Have you ever eaten chicken served in a waffle cone?
If not, you’re in for a real treat at the Blue Chicken stand of Smorgasburg, America’s largest open-air food market, where over 100 food stands were perched around the East River State Park in Brooklyn. A chattering, ravenous crowd gathered there, with the fragrant scent of fresh food in the air. Under a blue tent emblazoned with the logo of a chicken, glistening pieces of chicken topped with spices and sauce were served in a waffle cone. Chef Aaron Ratner, the 21-year-old owner and founder of Blue Chicken, started his adventure here in April 2019.
Long before he became the owner of his very own food stand, Ratner was an ordinary boy whose passion was in the kitchen. At ten, he began cooking with his mother for his extended family of 70 people who came to his parents’ house around the holidays.
While studying at the Great Neck South High School, Ratner started working at the concession stand of the Great Neck Estates Park under the guidance of his business teacher Dennis Mooney. In tenth grade, Ratner spent a summer in London interning at the lavish Westbury Mayfair Hotel’s Michelin restaurant.
“I fell in love with the fine dining service,” he said. “The smiles on everybody’s faces when they see the food you give them, and their reaction after taking the first bite, is really what makes me come back and want to do it every single day.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree of hospitality management from the University of Delaware, Ratner went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Napa Valley, California. He began developing the idea for Blue Chicken, the logo of which was inspired by the mascot for the University of Delaware, the fighting blue hen.
“While most people coming out of CIA go into the fine dining atmosphere, I took a really different approach to start off my business right away, which is pretty risky,” Ratner said. “It is hard work but I’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”
Getting into Smorgasburg was no easy feat. It selects only 20 businesses out of hundreds of applicants each year. Ratner applied online while studying at CIA in 2018. Smorgasbug liked the concept, and invited him to Brooklyn for a tasting and interview. He flew back to the east coast for a three-day weekend to present his products. A week later, Smorgasburg offered him a spot starting from April 2019. Ratner used the last few months of his time at CIA to fine tune every aspect of Blue Chicken under the guidance of Professor Almir Da Fonseca. After graduating in April, he flew back. He had only two weeks to get ready.
There were a lot of preparation to do, from getting the license and equipment to finding a reliable supplier. After everything was ready, he found himself ten-thousand dollars in the hole, every penny of which was his own hard earned money in the past seven years. It was nerve-wracking, but he knew that it’s the dream that he’d been working towards for such a long time.
Despite initial concerns, Ratner’s creative idea and hard work paid off. Blue Chicken was a hit at Smorgasburg. On his very first day, his menu items were sold out. Blue Chicken broke even in the first month.
There were four items on the menu. The most popular was the buttermilk fried chicken in a salted blue corn cone. But what really got everyone talking was the Nashville Extra Hot Chicken Sandwich, which had three of the hottest peppers in the world. You must sign a waiver to eat.
Even if it may not seem that way, the food on the Blue Chicken’s menu was carefully tested for months before being served.
“Having worked at a Michelin restaurant, and being pushed to think hard about “why cook it this way” at CIA play big roles in everything we do with The Blue Chicken,” Ratner said. “We make sure that every item we sell to our customers is perfect.”
With his culinary background and successful food stand, Ratner is certainly going places. It turns out, he’s got some ideas.
“Now that we have the Smorgasburg operation up and running pretty smoothly, we have been talking about what the next step for The Blue Chicken is.” he said while grinning broadly. “We do see a storefront in the near future. So watch out, Chick-Fil-A. We’ll be coming for you.”
Joy Wei is a student at Great Neck North Middle School. She likes drawing and writing.