By Mac Cerullo
---- — NEWBURYPORT — If you’ve ever spent an afternoon downtown at Yankee Homecoming, chances are you’ve probably tried a good portion of the food for sale by the many vendors.
Whether it’s pizza, fried clams or seafood chowder in a bread bowl, there’s no shortage of options if you’re hungry during the weeklong celebration, but even with such a wide variety of choices, sometimes the best call is the simplest, which is why The Clipper City Chef’s mix of chicken fingers and ribbon fries remains one of the festival’s most popular choices year after year.
Run by the husband and wife team of Bob and Bobbi Vandenbulcke, along with a group of friends and family who come down from Vermont every year to help out, The Clipper City Chef has been serving freshly cooked chicken and its unique ribbon fries for more than a decade.
Bob Vandenbulcke, a Salisbury resident who also owns and runs the adjacent Traveling Chef stand that serves the seafood chowder in a bread bowl, said his goal has always been to serve restaurant-quality food outdoors while offering choices that nobody else has.
“We try to do things that are different,” Vandenbulcke said. “We were the first ones to bring out bread bowls in Newburyport, and we were certainly the first ones doing the spiral ribbon fries. Chicken fingers have always been here, someone’s always done them, but no one had ever marinated them and breaded them right at the station before frying them.”
All of the stand’s food is prepared fresh to order, and to better demonstrate the cooking process, Bobbi Vandenbulcke and her team invited this reporter into their stand for a couple of hours yesterday to offer a crash course on how to become a proper fry cook.
The first lesson was how to cook the ribbon fries, which was both straightforward and enjoyable, mostly because it involved what appeared to be a modified power drill.
What they do is take a potato, fit the potato into a chamber and then press the end of the drill into the potato so it locks into a notch and stays in place. Then you pull the trigger, press down on the potato and the device quickly shreds it into a thin, continuous spiral.
After that, you simply put the potato ribbon into the oil for a few minutes, and when it comes out it resembles an entangled web of kettle potato chips.
Typically Stuart Hall, a family friend who hails from Vermont, handles the stand’s potato duties, and his wife, Marcy, prepares the chicken. Marcy typically fries chicken in batches of 10, and she starts by tossing the chicken in flour before dousing it in evaporated milk and panko breadcrumbs.
Once the chicken is dressed, it spends about five minutes cooking in the oil before it comes out ready to eat. After that, Bobbi’s mother, Loreen Blow, takes the completed order and delivers it to the customer.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Blow said after serving one customer just before lunchtime. “I don’t even remember when we started.”
Though nobody could remember the exact year The Clipper City Chef or its sister stand The Traveling Chef were established, Vandenbulcke himself first started serving food at Yankee Homecoming in 1984, when he used to sell tacos and knockwurst out of a New York-style pushcart.
“Back then there were only like four or five of us,” Vandenbulcke said. “We were selling tacos and knockwurst, DC Lemonade was doing lemonade, Yankee Homecoming was doing hotdogs, and Bob Kimball had his ice cream truck, and that was about it for food vendors back then.”
Vandenbulcke said there has been a lot of change on Market Square over the years, with many faces coming and going as time has gone by, but one constant all along has been his family, and his parents in particular.
“It’s always been a family affair,” Vandenbulcke said. “For years my mother and father were with me, it used to be the three of us, but now they’ve both passed on. My mother passed away this past November, so this is the first Yankee Homecoming that I don’t have either my mother or father running the stand.”
In their place, Vandenbulcke has his wife, his mother-in-law, the Halls and others to lean on, and he said many of them use their own vacation time to make the trip down for the week.
“Yankee Homecoming has been very good to us,” Vandenbulcke said. “And I’d like to think that I’ve given back by making sure we do a good job.”