Austin Leslie’s Fried Chicken
I first met Austin Leslie in 1973, very early in my career as a food writer. In the 1960s and before, it had been uncommon for white people to dine in African-American-owned restaurants. Those who did found them welcoming and delicious. Richard Collin–the “The Underground Gourmet” and my mentor–encouraged those of the pale persuasion to try places like Austin Leslie’s place, Chez Helene.
I talked with Austin the second or third time I went to Chez Helene. Somehow, he always recognized me, even after we hadn’t seen one another for many years. After he turned up at Jacques-Imo’s in the late 1990s, he was a guest on my radio show. I had the gall to ask him about his famous fried chicken recipe. He surprised me by handing me a sheet of paper with it all written out, along with the story of how the recipe was actually that of Bill Turner of the famous Portia’s on South Rampart Street at Lafayette. Austin traveled the world by that time, frying chicken wherever he went.
Now the unhappy part of this story. Austin was trapped in the attic of a flooded house after Hurricane Katrina. He died in Atlanta a few days later, the most lamented culinary figure lost in the storm.
Here’s my rewriting of his chicken recipe. The original was hard to follow, but after a few tests and adjustments this one turned out the flavor I remember.
- 2 free-range fryer chickens, about 3 1/2 pounds each or smaller, if you can find them, each cut up into eight pieces
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 cups half-and-half
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups peanut oil
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, in a large shaker (the kind you use for parmesan cheese)
- 2 Tbs. drained, chopped dill pickles
- 2 Tbs. chopped garlic
- 2 Tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1. Cut the chickens into eight pieces each. Wash the chicken pieces and dry to just damp with a paper towel. Sprinkle about half of the salt and pepper over the pieces. Allow the pieces to come to cool room temperature (60s) before you start cooking.
2. In a wide bowl, whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, water and the remaining salt and pepper.
3. Heat the peanut oil in a cast-iron skillet or dutch oven over medium-high heat to 350 degrees.
4. Dip the chicken thighs briefly in the egg-and-milk mixture, and shake off the excess. Then shake the flour over the pieces to cover them all over lightly. Slip the thighs into the hot oil.
5. Repeat this process for the chicken legs, slipping them into open spaces in the pan. Leave plenty of room between the pieces. Hold back on adding more chicken if the pan gets crowded.
6. After eight minutes, jab each piece of chicken almost all the way through with a heavy, two-pronged kitchen fork. Austin said that this lets in just enough hot oil to let the center finish cooking without the outside becoming overcooked. He also said that this will not make the chicken too oily.
7. Fry the thighs until crisp–ten to twelve minutes total frying time, turning once to brown uniformly all over.
8. Remove chicken to a large unlined strainer (or one of those screens designed to keep bacon fat from popping) set over a shallow pan. (Don’t use paper towels to drain; they make the chicken soggy.) Put this assembly into the oven at 200 degrees to keep the chicken hot while you finish the rest of it.
9. After the thighs have come out, add the breasts, which will take a little less time than the thighs. Add the wings last, about six minutes into the cooking of the breasts.
10. Garnish the chicken with a mixture of the chopped pickles, garlic and parsley.
Serves four to eight.