Fried chicken is having a moment. "It's the next iconic American food that's getting its due," says Adeena Sussman. Sussman would know: She and Lee Brian Schrager, co-authors of Fried & True, traveled the country in search of the best fried chicken recipes. They each share their favorite.
Melissa Clark: You write in the book that fried chicken is having an "it moment." What is it about fried chicken? Lee, why is it such an obsession with you?
Lee Brian Schrager: It's the ultimate comfort food, whether it's at a white-tablecloth restaurant, a pop-up on the side of the street, or even a supermarket or Popeyes. Everybody seems to have a favorite fried chicken story is what we learned in writing the book.
MC: Why do you think fried chicken is having a moment right now?
Adeena Sussman: I think it's the next iconic American food that's getting its due. Sort of like hamburgers and barbecue have been revived, celebrated and kicked up a notch, I think chefs are doing the same thing now with fried chicken.
MC: When you were writing the book together, were you surprised at the breadth of the fried chicken recipes that you came across while you were talking to chefs?
LBS: I don't think that I knew just how much interest there would be. I think one of the biggest concerns that I kept badgering Adeena about is, "How different could recipes be? How are we going to photograph them to make them look different? How different could a recipe be?"
Boy, was that the sorriest thing that I ever said. There are as many fried chicken recipes as there are hamburger recipes or any other recipe out there. Everybody has their own take.
MC: Adeena, did you come out of writing this book with a favorite fried chicken recipe?
AS: Definitely, I have a hands-down favorite. It came from a fantastic chef named Asha Gomez who has a restaurant in Atlanta called Cardamom Hill. Asha is from Kerala in the southern part of India. Her chicken fuses southern Indian and Southern American traditions.
It just makes so much sense when she tells us about the history of the part of India where she came from: the Portuguese influence, how in that part of India there are many Christians so they eat pork, sorghum is used just like in the South, rice obviously and all kinds of spices. Asha has fused that tradition with American fried chicken traditions.
MC: What does she do? What is her chicken like?
AS: Her first step is she creates an incredible buttermilk brine that blends the buttermilk with a whole host of green herbs and jalapenos, mint, cilantro, ginger, fresh garlic, lots of salt. She blends it up in the blender and cloaks the chicken in this emerald green mixture. Just looking at it is a feast for the eyes.
Then she dredges it very simply in flour and skillet-fries it. As the chicken fries, the emerald green color pushes through the dredge. You can see the green come up and cook into the chicken. It's this experience of freshness -- very heady, with lots of aromas and scents. It's really incredible.
Gomez's recipe: Keralan Fried Chicken, Lowcountry Cardamom Waffles, and Spicy Maple Syrup (Photo: Evan Sung)
MC: What about you, Lee? Did you have a favorite chicken recipe from this book?
LBS: I like so many of them it's hard to pick one. But I think the one that stands out is one of the first ones that we sampled. It was from a jazz player in New Orleans; his name is Kermit [Ruffins]. His restaurant that we went to is now closed, but I understand that he recently reopened.
It was really probably one of the most fun experiences. We're going into this night club in the Treme area of New Orleans. We pulled up to it and said, "OK, are we going in here?" We walked in and it was warm, the doors were open, the club was obviously closed in the daytime.
We asked this big gentleman where Kermit was. He pointed to the corner. There in the corner of the room is this large man laid out across some dining room tables -- he's getting a massage in the middle of the day. We said, "We're here for your fried chicken." He got up a few minutes later, he put on his Kermit-green chef's jacket, took us into the kitchen and made the simplest, best fried chicken.
That really stands out, but I think it's a combination of the whole experience of meeting Kermit and his colleagues who were working with him in the kitchen that day. I think one of them was named Dirty Rice. Was the other one called Ray Boom Boom?
AS: Yes. Dirty Rice was his doorman/friend who was also manning the barbecue outside where Kermit personally barbecues chicken before every show. He's a multi-genre chicken preparer.
MC: And trumpeter.
AS: Yes, exactly. He's a regular on the late, great television show Treme, which chronicles life in New Orleans after Katrina. Our chef was Ray Boom Boom, who like Madonna or Cher only has one name. He has cooked at a lot of the best restaurants in New Orleans over the years. Ray and Kermit showed us how they made their incredible chicken.
Ruffins' and Boom Boom's recipe: Hard-Fried Chicken (Photo: Evan Sung)
MC: What was it about that chicken? What was so great about it?
LBS: It was the simplicity. I remember him taking it out of the refrigerator, dredging it in flour and clapping. I thought clapping was unique to me. Then, of course, I learned that all of America is clapping their hands when they're making fried chicken -- both while doing it and probably at the end to applaud themselves on such a foolish thought.
AS: The clapping helps remove any extraneous flour before frying. We saw that a lot in New Orleans.
In addition, pretty much every chef in New Orleans recommended using chilled chicken, which they believe helps the skin adhere to the chicken and also render. It sounds counterintuitive, but they believe it creates a crispier finished product.
MC: You write about an experimental chef in New York named Wylie Dufresne and his take on Popeyes chicken.
LBS: Even before we started this book, I had heard that when Wylie Dufresne got married, they had Popeyes fried chicken at their wedding. I knew this was somebody from the get-go who we had to include in the book.
But more importantly, before Wylie, getting Popeyes included in the book was something that Adeena and I really wanted. Adeena wrote this wonderful letter to the chief marketing officer of Popeyes telling them that we were going to be on this road trip and that Popeyes was a personal favorite of mine.
We got this very, very nice, cordial letter back, basically thanking us, but they couldn't possibly consider seeing us or letting us into their test kitchen. I chimed in and said, "I've been talking about Popeyes being my favorite chicken for years. I have it in print, I've written about it, plus a lot of the culinary world really loves Popeyes" and it would be a great disservice not to allow us into their headquarters in Atlanta.
Lo and behold, after a bunch of emails back and forth, I think we wore this lovely gentleman down. He finally agreed to see us at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. I remember pulling up there and saying to Adeena and our wonderful photographer, Evan Sung, "Let's look at our watches. We will be out of here in a half-hour."
It was probably a good 2-and-a-half, 3 hours later when we were really rolling out of Popeyes. Not only did they sit with us and talk with us, but they took us up to their test kitchen and allowed us to watch the whole experience of Popeyes fried chicken being made. Although they did not share the recipe with us, we were able to figure the recipe out.
Probably my favorite chapter or one of my favorite subjects in the book is Wylie Dufresne creating the Popeyes recipe for us for the book. I tried it over the weekend -- it was so good, I was almost tempted to run to a Popeyes just to do a taste test comparison. But I think we nailed it on the head right there.
AS: … In a way that's very easy for the home cook to execute, which knowing that it's a Popeyes recipe and a Wylie Dufresne recipe, was kind of a culinary miracle.