Sunday, February 12, 2012

Lucky 32 stakes claim in high-end, home-style fried chicken

This blog first appeared on Culinary Historians of Piedmont, which is partnering with Lucky 32 for a special dinner at 7 p.m. Wedensday, Feb. 15, at the Cary location. Click here to RSVP.
For a perfect appetizer, try Lucky 32's Sweet Potato Hushpuppies.

Chef Jay Pierce has turned an old joke upside down at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen.

Why did the customer cross the road?

To get the locally-sourced, deeply-seasoned, irresistibly lard-fried chicken served on the other side.

Crowds are beginning to gather at the Cary location on Wednesday nights, where the three-piece chicken dinner – served with tender collards, mashed potatoes and a hunk of cornbread – is featured for $17. It’s even more popular at the Greensboro location, where it’s sold on Tuesdays.

Pierce knows diners could get fried chicken elsewhere, and probably for less, but he’s confident that his is the best.

“You expect people to come in with some contempt,” he said with a bemused shrug. “When people ask why we charge so much, I tell them, ‘You probably wouldn’t like it.’”

Actually, Pierce is more likely to playfully poke at diners who aren’t yet under the addictive spell of the special. “Sometimes we cook up a big order of wings and I walk around putting just one on the plates of people who didn’t order it,” he said. “I love to see their faces when they try it. I really want them to come back and have it next time.”

Creating the perfect fried chicken became something of an obsession for Pierce when the restaurant gave up its global menu and added Southern Kitchen to its name last year. The owner wanted a dish that would stir fond memories of grandma’s skillet-fried chicken – even if they never had it before.

There are at least two problems with that, Pierce said. First, cooking in skillets is not efficient in a large commercial kitchen. Also, while he admits to the guilty pleasure of Chik-Fil-A sandwiches, fried chicken was not native to Pierce’s experience of growing up in New Orleans.

“I tried so many variations before I worked it out,” he said, ticking off a list of soaks ranging from buttermilk and iced tea to pickle juice. He finally settled on a variation of the late chef Austin Leslie’s recipe featured in “Fried Chicken: An American Story” by John T. Edge. It’s also been published in Food & Wine.

“We put our own spin on it, but it’s a revelation,” said Pierce, stressing that the ingredient he borrows most from the original is the technique. “I can’t imagine chicken getting any better than that.”

Lucky 32’s version starts by generously seasoning chicken from Hopkins Poultry of Browns Summit with salt, pepper and smoked paprika. The dry-rubbed pieces then air-dry in the refrigerator at least eight hours to ensure deeply-flavored meat and crisp skin.

Just before frying, chicken pieces are dunked in a bath of beaten eggs and buttermilk from Homeland Creamery of Greensboro and dredged in a tub of Creole spice-spiked, self-rising flour from Midstate Mills of Newton. Next stop is a Swiss Braisier, a tilt skillet as big as grandma’s old wash tub, filled with 20 pounds of golden lard rendered by Cane Creek Farm of Snow Camp.

“It’s all non-hydrogenated,” Pierce said, gazing at the glistening fat that boiled vigorously as he deftly placed a row of plump breasts. “It’s a lot better for you than Crisco.”

The braisier is key to what makes Lucky 32’s friend chicken special. Instead of floating in a deep fryer, the chicken sizzles on a heavy grill pad that Pierce can tilt to swirl fat where it’s needed, such as a thicker breast portions, while the thighs and wings stay lightly submerged.

“It’s easier than using your grandmother’s skillet,” Pierce said, noting how the vast surface and finely-tuned thermostat keep the oil at a consistent temperature. “I can load at least 10 three-piece dinners in here at once – and I can fit 13 at the one we have in Greensboro.”

Pierce takes the challenge of fixing chicken seriously as he knows so many Southerners consider it the measure of a good cook. “It’s not as easy as it looks. There’s a lot of technique involved with cooking Southern food – good Southern Food, I mean.

“For people who grew up with it, fried chicken is practically a Proustian dish,” he said. “There are so many memories tied to it. That’s why it has to be so good.”

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