The New Yorker Coverage of Twist and Smash’d Twisted Potato | Sir Kensington’s Fries of New York
BY MARK SINGER
Article from The New Yorker, Spring, 2008. Barack Obama, a first-term United States senator from Illinois, gains momentum on his trajectory to the Presidency of the world’s most bewildering democracy, as tens of millions of disaffected citizens find reason to hope again. (Though evidently not the ones who, at the sight of him, begin to stockpile automatic weapons.) Great changes, it seems, await.
Simultaneously, in Providence, Rhode Island, Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan, two ambitious econ majors in their final semester at Brown University, perceive that, yes, our futures are bright. Harboring entrepreneurial ambitions, they accept job offers in, respectively, finance and management consulting. In the spirit of the historical moment, they dream of launching a game-changer. Inconveniently, Facebook has already been invented. What else, besides being umbilically attached to little digital devices, do consumers need to make life worth living.
Artisanal ketchup. (Obviously.)
In Norton’s off-campus apartment, they come up with six recipes and test them on friends. Because ketchup typically likes company, they also provide straight-cut French fries, waffle fries, and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Critical consensus lands on two of the varieties. They graduate. Norton moves to Japan to work for a bank. Ketchup master plan incubates until 2010, when they get seriously serious: Norton repatriates; Ramadan quits job. They have by now concocted not only a condiment but also a branding eponym: Sir Kensington, a top-hatted, monocled, late-eighteenth-century globe-trotter just as real as Tony the Tiger and the Frito Bandito. Sir K’s biography: Oxford graduate, conversant in agronomy and culinary arts; travels to Constantinople, pursues doctoral studies at Cambridge (thesis topic: Byzantine gastronomy blah blah); makes a boring fortune; one night at a fancy banquet, his dining companion, Catherine the Great, asks for ketchup; he retreats to the kitchen and whips up a batch; two centuries later, idling in the special collections of the Brown library, Norton and Ramadan discover the recipe.
In 2011, they hire their first employee, open an office in Chelsea, and progressively insinuate Sir Kensington’s Classic Ketchup and Sir Kensington’s Spiced Ketchup into retail stores. Then come restaurants, customers in all fifty states, sales volumes doubling and tripling annually, Sir K’s mayonnaise (classic, chipotle, sriracha) in 2013, and mustard (Dijon, spicy brown) earlier this year. Last July, shortly after the spicy brown takes the silver medal in the deli-mustard category at the World-Wide Mustard Competition, in Middleton, Wisconsin, the next stupendous idea dawns: “Fries of New York,” an exhibit fully worthy of a pop-up gallery on the Bowery (where last week it opened and, two days later, closed).
During the week and a half leading up to the opening, a fresh-hot-food-procurement strategy executed with the precision of the Allied invasion—Mobile Fry Command Center roaming Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn (“Twenty minutes to go! Fire up the fries!”); couriers on bicycles (“We need to keep that optimization window open!”)—delivers French fries from almost a hundred restaurants to Guild, an architectural design and branding collaborative in Gowanus. There perfect specimens are dehydrated, coated with a low-sheen resin, mounted on aluminum spindles, and placed in bell jars.
On the eve of the opening, Norton serenely surveys the exhibit as it comes together. Vinyl-transfer drawings of Sir Kensington’s self-satisfied mug have been placed on the gallery windows, mingling with bottles of ketchup, mustard, and mayo. Dozens of bell jars rest on tables, waiting to be taxonomically arranged. A workman applies a time line to a white wall: “8000 B.C. (Potato first domesticated in modern day Peru and Bolivia) . . . 500 B.C. (evidence found of tomato cultivation in Mexico) . . . 544 A.D. (first recipe of ketchup on record found in China, involving the stomach, intestine, and bladder of a yellow fish) . . .”
Brimming with curatorial pride, Norton identifies specimens without needing to check the labels beneath the bell jars: “The curly fry is Papaya King. The four-and-a-half-inch lightly seasoned natural-cut fry is from Delmonico’s. That cocoa-and-chili-dusted waffle fry is from Max Brenner in Union Square. The tater tot is from P. J. Clarke’s, and it’s definitely an outlier. In the most pure sense, a tater tot is not a French fry. Same genus, different species.”
A father and daughter from Long Island, Rob and Brianna Cano, the caterers for a pre-opening party, show up to discuss logistics. They also happen to be the owners of Twist and Smash’d, in Astoria and Forest Hills, home of the exhibit’s pomme de résistance, a symmetrical tornado-shaped fry cut from a single potato.
“We were in Ecuador three years ago and found this handheld spiral cutter in a bodega,” Rob says. “I don’t know the name of it, but we brought it back, put it with a smashed burger, patented it, and wrapped a whole franchise around it. Business got so good we had to switch to an electrical-powered cutter. What do we call that? We call it the potato machine.”