Refuel: Reaching New Heights for Fried Chicken and Burgers [CLOSED]

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Fried Chicken Vancouver

Beef tallow and lard both play key roles in producing seriously flavorful fried chicken. [Photos courtesy of Refuel]

Heading to Vancouver, it was less important to eat at specific restaurants than it was to experience certain types of food. Considering the location, demographics and prior experiences, seafood, locally inspired and Asian cuisine made the most sense. Ordering American classics like fried chicken and hamburgers seemed unlikely, but my meal at Refuel involved both plates, and executive chef Robert Belcham and chef de cuisine Jane Cornborough put on a comfort food clinic.

Belcham is an Edmonton native who opened locally minded Refuel in 2009 with restaurateur Tim Pittman and sommelier Tom Doughty on a trendy strip of Kitsilano. He’s also a partner in Campagnolo, which specializes in regional Italian cuisine inspired by Piedmont and Emiglia-Romagna, and Campagnolo Roma, which showcases food from Italy’s Capital.

Fried Chicken Friday features $18 for three pieces of buttermilk fried Polderside Farms Redbro heritage breed chicken and “all the fixins.” When Belcham was working as a private chef, he had a client with a house in L.A. and visited Roscoe’s, famous for their chicken and waffles. He “thought it was the most brilliant thing ever” and subsequently experimented with starches and cooking temperatures before rolling out an instant classic in Vancouver. All along, he had one edict in mind: “Since this is the best chicken we can get in B.C. we want to let the flavor shine through. We don’t want to cover it up.”

Belcham said, “We use technology to help us make it more consistent,” explaining how he and his Refuel crew achieve such a scintillating result. They marinate the premium bird in buttermilk, salt and pepper for a week, cook it sous vide at exactly 71 degrees celsius, dredge it in seasoned flour and fry in a combination of beef tallow and lard for finishing. The skin wasn’t as crispy as pan fried chicken, but was by no means floppy, and the meat was astoundingly juicy and flavorful.

The oil requires two animals, and the gravy takes the bones from four: pork, beef, chicken, duck. As Belcham pointed out, with all those meats, the dark gravy develops “very deep flavor that’s much more dynamic than a regular chicken gravy.”

The chicken and gravy joined a fairly light jalapeño biscuit and vinegar-based cole slaw with cabbage, carrots and mustard. In summer, the chicken comes with watermelon, and has been known to appear with waffles.

Hamburger Vancouver

Hamburger Vancouver

Belcham’s burger was also quite different from pretty much any other version.

Belcham starts by sourcing Prime beef from his home state of Alberta and dry-aging for 40 days. The beef is ground fresh daily entirely from neck meat, which is quite unusual, and higher in fat, at least 30%. Why neck meat? He said, “We found the muscles that move the most have the most flavor.” The especially coarse grind was cooked medium rare and resembled steak tartare. As Belcham said, “We’re very serious about our meat here.”

“For me the reason a burger tastes so good is because of the meat, not because of all the condiments you pile on top of it,” said Belcham. Given that, he keeps the toppings simple, layering on a thick slice of aged, local farmhouse cheddar.

His grandfather was a farmer and cured pork to keep it edible through the winter. Belcham uses Grandpa’s bacon recipe, curing the belly in-house with salt and brown sugar and smoking over applewood for 5-6 hours, yielding savory, smoky and not-too-sweet slices. He sources “ethically and humanely treated pork” from Sloping Hill on Qualicum Beach, a farm that sells only eight pigs per month.

Fries also took a lot of consideration. They blanche skin-on Kennebec potatoes three times, once in water and twice in beef tallow. “The water blanching allows it to get crispier, somehow,” said Belcham. They were indeed crisp, pretty much textbook texture.

At Campagnolo, Belcham has a butcher shop, so he’s able to produce charcuterie for all three restaurants. About a decade ago, he was the butcher for The French Laundry, so he’s clearly got some chops which were on display with a plate of saucisson sec, dry-aged chorizo and 18-month-old ham. All of this meat came from Sloping Hill Farm as well.

Hamburgers and fried chicken were hardly priorities prior to my B.C. sojourn, but Refuel ended up being my most memorable meal in Vancouver. If tourists could only visit one restaurant in the city, and it was a Friday, Refuel could easily be the place I’d suggest.

Note: My meal at Refuel was complimentary, as part of a tour that Tourism Vancouver hosted.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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