At the Suffolk restaurant in Aldeburgh, nuggets are made from cod cheeks and served with a curried tartare sauce and seaweed salt. At the Spread Eagle in Wandsworth, London, Pitchfork cheddar nuggets come resting on a bed of warm onion chutney, with a side of saffron mayo. And, at the White Hart in Welwyn, confit chicken nuggets are drizzled with truffle mayo – “the boujiest chicken nuggs I ever did see”, as one commenter on the restaurant’s Instagram put it. More than a decade since Jamie Oliver did his best to dissuade the nation’s children from eating ultra-processed beige bites, nuggets – chicken or otherwise – are back on the menu, upgraded from fast-food favorite to restaurant-worthy fare.
“It’s our biggest-selling starter,” says James Jay, head chef at the Suffolk. “I think around one in six order it.” His nuggets sit alongside white-tablecloth classics such as lobster bisque, steak tartare and scallops – so what is the appeal of the seemingly simple dish? “It’s memory-evoking comfort food and there’s a playful element,” he says. “Ours is actually a play on words: ‘cod’s cheek-in-nugget’.”
The chicken nugget is undoubtedly the nugget’s most familiar form, and McDonald’s is often credited with its invention. But, while McDonald’s executive chef René Arend is responsible for creating the famous Chicken McNugget in 1979, the nugget’s roots can be traced back to the American agricultural scientist Robert C Baker, who, while working at Cornell University in 1957, researched ways to persuade people. to eat more chicken. He published his chicken nugget recipe in 1963, although his ideas for chicken hotdogs, chicken pastrami and chicken ham have proved less popular.
How did the humble nugget get fancy? One theory is that the dish taps into the current trend for nostalgia, fueled by the uncertainty of the past few years. If you once sought reassurance from a loaf of homemade banana bread, this might be the restaurant equivalent: no culinary surprises. It’s a marked move away from the aspirational, elegant Insta-bait that took over many eateries pre-pandemic, but millennials (who have proven to be just as keen on such nostalgia as they were on avocados) may have also spent much of the 90s gorging on Happy Meals, and thus hold the nugget in special regard.
“Our menu is based on nostalgic foods – we take childhood favorites and make them seasonal, British,” says David Waller, head chef at the Spread Eagle. His cheesy nuggets have been on offer for just a few months, but he’s found they provoke that feeling of familiarity, “in a different way” from the traditional chicken iterations. “People love to indulge in cheese, so it’s one of the most popular items on the menu.”
Earlier this month, nuggets were the top seller at Seed Library in east London, where cocktail innovator Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) collaborated with Norman’s Cafe; here they came “hand-breaded” and with a chilli sauce. Nuggets are also a hit at London restaurant group Bao – its Soho branch sells more than 300 trotter nuggets a week, while beef cheek and tendon nuggets are available at its Fitzrovia and King’s Cross restaurants.
Nugget enthusiast Reis Esiroglu, founder and director of Nugs – “the UK’s first fast food concept dedicated to the nostalgic favorite” – is not surprised at the current vogue. He has sold over 450,000 nuggets since launching his Essex-based business in May 2020. “Who doesn’t love a nugget?” he says. “When we first opened, we were sold out for eight weeks running.”
While his street-food-style menu – featuring a vegan “cauli-power nug” and vegetarian halloumi nuggets, alongside several chicken variations – is a far cry from fine dining, Nugs’ nugs are “definitely a cut above”, according to Esiroglu. . The key, he says, is premium ingredients. “We’ve taken something simple and elevated it to the very best it can be, in our eyes. We use high-quality chicken which goes through a 24-hour brining process, then sits in buttermilk, then we put it through our gluten-free flour dredge with loads of seasoning.”
Even so, he’s skeptical that nuggets can ever really be high-end. “You can try and make fried chicken posh, but it’s not a posh thing. You want to get your hands dirty.”
Likewise, Matt Brown, executive chef at the Lowback (from the people behind the nationwide steakhouse chain Hawksmoor) believes nuggets benefit from their implicit crudeness, even within a more sophisticated setting.
“Your nugget needs a certain amount of trashiness about it,” he says. “Crispy on the outside, oozing on the inside, no weird or controversial ingredients, and you’re on to a crowd pleaser.” He serves up salt beef nuggets with Ogleshield cheese and kraut, but is “working on a fun maple bacon nugget, which is inspired by a Findus crispy pancake”.
Yet, not everybody is thrilled about the nugget’s redemption. At the Palmerston in Edinburgh, the crispy pig’s head starter (served with cornichons and gribiche) might resemble a nugget, but “crumbing and frying pigs’ heads transcends the word ‘nugget’,” says co-founder and head chef Lloyd Morse. “We definitely don’t call them that.” There’s hope for the goujon yet, then? Or perhaps even “popcorn chicken”? “I’m going to be labeled anti-nuggets,” sighs Morse, “but if that’s what people want, there’s always McDonald’s.”