Chef News

Casey Hopkins-Johnson of Welcome Chicken + Donuts on Her Favorite Doughnut, Her Feelings About Krispy Kreme, and the Restaurant's Next Collaboration (Hint: Butterscotch Pudding)

Casey Hopkins-Johnson
Head baker
Welcome Chicken + Donuts
1535 E. Buckeye Road, Phoenix

You have to get up early to get a doughnut from Welcome Chicken + Donuts. On the weekends, some varieties will be sold through before the lunch customers even start to arrive.

But if you think you have to get out of bed early to enjoy one of the restaurant's deep-fried, doughy creations, just know that Casey Hopkins-Johnson has to get up even earlier to make them.

As head baker for Welcome Chicken + Donuts, the recently opened second restaurant from the folks behind Welcome Diner, Hopkins-Johnson often starts her day at 2 a.m. That's when she gets to the restaurant on weekdays to bake the more than 300 doughnuts that fill the restaurant's pastry case. She and her staff of two or three bakers spend all night mixing, frying, and glazing so that by the time 7 a.m. comes around, customers can have their choice of more than a dozen different flavors of deep-friend dough.

"We're a small, small, intimate crew in there pumping out a lot of food," Hopkins-Johnson says.

And in addition to the regular rotation of doughnuts and chicken, the five-month-old restaurant has started a series of one-day collaborations with local chefs. The pop-up specials have featured well-known names including Crepe Bar's Jeff Kraus and Scottsdale-based ice cream shop, Sweet Republic.

Up next, Hopkins-Johnson says she's getting ready to work with one of Valley's best-known female chefs: Charleen Badman of FnB Restaurant. According to Hopkins-Johnson, Welcome Chicken + Donuts will feature collaborative donuts from Badman this coming weekend.

The road that brought Hopkins-Johnson to this job is a winding one, but the common thread seems to be a love for food. About a year ago, Hopkins-Johnson was baking part-time at the downtown coffee shop, Jobot, having recently left a job with Farmyard, an organic CSA based in Arcadia. She was preparing to have a baby.

That was about the time she re-connected with Jenn Robinson and Micheal Babcock, who she knew from when she and Jenn worked at the now-defunct Downtown Phoenix Public Market. They told her about their plans for a fried chicken and doughnut restaurant, and asked, casually, if she might be interested in baking the doughnuts.

At first, Hopkins-Johnson says she wasn't sure about taking the full-time job as a new mother. But after a few meetings with both Babcock and Sloan McFarland, who owns both the Welcome Diner and Welcome Chicken + Donuts buildings, Hopkins-Johnson says she realized it could be a good fit.

There was just one slight problem.

"I had made a baked donut, but I had never made a fried donut until I started research and development here," Hopkins-Johnson admits.

Which isn't to say she didn't have plenty of baking experience prior to getting the gig. To the contrary, her resume includes a period as assistant baker at the vegan restaurant Pomegrante Cafe. She also operates a small catering company, Bird City Baking Company, which initially supplied pastries for First Draft Book Bar (until she got to busy with baking doughnuts).Oh, and there's that year she spent working on an organic farm in Oxnard, Cali., a period during which Hopkins-Johnson says baking vegan treats for her co-workers became more than just a casual hobby.

Still, she says there was a lot of "learning on the go."

These days, Hopkins-Johnson and her staff make five different types of dough on the weekends. They include a traditional yeast dough, a vegan yeast dough, a traditional cake dough, a vegan fritter dough, and a traditional fritter dough. With these five dough bases, they produce 19 or 20 different varieties of doughnuts. Nearly every doughnut requires its own glaze, and sometimes a topping — which means the bakers do everything from hand zest lemons to cook pounds of bacon to scatter on top of the popular maple bacon offering.

"It's rough — and your body tells you about it all the time," Hopkins-Johnson says with a smile. "But it's good work, making food for people. I feel good about it."

What is your favorite doughnut?

It is ever-evolving, I would say. But today I think my favorite doughnut is probably...I really like that grapefruit mimosa doughnut. It's really refreshing, which is nice and unexpected, a little grown up even though we cook all the alcohol out. Yeah, I like it and it's simple enough. It's not demanding too much from you.

But I think my favorite donut of all time was that brown butter, sage, Meyer lemon marmalade doughnut that we did. That was the most fun to do. We individually plucked those rosemary flowers — it was hilarious. It was a labor of love. We had a really good time making it.

What's the secret to making the prefect donut?

I mean, I think anyone that works with bread is probably going to talk about proofing. Proofing is the most important part of anything with yeast. So I'm just going to say on the yeast donuts, proofing. On the cake donuts, I think it's probably trying to find a balance. I've had some people say it's too sweet. I've had other people say it's not sweet enough. I've had some people say it' s just right. I think for us, and what we stand behind as a team here, is we think its a pretty balanced product. We didn't necessarily want the cake doughnut to be a blank canvas, we wanted it to feel like, "I got some salt and I got some brightness from that lemon and I got a little bit of that vanilla." But to keep it simple: proof and balance. Those are the too biggest ones.

Do you have a favorite type of chicken?

I really like that Korean Chili sauce a lot. And I eat that Thai Yum slaw, all the time. We make breakfast salad in the morning, the bakers. We either use the slaw mix and eggs and like a little bit of that dressing and maybe a little bit of Sriracha, depending on how you're feeling that day. We call it breakfast salad. Because we don't — like, unless I haven't eaten in a long time, not a lot of the bake team is just chowing on donuts. It's funny how when you work with food you end up sometimes, not eating a lot of it.

Do you have a favorite childhood, nostalgia doughnut that you grew up eating?

Gosh, I was not, I mean, I think I liked donuts because they were sweet and I had a sweet tooth as a child. But it wasn't like, I want to go get donuts. But I remember really enjoying the basic Krispy Kreme doughnut because I remember when they came to Phoenix. I grew up in Chandler [and] Tempe and so I remember like, "Krispy Kreme is here. We're gonna go get the Krispy Kreme." And somebody brought them to some sort of the function and I was like, "This is the pièce de résistance. This is the greatest donut that ever exsisted." Simple, right?

But nowadays I think if I want to have a doughnut, I probably want to have you know, two bites of an apple fritter or something with some fruit in it, or jelly. I don't think I even ate an apple fritter until I was like in high school.

Is there anything you wouldn't ever put on a doughnut?

I don't know, I probably wouldn't ever put pickled herring on a doughnut. Although when you're in doughnuts you end up researching what other doughnut shops are doing and there's a lot of shops that are doing really interesting savory donuts now, which is really exciting to see. I haven't yet seen anything as daring as pickled herring, but there's a shop in Boston that just started doing a layered pretzel. So it's like layers of pretzel dough and mustard. I was like, "Man, that's so cool." It's a pretzel doughnut with a bunch of mustard and I was like, "I think I'm really into that." Way exciting.

If you could collaborate with anyone in town, who would you want to work with?

Charleen [Badman from FnB] is really exciting. Not only is she Charleen, she's a female chef, she works with women. It's really exciting working with a female chef who's running her own restaurant and, just, the foremost vegetable cook. I'm really excited for the stuff we're going to do for her project. That's great already. And Jeff [Kraus from Crepe Bar] is lovely. I just got to meet Helen [Yung from Sweet Republic] when we did that event.

So I'm trying to think... I would really love to do something with anyone that's doing laminated dough. So like, Essence. [Eugenia Theodosopoulos] would someone that would be fun. We could do, like, that Gruyere croissant that they make? That would be really cool to do like a Cronut™ or something. So that could be cool. I also think it'd be really fun, and I've met him before, I really like [Cullen Campbell from Crudo]. He used to buy vegetables from me when I worked with Maya. So those two, for entirely different reasons, those are the first two that come to mind.

So, what can people expect from the FnB collaboration?

We'll just say...butterscotch. We'll say some rutabagas. We'll say some carrots. And we'll update more as we go. It's three different donuts. Those are three different things.

Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Robert Nixon — Geordie's Steak Chris Schlattman — The Upton Joey Bruneau — Nabers Cory Oppold and Juan Zamora — Atlas Bistro Natalie Morris Luis Milan — Sol Diablo Cantina

Follow Chow Bella on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.