Ask Matt Fein, who made the trip with his then girlfriend, now wife, Lauren, in 2012 and five years later reigns over Federal Donuts, the ultimate in donuts and fried chicken that has taken over the city.
Fein, a Langhorne, Bucks County native who now lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., was a guest on “The View’’ after his chicken sandwich won the New York city Wine and Food Chicken Coop Competition. He’s been seen both on Fox-29 and Fox News. He was named to Zagat’s 30 under 30 and Billy Penn’s Next Chef to Watch.
For the modest Fein, who thought he wanted to be a doctor, cooking has always been a passion. So are donuts and fried chicken, although you would never know it from the slender 30-year-old, who looks the same as he did when he played baseball and hockey at Neshaminy High School.
“I’ve always loved to cook,’’ Fein, who just turned 30, said. “I’ve been cooking since I was like around 5, or 6 years old.’’
His father Darryl laughs, and interjects. “That’s the truth. When he was a little kid he would wake up on his own, go downstairs and make his own breakfast. And not a bowl of cereal; eggs, pancakes, whatever. We never worried about him.’’
That passion for the culinary arts was put on hold when the young Fein went to the University of Connecticut to study pre-med, but it never died. It just burned, unlike his meals, until finally he made it happen.
“I knew this was what I wanted to do after I realized I wasn’t going back to U Conn,’’ he said. “I was going for neuroscience and realized I didn’t want to spend 12 more years in school. I wanted to be a chef.’’
He left Connecticut and eventually landed at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts where he mastered his trade and graduated with a chance to show what he had learned.
It started in a small bar in Boston and moved on to an Italian restaurant just outside the city in Somerville, Mass.
Then he went back home to Bucks County, worked at a few restaurants there and more importantly made the trip to Israel.
“The key was going to Israel,’’ Fein said. “My wife and I were still dating at the time. She had been there four times and wanted me to go just to see it and see that it wasn’t what I thought it was. It wasn’t the war-torn country you see in the media.
“From a food standpoint, it was a melting pot. America is the melting pot. But when it comes to food, you have the Arabic cuisine, you have the Russian food, because of the influence there. There are German foods, foods from Africa. I loved it. That’s what really got me going.’’
It eventually led him to chicken and donuts.
When Fein returned from his trip he sent an e-mail to world-renown chef and restaurant owner Michael Solomonov at Zahav, the popular center city establishment.
“I didn’t know much about Zahav,’’ Fein said. “But the people in Israel did. When I would tell them I was from Philadelphia, they would mention Zahav.’’
He went in for a one-night tryout and was hired the next day. After nine months working as a line cook he was ready to try something new, and then it happened.
“I thought I was progressing very well,’’ he said. “But I was ready to venture out and see what else the city had to offer.’’
“I figured I’d try it,’’ he said. “Do it for a little bit and see what happens.’’
Since then he has watched Federal Donuts expand to four stores in the city, a seasonal one at Spruce St. Harbor Park and at Citizens Bank Park and ready to expand to South Florida this spring and Nashville, Tenn. by next year.
Earlier this year Fein was added as one of the business partners. He’s responsible for everything from coming up with the different flavors for the donuts to the restaurant’s relatively new chicken sandwich, which has drawn the raves of every chicken lover out there. And won the NYC award.
“We have six ‘fancy’ flavors (of the donuts) all the time,’’ Fein said. “Sometimes it’s just things I like. Things I see and I’ll say ‘Hey, I can make that into a donut.’’’
He says his most interesting is the Grapefruit Brulee: A grapefruit glazed donut. “And then we take a torch and brûlée the top of it.”
The most popular was the Blueberry Mascarpone. “To this day, people are upset that it’s no longer on the menu,’’ Fein said. “But it was on for about a year and ran its course.’’
And then there’s the chicken sandwich.
It’s pretty basic, but man is it good. I’ll admit I had one after this interview and couldn’t wait to have another. And as I wrote this story, I had to have another.
“Stephen Cook, one of the owners, said we should try to put a sandwich on the menu,’’ Fein recalled. “It was 2015 and that turned out to be the year of the chicken sandwich. We made it happen at the right time. Every restaurant came out with a chicken sandwich.
“We started it only at Spruce St. Harbor Park. And that was good, because it was unique, the only place to get it, so people flocked there.’’
Now they flock to all four stores for the twice-fried chicken breast, seasoned with a buttermilk dry seasoning, dill pickles, “rooster sauce’’, a mild chipotle, melted American cheese on a Martin’s potato roll.
“When the sandwich first came out we had it built a certain way,’’ Fein said. “After about a week, we decided it needed to be built differently, so we rebuilt it. We had sauce on the bottom, chicken breast, cheese, pickles on top. It wasn’t as good. We flipped it. We put the pickles on the bottom, then the chicken breast, then the sauce on the breast, then the cheese. And that’s worked.’’
That’s one of the challenges, Fein loves, experimenting with different favors for the donuts, different ideas for the chicken.
“Over the past few years we changed up some things,’’ he said. “We came up with some new recipes. We’ve made it better. It’s better today than it was five years ago. It’s the same with the donuts. We look back and can’t believe how much better we are now.’’
Federal Donuts continues to grow, not just in the city, but now across the country. It’s not what Fein envisioned when he was in culinary school or on his trip to Israel, but he’s become so good at it, and he loves it.
“When I decided I was going to be a chef, I never thought this was what I would be doing,’’ he said “But I do love this.’’
“We’re making them think differently now,’’ Fein said “That’s what makes it interesting. That’s the fun part.’’