Aaron Ratner, 22, discovered his love for the culinary arts at 10 years old when his mother, who was one of nine children, asked for help when the holidays came around.
Those gatherings, after all, could have anywhere from 50 to 75 people, he said.
“She was teaching me how to cook,” Ratner, a Great Neck Estates native, said, “and before I knew it, I was cooking for everyone.”
About 12 years later, that love for cooking has manifested in The Blue Chicken, a business venture that debuted at Smorgasburg, which describes itself as the largest seasonal outdoor food market in the United States. It is located in Brooklyn and home to dozens of vendors.
About 300 people competed for about 20 open slots this year, Ratner said.
The Blue Chicken name stems from his time at the University of Delaware, whose mascot is the fighting blue hen. He said he thought it could be fun to call a future business venture the blue chicken “as a play on that.”
Ratner said that Chef Devin Spear, with whom he attended the Culinary Institute of America after graduating from Delaware, was “immediately hooked” with the idea. Since then they’ve spent countless hours with recipe development.
“Before anything goes on the menu, we spend months and months testing every item and making sure it’s really right,” Ratner said.
Currently, there are four items on the menu, including two chicken sandwiches, blood orange lemonade and – perhaps most famously – chicken and waffles, where chicken is served in a salted blue corn waffle cone.
That itself stems from a partnership with the Konery, a producer of gourmet waffle cones that was founded by fellow University of Delaware alum Kristine Tonkonow, Ratner said. He said the two met when he was a sophomore, before the idea of pairing a waffle cone and chicken clicked.
“It’s really been great for our business so far,” Ratner said, noting its sales have been double that of their chicken sandwich.
Ratner also credited much of his business acumen to help from Great Neck South High School economics teacher Dennis Mooney, who first took him “under his wing” about seven years ago.
They built and ran the concession stand at Great Neck Estates Park together, he said, where he learned how to manage issues with inventory and purchasing. The money he made also went toward starting The Blue Chicken.
“Since then, the amount I’ve learned that has transferred over to The Blue Chicken is really amazing,” Ratner said.
Ratner also noted the opportunity he had in high school to intern in the Westbury Mayfair Hotel’s restaurants in London, where he came to appreciate fine dining, the smiles on people’s faces, and the thrills from the speed of service.
“I was sort of addicted the second I was in the kitchen,” Ratner recalled.
Vigilant Fire Company “played a big role” in his food development too, Ratner said. He recalled being volunteered to cook for a company dinner by his brother, Josh, as well as the general skills he learned being part of the department.
“The amount of leadership skills I’ve learned at the Vigilant Fire Company is unparalleled,” Ratner said.
Ratner said that while there have been early talks about someday opening a permanent storefront, there are no immediate plans for The Blue Chicken to leave Smorgasburg – a place where “many big names started.”
“It’s been a dream of mine to be in Smorgasburg,” Ratner said.