May the Fowl Be With You

Fried chicken gets dressed up.


Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, Photo By Thor Swift

So what if versions of fried chicken have been eaten since ancient times in Europe and Asia, chicken fried in palm oil has been a longstanding staple in West African cuisine, and the Scots were early proponents of frying chicken in fat? (Some even credit them with introducing the technique to the United States.) Despite its worldly history, fried chicken has become an inimitably American dish. After all, how many other countries celebrate National Fried Chicken Day? (July 6th, FYI.)

It’s almost impossible not to love fried chicken. It’s crispy, satisfying, delicious, and like all great comfort foods, it can even evoke nostalgia: memories of Sunday family dinners, summer picnics or late-night refrigerator raids. (Few things in life are quite so satisfying as discovering an overlooked chicken leg.)

Although fried chicken has always been popular, these days it’s become so fashionable that even elitist gourmets are crying fowl. And cooks all over the country are keeping abreast of this current passion for poultry.

Raised on a farm, Mildred Cotton Council spent years learning and creating her recipes. In 1976, she finally opened Mama Dip’s Kitchen (Mama Dip was her childhood nickname) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she continues to turn out some of the best fried chicken in the country. “I’m a country cook. I can tell how a chicken is raised by the taste,” she asserts.

When asked if she has a special recipe, Mama Dip explains that she has “never called it a recipe” before sharing her prep routine: she soaks the chicken in a big tub filled with salt water, then rinses it off, dips it in flour and adds black pepper.

“Best not to freeze for fried chicken,” she cautions. “People get chicken on sale and put it in a freezer, [but you] need a fresh chicken to begin with. Every day we get a delivery.” Mama Dip always serves her fried chicken with biscuits. Another tip she’s generous enough to reveal: “I started making biscuits with plain self-rising flour with a little extra baking powder mixed in there. It’s really good.”

Chicken and waffles at Birch & Barley

Other restaurants, vying for the cock of the walk title, have come up with their own inventive methods of making fried chicken. In Portland, Oregon, David Kreifels, one of the three partners who created Simpatica and Laurelhurst Market (named in 2010 as one of the best new restaurants by Bon Appétit) says they only serve fried chicken from the butcher shop on Tuesdays at Laurelhurst Market, and at brunch on Sundays at Simpatica.

The chicken is soaked in buttermilk overnight, dusted with a blend of curry powder, flour, salt, pepper and paprika, then fried in oil. The spice coating allows the chicken to develop a nice crisp at a lower oil temperature. It’s allowed to “rest” after frying and Kreifels says, “As it cools the crust gets crispier… and the crust stays on because of the lower heat.” Their chicken is served with waffles in fruit syrup.

In Washington D.C., Birch & Barley’s fried chicken and waffle dish is so popular that husband and wife team Kyle (chef) and Tiffany (pastry chef) Bailey have opened another restaurant, GBD (Golden, Brown & Delicious), that highlights fried chicken along with their gourmet doughnuts. You can actually order a fried chicken sandwich with a doughnut as the bread. (Truly, you can!) GBD uses 100 percent hormone-free chickens plunged into a buttermilk brine, then fried fresh to order. It’s served with sides like crème fraiche biscuits, scallion potato salad, pimento mac ‘n’ cheese, creamed kale and roasted garlic mashed potatoes, and presented alongside 12 different dipping sauces, including buffalo hot, satan spicy, homemade ranch buttermilk, barbecue and honey mustard.

It stands to reason all the attention on this essentially simple American dish was eventually bound to ruffle the feathers of famous chefs. Renown for the gastronomic experiences he creates at his legendary French Laundry and Per Se restaurants, Thomas Keller salutes home cooking with Ad Hoc in Yountville, California.

Here, chef de cuisine Katie Hagan-Welchel treats chickens like poultry royalty. Using only local birds no larger than 2.5 pounds (to promote even cooking), the chicken is cut into 10 pieces and spends 12 hours in an herb-lemon brine (to help the meat stay juicy). It’s air dried to room temperature then dredged in flour mixed with garlic, onion powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. Next it’s dipped in buttermilk, then returned to the flour mixture and finally fried in peanut oil.

Laurelhurst Market Steakhouse & Butcher Shop

Chef Hagan-Whelchel uses two different fryers—one for white meat, another for dark—pointing out that dark meat takes longer and she prefers to cook it at a lower temperature (320 degrees) than the white (340 degrees). Fried chicken at Ad Hoc is on the menu every other Monday and served with corn bread and seasonal vegetables. It’s also available in a box lunch at Addendum in the garden behind Ad Hoc, from Thursday through Saturday.

When you get right down to it, whether simple or sophisticated, fried chicken at its best is soul-satisfying food you eat with your fingers while having a really wonderful time. “Fried chicken somehow emotionally resonates with everybody,” says Hagan-Whelchel. “It’s a thread through all of us… it just makes you feel good.”