry raw cauliflower before then,” Tracy continued. “I was so excited when I tried it. All the other line cooks [gave] me a very ‘yeah dude, we get it’ look.”
Soon, Charleston got it in the form of fried cauliflower salad, fried cauliflower grilled cheese, fried cauliflower Parmesan, and fried cauliflower banh mi, which became a menu fixture when Butcher & Bee did a brisk late-night business.
“It was our bestselling sandwich, but I never thought it had a fast-food future,” Butcher & Bee owner Michael Shemtov said. “Wish I could get a royalty from it.”
While the Butcher & Bee sandwich was dressed differently than Chick-fil-A’s first meatless entrée, which this week received adoring attention from national media outlets and backlash from climate change deniers, Tracy and Shemtov agree the dishes share a philosophy. Namely, identifiable plants are superior to meat taste-alikes manufactured in laboratories.
“One of the things we bonded over very early was letting vegetables be vegetables,” Shemtov said. “Let’s not be like, ‘It’s cheesesteak,’ but it’s made with tempeh.”
Over the five years that it took to develop the Chick-fil-A sandwich, Tracy’s team tested mushrooms, green tomatoes, carrots, and hybrid patties. But the one-time Charleston favorite won out.
“Cauliflower is so versatile, plentiful, truly delicious, and satisfying on its own,” said Tracy, who left Butcher & Bee in 2015.
Having tried the cauliflower sandwich, I can vouch for the delicious part.Putting aside Chick-fil-A’s politics, I’ve never cared for its chicken, probably because sweet isn’t my favorite flavor to pair with meat. But the distinctive seasoning made sense in a vegetable context, even if the impressively crisp breaded cauliflower didn’t greasily meld with its buttered bun. Off its bun, the cauliflower could double as a sophisticated passed app at a party.
I’m not sold on satisfying, though. Although the cauliflower sandwich has two more grams of fat than its chicken counterpart, it has 90 fewer calories and 22 fewer grams of protein. I probably should have ordered two—except the cauliflower sandwich costs $1.84 more than the sandwich made with chicken.
So, why am I telling you all this on a Friday? As you know, Fridays are the days on which I try to drum up new paid subscriptions, and I can’t imagine a better reason to drum than The Food Section’s record of getting food news first.
Sadly, The Post and Courier’s digital archives are notoriously hard to search, so I can’t swear that I wrote about Tracy’s fried cauliflower 10 years before the rest of the world. But it’s possible! (Plus, if that’s too theoretical for you, did you see the cover of the New York Times’ food section this week? The Food Section’s paying subscribers learned about Dakar NOLA’s “last meal” back in January.)
In other words, be like The Food Section. Don’t delay! Subscribe today!
Have a great weekend.
Chick-fil-A on February 13 started testing the cauliflower sandwich in Denver, Charleston, and the Greensboro-Triad region.
If you’re looking for someone to rant about paying $7 for a sandwich made with produce that retails for $3.50 a head, there are TikToks for that.
Even though it's popular, and I assume most patrons are not in the know, this company has horrible views on people, culture, and relationships.
Good one. Great review of the cauliflower specifics. I loved your analysis.