If you live in Memphis, you’ve had it: perfect fried chicken. You’ve stood outside Gus’s downtown waiting for an hour just to see what all the fuss was about, only to really, really learn what all the fuss was about.
The coating is light and airy, almost like a meringue, so crunchy, yet perfectly spicy. The chicken is unbearably juicy and tender, a consistency I’ve only replicated using sous vide methods or brining, a crap ton of butter under the skin, roasting breast-side down then flipping the bird (ugh) in the middle of cooking. Yet they do it seemingly.. effortlessly.
The irony is that years ago, when writing my Legally Eating food blog, which elegantly morphed (read: was exported and imported to) the Stylist Quo, I reviewed Gus’s except for the chicken, as I was vegetarian at the time (I think?) and couldn’t deal with eating fried chicken. The sides were terrible, but good lord, don’t go there for the fried pickles!
The first round of Master Chef auditions–open call–require you to present a signature dish without the use of any cookware whatsoever–in other words, um.. cold. Or in a crazy awesome cooler that somehow maintains your perfectly seared steak and béarnaise sauce. Have you found one that lets you travel six hours to New Orleans, i.e., the closest freaking audition to Memphis? Me either.
I’ve decided that, true to my both French and Southern culinary roots, my go-to signature dish will be a tribute to a traditional French and Southern picnic–cold fried chicken. I’m mulling over in my head whether I should include a homemade garlic aïoli or other high-end sauce, so I don’t get lumped in as “the Southern girl”, because I am not she and never will be. How this will explain my culinary point of view will rest delicately on the inclusion of perhaps tarragon, sous vide methods, and utter perfection.. along with a play on the quintessential picnic side dish–potato salad, but roasted, tossed in fresh herbs. At our self-catered engagement party, a huge bowl of the stuff, put on the buffet primarily to mimic O’s favorite at a local bistro, was the first to go. I’m pretty dang confident in the stuff, consequently.
So the “make or break” moment rests in the all-important perfection of the dish. I’ve made stunning fried chicken before, but it was never as good as Gus’s. And why not? What could they possibly do that I can’t discern, investigate, discover? The breading sticks to the chicken like it’s almost a batter, the airy, crisp texture, the juicy meat.. what is it?
I conducted experiment 0001 last night, an utter failure (in ways). I followed a general process outlined by a food blogger in Seattle (who, naturally, I just discovered was also on Master Chef, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Brining, sous vide cooking, beer-buttermilk batter, and quick frying.
The chicken itself turned out incredible–moist, flavorful, tender. But the process? Awful. The chicken was chilled after cooking, as suggested, and already-cooked chicken dipped in batter only needs a couple minutes in hot oil to brown up. However, only a couple minutes in the fryer renders your chicken still, erm, kind of, you know, cold inside, which is never appealing..
and the skin doesn’t crisp up. Instead, it’s a lifeless, gelatinous mess, tasting of pure fat, and not in a good way. I don’t even have a photo, I was that disappointed and confused. Perhaps the food blogger used a different cut of chicken or uh.. I don’t know. I don’t get it.
The batter itself was awesome, and would be great on.. anything else. But I just don’t think a batter is what Gus’s is using. My original thought was baking soda or powder in the flour coating, and I’m going back to my instinct.
But you know what they say – one down, four thousand to go.. That’s progress, people.3