It was the best of fried chickens . . . and it was the best of fried chickens.
Being a huge fan of fried foods—really, just about any fried foods—I was in heaven when I tried out a couple of top-rated chef’s fried chicken recipes in the past two months.
The two coastal chefs are quite different temperamentally and geographically, by reputation and by their relationship to the recent history of U.S. cuisine. Thomas Keller, famous for his Napa Valley destination restaurant French Laundry (and Ad Hoc, and Bouchon, etc.) already has a legend status and is considered by many to be one of the most significant culinary personalities in the U.S.
David Chang, 22 years younger than Keller, is the upstart (of the Momofuku empire) who has still been able to snag top cooking awards like consecutive James Beard awards for various categories. And he seems nearly unstoppable in stirring up the culinary world, both with his Asian-inflected cooking in New York and with his recent criticisms of San Francisco cuisine for not being innovative enough.
And their two fried chickens? Both marvelous, for very different reasons—and tastes.
With Keller, I tried the Buttermilk Fried Chicken recipe in his Ad Hoc at Home cookbook, except I used chicken tenderloin pieces (and skinless breasts sliced horizontally) for the picture below.
(In case you don’t have the book handy, there are numerous websites which provide the recipe, such as this one at epicurious.com: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/THOMAS-KELLERS-BUTTERMILK-FRIED-CHICKEN-50000340)
Although we also liked frying up the traditional chicken parts as suggested by the recipe, Will almost preferred the gourmet version of chicken cutlets. Double-dipping regular skin-on pieces in the seasoned flour and the buttermilk (between the two dippings in flour) produced almost too much crust and fried nooks and crannies. I know: I cannot believe I just wrote that something had too much fried surface area, but perhaps there is something to be said for too much of a good thing. Though the brining produced a nice salty and seasoned interior for the pieces (bay leaf notes are fairly prominent), you can skip that step for the chicken tenders version if you are short on time. Because the pieces were skinless, the double dipping yielded just enough crustiness, and the process was invaluable in producing a lovely texture. Each bite was able to deliver both the crunch on the outside and the very tender interior breast meat.
I also slightly modified Chang’s recipe for his Momofuku Fried Chicken with Octo Vinaigrette which is pictured at top (and one of the various blogs which carry the recipe is the following, with some mouth-watering pictures: http://almostbourdain.blogspot.com/2010/01/momofuku-fried-chicken-with-octo.html). Chang’s recipe has you fry up larger pieces, cutting the chicken initially only into 4 pieces and then making the smaller cuts after the frying. I didn’t want to bother with the mess of taking a knife to already-fried chicken, so I cut my organic free-range bird into 10 pieces (2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings, and each breast further cut in half to produce 4 pieces) that were fairly similar in size. Next time, I would either use all drumsticks—as the blog writer above has done—or use all wings (like Buffalo wings), or actually follow the original recipe and cut the bird into smaller pieces after the frying. While the chicken was otherwise phenomenal, since the pieces were not breaded at all, the exposed areas of meat where the skin pulled away got tougher than they needed to be. As for the actual frying part, the brining and steaming the pieces beforehand allowed the cooking time to fly by. Only minutes after dropping the pieces into hot oil, the pieces were nicely browned and crackly-skinned. The Octo Vinaigrette was a nice addition of vinegariness to cut the grease, and the spicy tanginess provided a needed complement to what might be too unctuous a flavor of plain fried chicken.
The verdict: Both of these are far far better fried chickens than you are likely to find elsewhere. . .