On our way back to Vancouver, we stopped in Calgary to meet Richmond, BC-born-and-raised sisters Nicole & Francine Gomes, who have now opened a new take-out restaurant – Cluck N Cleaver.
I had the opportunity to interview both Nicole and Francine. If Nicole seems familiar to you, she previously was on Top Chef Canada, placing 5th in the Season 3. She used to also work at the South Granville restaurant West, with David Hawksworth before moving to Calgary to work in other fine dining establishments and then starting her own catering company, Nicole Gourmet. Francine grew up in the restaurant industry, predominantly on the front end working in various clubs and restaurants, and lived in in the Kootenays raising over 200 chickens on her hobby farm before moving back to Calgary. Nicole is Cluck N Cleaver’s Chief Chicken Officer, while Francine is the restaurant’s Director of Poultry.
A: Thanks for meeting with me today. Take us through your menu and what’s the most popular dishes on the menu.
FG: Our most popular dish is the fried chicken – we use a secret spice that’s Nicole’s secret recipe she has perfected over the years. With our regular customers, our rotisserie is quite popular as well. You’ll notice that our chickens are actually bigger than other rotisserie chickens you usually buy at the store. We use 4lb birds.
A: What makes a good chicken? How did you source the chicken?
FG: I had a hobby farm when I lived in the Kootenays and really enjoyed raising chickens. I had over 200 chickens and spent time on the farm studying various breeds of chickens, improving the techniques of raising chickens. It was a hobby, but I really enjoyed it. So when Nicole and I opened Cluck N Cleaver, I really wanted to make sure we sourced the best chickens. Our chickens are hormone free, never frozen, and locally sourced. All our chicken come from nearby Alberta farms that are of quality – essentially happy birds.
NG: The chickens are also soaked in local buttermilk. You’ll notice on our menu we tried to source everything locally and include real ingredients. We wanted to ensure we are offering more healthier alternatives than processed sugars and preservatives including the drinks we sell that contains real sugar. We wanted to make sure we didn’t use MSG, that everything was made fresh.
FG: If you notice, even down to the packaging, we put thought into making sure most of our packaging was compostable or recyclable.
A: How did you come to decide on southern fried chicken, and focus only on a take-out location instead of a dine-in restaurant?
NG: Well, we wanted to create a restaurant where we didn’t have to be here everyday. Our business plan was to create a scaleable business and would be able to duplicate this in the future. We wanted to build a consistent model for the business, with manuals and methods, so that in the future as more locations start up, it could also provide for a huge opportunity for growth for our staff. They could have management opportunities, become corporate chefs in other locations.
A: Why this specific fried chicken concept?
NG: Being in the industry for over 20 years, there’s a gap in the fast food industry – I want to be able to provide quality food that’s healthy, yet quick and take out. We don’t offer fast food pricing, but the food is healthier.
FG: Online, customers can also order through our website in advance and come to pick it up, for convenience. It also allows us to estimate how much to prepare when orders are submitted in advance to maintain fresh batches.
A: So what’s in the near future? Nicole, are you looking to go back into fine dining or just focus on Cluck N Cleaver and your catering company? Francine, will you be looking to keep at Cluck N Cleaver on a daily basis?
NG: No, I really enjoy this, it’s my creative outlet [Nicole Gourmet catering]. I cook around 2-3 times a week and enjoy creating new dishes. With Cluck N Cleaver, I enjoy the development of dishes. I recently worked on corn fritters, and a chicken sandwich is coming soon. This keeps me quite busy but main thing, I’m having fun.
FG: Hopefully in the future, I’m aiming to go back to farming and working on chicken development. I’d love to research into using heritage breeds of chickens to create a special chicken specifically for Cluck N Cleaver one day. Although production time is longer with heritage breeds, it’s my goal to also look at changing the farming techniques and improve the way we raise chickens.
A: You both are quite driven and have lots of experience in this field. Who motivates you or inspires you to do better? To keep you going each day?
NG: Each other for sure. And our mom. Goal setting is also really important for us. We joked around years ago about opening a chicken joint, and here we are!
FG: Some people think it’s hard for sisters to work together, but for us, if anything, it’s helped our relationship.
NG: And our mom, she loves that we keep the business in the family!
After our interview, Nicole and Francine took us on a tour of our facilities. They explained that not only were the ingredients really important, but the actual cooking process was well researched and thought through. It took them a year to develop the processes to ensure that it met their standards. Being only one of 3 restaurants currently in Canada to own a Henny Penny – which is a pressure fryer that filters the oil after each cycle to ensure only the fresh oil gets used with each batch.
Their rotisserie oven was imported from France, and allows them to cook French-style rotisserie chicken. All the chicken juices drip downwards, and allows their potatoes to catch and absorb the juices for more flavour.
Before leaving, we ordered a feast enough for 4-6 people, basically trying almost everything on the menu. Rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, fresh made Kennebec fries, Chipotle Lime Corn & Bean salad, Potatoes, Buttermilk biscuits, Gravy, a malt shake (Foothills Creamery ingredients), and a Frostie orange soda known as “Better Fanta“. For dessert, we also ordered 2 Skor & Pecan cookies.
For those driving through Calgary or live in Calgary, make sure to check out Cluck N Cleaver. Order online to save the wait! For menu and to order online, visit: cluckncleaver.com.