For half a century, Rene Piche has been bringing delicious fried food to fairgoers throughout the country and even Canada. Piche, who claims to be the inventor of fried dough, will be one of the many food vendors found at the Broward County Fair, which kicked off Wednesday and runs through December 5.
It's safe to say that the Massachusetts native (who currently resides in Ocala) knows more about fairs and fried food than most. I had a chance to chat with the man who is commonly referred to as "The King of Fried Food."
Piche filled me on his love for the business, his famous invention, and some of his other fried creations, including one he describes as "awful."
Clean Plate Charlie: What do you love most about your job?
Rene Piche: I love my job because of the people. The changing of the scenery. I'm so fortunate because I stay somewhere two or three weeks and then you move on and meet new people, create new friends. The boredom never sets in. My job is so interesting; I have a remarkable way of life.
How did your invention of fried dough come about?
Probably the question you'll hear a reporter ask the most to the people at the fair is, "What do you like most about going to the fair?" And the most popular answer is, "We like to see new things." So those of us in the business know we have to look for new ideas and create something new and make them enjoy the fair.
I started in the business some 50 years ago; I sold French fries. Six, eight, ten years later, I started to understand the business. I knew I had to be creative and come up with new ideas. The idea for fried dough goes back to my childhood, when my mother used to make us bread. My mother, who was French, would take what was left over and put the pieces in the frying pans for the kids. We'd put sugar and cinnamon on it.
I was looking for something new to grow in the business and develop something. I thought back to my childhood and started toying around with it. Before you know I it, I had come up with fried dough. That was back in 1968. It really took off.
Did you expect it to become so popular?
The reason why fried dough is so interesting is many places have tried to do it. Fast food tried it. Malls tried it, and it never worked. It's not like French fries, which have become an everyday item. Fried dough never really hooked up with the mainstream. You go to the fair for the fried dough. If you don't have fried dough, you don't have a fair. Fried dough is a supernovelty, a supernovelty associated with the fair.
What is your favorite fair food?
I've been doing it for so long, but for me, it's Italian sausage with peppers and onions. I love hot Italian sausage. That stands out for me.
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You'll be serving fried Oreos at the Broward County Fair. That's something you've been doing for a few years now. How did you come up with that item?
A lot of what we do is trial and error. We came up with the fried Oreo while munching on some milk and cookies and a cookie fell into funnel cake batter and we threw it in. Tasted it and thought it was pretty good. We played around with it a little, and it took off. It's become a very good item for us.
You said it's trial and error. What is one of the errors? What did you try to fry that didn't end up tasting too good?
Some people have tried the deep-fried pickle. I tried it about eight years ago. It's awful. I experimented with it and never took it out there. A lot of people are trying to make the Twinkie work. I don't think it can work, though. It's never going to be a good item. It's too delicate. You can't do anything with it.
I've heard you've been called by many "The King of Fried Food." Would you say that's an accurate name for you?
I have been accused of that. Only because I take pride in my products. If I don't feel it's up to quality, I won't serve it for my customers. The reason I've been successful is because of the care and love I give my business. I've been doing it a long time. I still think about it. I still believe in it. My success is from how much I care. The respect I receive for my work is quite nice. I have to be humble about it.
Follow Clean Plate Charlie on Twitter: @CleanPlateBPB.