The Pengest Munch, the viral YouTube chicken shop review channel by “chicken connoisseur” Elijah Quashie, is back to its regular programming after a series of lengthy hiatuses. Quashie dropped a best of video in celebration of its five-year anniversary this week, revealing that “every fortnight” there will be an episode of what remains some of the most interesting food criticism in the city.
Like any great critic, Quashie has his signatures: a crep check — for the best of, Nike Air Max 95, which he mislabelled as Air Max 90 while “drunk on Mirinda.” A rating system, with appropriately rigorous, particular criteria for a carefully selected range of chicken shop staples: Chips, wings, and strip burgers. It’s out of five, goes into decimal places as a matter of course, and is ballasted by Quashie’s persuasively specific meditations on chip density, burger ratios — too much mayo, a deadly sin; burger sauce, essential — and the qualities of chicken breading.
Then there’s an assessment of the vibe; the atmosphere created by each shop’s bossman. If it’s dead, he’s going to say so, and he’s going to explain why it’s dead for him. Rather than attempting to reach for omniscience which doesn’t define its terms, Quashie is one of the only critics willing to actually put out a set of self-evidently subjective, particular, highly defended but maybe not that defensible (only pepper on chips?) criteria and run with it.
The Pengest Munch originally went viral in late 2016, prompting a succession of interviews and media appearances in which presenters struggled to deal with Quashie’s directness. He said of Masterchef judge Gregg Wallace; sorry; “the bald one on Masterchef” in 2016: “I wondered to myself, what makes his opinion more valued than anyone else’s? Is it because he’s been eating more food, so he has an experienced palate? I’m not sure. I thought, no one is doing this for the type of people who eat at chicken shops.”
As Navneet Alang observed in a piece for Eater on Quashie’s rise in 2017, The Pengest Munch’s arrival questioned the “because I said so” methodology of largely white, upper-middle class restaurant critics in the U.K. and U.S.A., both in terms of value judgements and the blindspots in where they choose to review. Chicken shops, which are woven into London’s social fabric and as Alang notes, are unconstrained by a focus on pork or beef that would make them inadmissible to to the many Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Sikhs in the city, are a very big blindspot.
Food critics don’t visit these spaces, but the Home Office will stamp “knife free” on boxes at Morley’s, Dixy Chicken, and Chicken Cottage to literally brand spaces of safety, community, and shared eating for Black Londoners as dangerous and deadly. And while London’s newspaper critics wrestle with the ethics of even doing a criticial review during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Quashie is reviewing places that stayed open because they had to, for their owners to make a living and for the people that come to eat their chips, wings, and strip burgers, and he’s being true about it.
London and the food world have both changed since The Pengest Munch broke out: Quashie’s five year anniversary video is filmed outside Taste of Tennessee, in Old Street, his very first location. It’s shut down: “the rent got a bit mad over here.” Quashie has released a £100 t-shirt, and his videos have shifted from a gonzo intensity to a more produced package, complete with animations, sound effects, and inter-cut reaction clips. He’s still wearing the signature shirt and tie.
The limits of restaurant criticism within a pandemic and the limits of restaurant criticism as it exists today are taking up more space in conversations about food. Quashie’s success has spawned imitators; critical influence has diffused out of papers and on to social media and challenged who gets to treat food as an aesthetic concern and on what terms. Five years on, The Pengest Munch still feels like a representation of what engaged, interested, equitable city food criticism can look like. Even if, whatever the chicken connoisseur says, chips need salt.