A few months ago I received an extremely romantic gift from my thoughtful partner, T. No, not flowers or a candlelight dinner—it was an advanced uncorrected proof of Ad Hoc at Home. (He knows me well.) I have an insatiable curiosity about food, but I’ll admit that seeing Thomas Keller’s name emblazoned across the front page left me a bit intimidated. This is the man responsible for The French Laundry, a staple on awards lists that has been named best in the country on the Restaurant Magazine list of Top 50 Restaurants of the World no fewer than five times, and best in the world twice.
I put the galley to the side, and little by little it drifted to the bottom of a growing stack of food books and proposals. But although I’ve fancied myself a foodie over the past few years, and have been fortunate enough to even be considered a globetrotting one, I have been a dyed-in-the-wool Southern foodie since the day I was born. And in the back of my mind I remembered that Ad Hoc, Keller’s home-cooking venture in Yountville, California, is infamous for its fried chicken.
If my grandmother taught me anything, it’s that fried chicken is an endeavor best undertaken by the very brave. Sure, it’s simple, but here’s the conundrum: Because there isn’t much to it, there are infinite ways to mess it up. Too dry, too browned, too bland, too greasy—if you’ve eaten fast-food fried chicken, you’ve probably seen it all.
Granted, this is Thomas Keller fried chicken, so while the ingredients are familiar, there are still … well, steps. I haven’t eaten at The French Laundry or Ad Hoc (bucket list!) but I suspect that what garners these restaurants their consistent praise is the kitchens’ meticulous attention to preparation. Luckily for me, T is the king of meticulous attention.
He read every word of the recipe carefully, and then we jotted down the list and headed to the market. We were both giddy with the prospect of our project, thrilled to be Attempting Something Difficult in the kitchen. We cut our whole chickens into pieces, then placed them in a lemon-celery-salt brine, where they’d marinate for 12 hours.
The next day word spread, and by 5 p.m. there was a line of family and friends in the kitchen, a dog underfoot, and martinis poured. Oil shimmered in two copper pots over closely monitored flames. And then the fun began. Chicken hit the assembly line—seasoned flour, buttermilk, seasoned flour, oil—and cooked with almost alarming precision. Two minutes, 11 minutes, 16 minutes, no more, no less.
But we saw why as the chicken emerged, perfectly deep brown for dark meat and golden brown for white. The crispy skin was drained and salted; grabby fingers were smacked. I set out plates and napkins that were universally ignored in the race to snag the first still-too-hot pieces.
And the response? Silence. Silence marked by chewing. Eyes that widen in surprise don’t make much noise. This was unlike any fried chicken any of us had ever had (sorry, Grandma). The meat was moist and tender with a lemony tang that made us all say, “so that’s what my fried chicken was missing!” And the skin? With that golden color and incomparable flavor, it could be used as currency. That’s what’s so exciting about food, that real artists can come along and make something old truly new again.
Which, you have to admit, is more than you can say for the Sistine Chapel.
More photos of my Fried Chicken endeavors at :Foodimentary Flickr