Looking down into the burnished black void that is the bottom of my deep sided cast iron skillet, the slowly heating peanut oil still a lake of calm, I find myself thinking again about a man whom I’ve never met. Austin Leslie. There is a beautiful symmetry in the name, a lilting four syllables. It sounds like the name of a mayor, or president, as much as a chef. There is a certain regality about it. And many would say he was the king of fried chicken, another of my obsessions. As I slip a thigh, skin side down into the skillet, the oil now
roiling as the seasoned flour clouds it, I think about both Austin and how I got here, frying chicken in a kitchen in New Orleans, LA.
There is a certain indirectness about the life of a cook. Hardly anyone I know chose the life, but instead was lured into it, and consequently trapped there. It is a circuitous route to your own demise. I imagine Austin was seduced in much the same manner as I was, after a series of passionless jobs, to find such an engaging mistress. One who will never fully give you what you want, not matter how much you want her to, and who gleefully takes the best years of your life on a promise that someday you’ll have it all. And for a time, Austin certainly did. His own restaurant, Chez Helene (his Aunt Helen added the e to make it sound fancier), and was the inspiration for the TV show Frank’s Place. Austin was about to fulfill the promise, but somehow, it suddenly slipped away, like the 7th Ward New Orleans neighborhood that ensconced Chez Helene. Austin ended up slipping away too. And although they still make his chicken at Jacque Imo’s, they don’t have his hands.(1)
I flip the chicken in the pan with a set of spring loaded tongs, gently, as to not break the crust or spatter the oil. Some oil splashes onto the stovetop anyway. It’s a messy venture, frying chicken. I imagine this is why more people don’t do it at home. Or maybe because it’s become such a cheap fast food staple that it hardly seems worth the trouble. Popeye’s is probably to blame. There is something therapeutic about it though. A form of meditation that unites the sense in a unique oneness. There is something sensual about it. From the initial drop of flour into the oil to test hotness, to the sound of steam escaping as the chicken fries. Watching the crust gradually become golden, the smell that sticks in your clothes, it is a total body experience. It is a simple act with many complex chemical reactions. I continue to turn the chicken so it cooks evenly. So many recipes tell you to flip only once, to fry in 350 degree oil, but this is the path to ruin. I prefer a much gentler oil temperature, and as many tender turns as it takes to render a golden brown crust. There is so much written on the topic of fried chicken, and so little of it reliable.
Narrative reliability, especially when it comes to a folk legend like Austin Leslie, is hard to come by. New Orleans has a way of taking a story and running with it, as did Austin himself. Unfortunately, we cannot ask the man himself, because Katrina was the coda to his life, in and out of the kitchen. Leah Chase will talk about Austin if you ask her, but there is always a glint of sadness when she does. She has lived a long time and has seen too many go before her, the mantle of creole cooking seems hers alone now. I know there must be others who know too, but I don’t know who they are, not yet. I was told maybe they would know in Hank’s Bar on North Robertson, but I have yet to go.
There is a great push these days for authenticity. For purity. To reclaim the essence of a thing. Yet the waters get murky pretty quickly when you do. If you ask some people, Austin Leslie was even a Creole. Yet he is as important a figure in Creole cooking as there ever was. For me, I eschew such distinctions, as the truth lies in the work itself. Are you doing it earnestly and honestly and with love. I’m already an anomaly, a white man from the north frying chicken in a uniquely Afro/Caribbean city. So I can’t claim anything other than the chicken in the pan. The recipe is breathtakingly simple. But my hands are mine, as Austin’s were his. Whatever is in my pan is unique to me, except for the garnish of garlic parsley persillade, which I straight up stole from the master.
(1) Background information about Austin Leslie can be found in John T. Edge’s excellent book Fried Chicken, pgs 76-85