Pizza, Chicken, Chizza

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Before anything else: this is not going to be a food review, or a PR piece.

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In an 1843 diary, Alexandre Dumas – novelist, traveler, foodista – wrote quite fondly about the pizzas he encountered in the streets of Naples. Back then, pizza was simple fare sold from big copper tins, and would probably wouldn’t cost more than a few coins. Toppings were also simple: Dumas spoke of pizzas topped with oil, lard, cheese, tomatoes, and anchovies. These are things that many of us continue to see in modern pizza.

But there’s that last bit: “modern pizza.”

Today’s pizza, especially when sold and eaten in the Philippines, is far from being simple fare. It is not an everyday food. When we buy a “Manager’s Choice” pizza from Shakey’s, it does not necessarily mean we’re buying into the store manager’s favorite pizza (unless they want us to think that all store managers like black olives and bell pepper). It alludes to the status we assign to “managers” in this country. Because pizza is expensive, a “manager” can afford to buy it, and therefore the pizza carries with it a measure of prestige and privilege.

But the nuances of “modern pizza” don’t end there. When we say “pa-pizza,” we treat the entire office. Because of that, I think that we’re probably the only country in the world where the norm is to cut a round pizza into “party size” squares, in order to feed more people. Pizza in the Philippines is so diverse and nuanced, that even the most level-headed pizza purist would probably think we’re out of control.

We stuff crusts with sausage and cheese, we top pizzas with sweet barbecue sauce and “Angus beef.” We have successfully topped our pizzas with everything from mayonnaise to fried potatoes to shrimp and even the contents of a basic salad. And all pizza companies – big or small, fast-food or artisanal – will always have an option for a “Hawaiian” pizza (why we put pineapples on a pizza, I will never understand).

So I guess it’s safe to say that “modern pizza” can be so distant from its history, and much closer to the demands of marketing.

And that’s something we should dwell on a bit.

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Nothing says “marketing” more than the demands of fast-food.

There’s really nothing fundamentally “wrong” about KFC: in fact, they do a lot of things right. KFC is probably the most consistent fast food restaurant out there. But that consistency may be perceived as predictability: KFC will never mess around with its 11 herbs and spices, but there’s really only so much you can do with a 75-year-old recipe for fried chicken.

Compared to McDonald’s and Jollibee, KFC’s innovations are, to put it mildly, checkered. Here, all McDonald’s has to do is to import a few foreign items (say, a McRib) every now and then to fill in gaps in innovation, and bring back Twister Fries every once in a while to drive social media nuts.

Jollibee innovates too, but rarely outside its comfort zone: it will make family-size servings of Jolly Spaghetti, it would replace the two-piece Burger Steak with the big patty from a Champ, and the Glazed Chickenjoy is something that’s a bit left-field from the blue-chipper.

KFC’s a bit different, though: being the world’s best fried chicken restaurant probably isn’t enough, especially in a business landscape that values “innovation” and “disruptions” and “sea changes.” Not only does KFC have to compete with “traditional” fast food restaurants, but it’s also faced with changes in the public tastebuds. With salary increases and economic shifts, palates also evolve. Gone are the days when lunch was just “lunch:” people now demand better options and better flavors, and are willing to pay for it either through time (by going to some distant Pepper.ph recommended restaurant) or money (more and more restaurants offer “lunch specials,” which are often just samplers from the dinner menu).

I would think KFC responded more eagerly to the challenge of “innovation” and “disruption” than other fast-food chains. It tried to serve a breakfast buffet, where fried chicken shares space with other things you won’t expect from a KFC (like tocino or longannisa). It literally put a bed in one of its restaurants as part of a marketing campaign. Every so often, KFC comes up with a new take on salads or rice bowls. It even came up with a chicken-based answer to the Burger Steak.

All were met with varying degrees of success, but none more successful than the Double Down.

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Without being “racist” about it, the Double Down fits the stereotype of American urban gluttony. First announced as an April Fools’ Day joke in the United States, the Double Down was basically a cheese-and-bacon sandwich with KFC Original Recipe chicken fillets taking the place of the bun. It became so popular that it became a mainstay of the KFC menu.

When innovations cross over to the realm of convention, the glass is either half-empty or half-full. On the one hand, the Double Down is a success because it created a new product out of something that’s been around for a very long while. Yet on the other hand, how far can you push the envelope on the basic chicken fillet?

Earlier this year, the Doubl11005088_1416387305322436_1500414779_ne Down became the Double Down Dog: it was still the same cheese-and-bacon sandwich with chicken fillet “buns,” but with a hotdog thrown in. Personally, I think it’s the most delicious thing on KFC’s menu (as long as they hold the mayo). On the other hand, though, there’s just no way you can push this thing further. Innovation, after all, does have its limits.

And then the Chizza came along.

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I had my Chizza delivered to the office one rainy day, together with my favorite accompaniments for a rare KFC meal (I say “rare” because I have this odd fascination for “restricted calorie meals,” more on that when I feel like it): a Junior Bucket of fries and a large Coke.

The Chizza came in a box: the same ones used for a pizza. I was expecting something cool or awesome like how people hype the thing on the Internet, until I saw the Chizza for what it was: a fruity version of a chicken parmigiana.

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Unfiltered, unedited, unexpurgated. Looks exactly like that.

Verdict: I don’t like it. The chicken fillet is fine, precisely because it’s exactly what you would expect from a KFC. The slices of pepperoni were a rather pleasant surprise. But I don’t care much for the tomatoes, I don’t like the pineapples one bit (again, I’ll never understand why people keep doing this to food), and I was really disappointed with the minuscule topping of cheese.

But that’s me. Lots of people like the Chizza: who am I to tell you not to buy it? If you like the KFC Pineapple Chicken Parmigiana-in-a-box, then by all means, eat it.

So if you came for the review, basically that’s it.

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I think the Chizza challenges the last link between traditional and modern pizza: the crust.

It’s not like pizza crusts (or pizzas in general) aren’t challenged elements in themselves: gluten-free fads have invented and espoused cauliflower pizza crusts. Some like their crusts soft and pliable as a “pizza pie” should be, and some like their crusts thin and almost cookie-like. Some like the lip of the crust stuffed with cheese or sausage. In essence, though, the crust is flour.

The “disruption” in the Chizza is that the crust doesn’t have to be made out of flour: it’s a chicken fillet. While we can go at length in saying that the Chizza is a parmigiana, it’s not: it’s a pizza. Because of Chizza, pizza is now about the toppings, not the total form by which those toppings are delivered.

And that hits on a very important point: pizza is no longer a “food,” but it has crossed over to a “flavor.” What makes a pizza “pizza” is not how it’s served, but what it tastes like. That the sauce used to dress the KFC chicken fillet “tastes like pizza” is enough to validate the Chizza as a “pizza,” not a “pizza-flavored chicken.”

And so it goes with a lot of things: Doritos, Pringles, maybe an upcoming flavor of soda, who knows.

That, to me, is a really important thing to think about.

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At the beginning of this piece, I wrote that “modern pizza” is very different from Dumas’s observations from over 170 years ago, just like how KFC today is no longer the same thing that Colonel Sanders perfected a century later. Then, food was guided by history. Food was fascinating because it told stories on their own, without being drawn out in more than a thousand words.

Today, it’s different: in more ways than one, marketing dictates a lot of the things we take for granted about food. Especially our perception of what food is, and what it ought to be.

On the one hand, one can say that capitalism is capable of subversion, even for its own ends. When products of capitalism create demand, innovations often come across as against-the-grain, disruptive, or groundbreaking. But nothing fundamental about anything has changed here, other than our prevailing notions about the is’s and ought-to-be’s of pizza. Pizza is still expensive. The bulk of Filipinos everywhere will still see KFC as a treat. It’s not like anything changed because someone thought about combining a pizza and a fried chicken together.

On the other hand, what makes the Chizza such an interesting idea is how challenges to convention emerge from all sorts of places. Pizza and fried chicken are centuries old, and while hindsight tells us that we could have easily done this, we never really did. Not even the artisanal small businesses that caters to everyone’s inner culinary hipster would have thought of it at this scale.

And because we have three hands: how far can we push the Chizza concept? We’ve seen it in the history of pizza, we’ve seen it in the Double Down: for Chizza to live on, demand isn’t enough. It is an innovation that needs innovation, in order for it to last. And with all the kinds of things that have graced and garnished the “modern pizza,” I think the place of Chizza is safe for now.

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Would Dumas and Sanders roll over in their graves knowing what we’ve done to the things they made popular? I wouldn’t know.

What I do know is that I probably won’t have another Chizza soon.

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