Lee Brian Schrager's Search for the Best Fried Chicken
by bill kearney
Lee Brian Schrager’s new book, Fried & True, out this month, pays homage to a beloved American dish—fried chicken. We sat down with him at Yardbird to talk about his latest culinary obsession.
Lee Brian Schrager.
Lee Brian Schrager, best known as the founder of the Food Network New York City and South Beach Wine & Food Festivals, would argue that any time is a good time for fried chicken. But there are few better places in Miami than Yardbird, the ardently Southern eatery off Lincoln Road. We sat down for a proper meal with Schrager to chat about his new book, Fried & True (available May 20), which chronicles more than 50 of America’s best fried chicken recipes—both back-road and big-city iterations—and explores the phenomenon of what Schrager calls America’s “number-one guilty pleasure.”
Why write a book about fried chicken?
I love it. It’s something that everyone relates to. When I told people about the book, some said, “We don’t eat fried chicken,” but no one said, “We don’t like it.” And there are so many great recipes.
I understand that as a kid, your love for fried chicken got you into some trouble.
Howard Johnson’s used to have an all-you-can-eat fried chicken night. I would go with a group of five guys—we were like 13 years old—and could really pack away the food. I think they probably lost money on us, so it’s true, we were asked not to return to the Howard Johnson’s in Massapequa, New York.
The signature fried chicken at Yardbird, accompanied by chilled spiced watermelon and a green tomato chowchow-topped waffle.
What’s your take on the fried chicken here at Yardbird?
It’s not the first time I’ve seen fried chicken with a waffle or with watermelon, but all together, it’s great. It’s really crispy on the outside, and when you bite into it, it’s moist. I love the contrast. The green tomato chowchow on the waffles is fun, too.
What dishes here at Yardbird do you like to eat along with the chicken?
It’s nice to have a vegetarian option, so the cauliflower steak is fantastic. It’s beautiful, first of all, and secondly, the cranberries on top are interesting, and I love the bay leaf crumble on the side. The St. Louis ribs, too, have a very tangy standout taste. The meat is not overly fatty, just fatty enough.
Sweet iced tea is presented in Southern-style Mason jars.
Anything on the lighter side?
The farmer’s salad changes by the day. What I love about it is you could eat here tomorrow night and rather than cherry tomatoes, maybe they’re teardrop tomatoes. I’m impressed with how committed they [are to using] local ingredients. The pickled vegetables, too, with mushrooms, garlic, and carrots, come with bread and whipped butter. The butter and the pickled tartness are a nice contrast.
What other local spots are you keen on?
I love Publix—the best fried chicken. I love Joe’s Stone Crab, too. Those are the two places out of 200 I asked that wouldn’t give me their recipes for the book. Michy’s is one of my favorites. Michelle Bernstein does an all-you-can-eat fried chicken on Wednesdays over the summer that I love—and she hasn’t kicked me out!
Everyone knows you as the mind behind the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. But you went to the Culinary Institute of America?
I graduated in ’79. I didn’t want to be a chef, but I wanted the culinary experience. I went, also, because I was a very average student, and at that point, you didn’t have to take the SATs to get in. I was deathly afraid of not doing well on my SATs.
The eatery’s kitchen pickle jar is served with whipped butter and country bread.
Tell us about the road trip you took for the book.
We went on a three-week trip to do the lifestyle shots all over the South, hitting 60 or 70 restaurants. We found that be it Thomas Keller at Ad Hoc or a shack on the side of the street in Georgia, you’ll find chicken that’s just as good as Keller’s, just not in a white-tablecloth, Michelin-starred setting.
What tricks of the trade did you discover on your road trip?
I heard two things throughout the South: “Always use cold chicken.” I’d never heard that before, but I heard it many times through [the research]. The end result is very crispy. And the clapping method—you hit the chicken after you dredge it in flour, to knock the excess off.
They need to teach that at CIA.
They probably should. We didn’t make fried chicken once when I was there, though it’s probably on the menu now.
Industrial meets farmhouse chic in the dining room.
What recipes might surprise some readers?
There’s an Indian chef, Asha Gomez, who lives in Atlanta. Her chicken recipe was unbelievable. It’s marinated in yogurt and fresh herbs. It fries up green from the herbs, and she serves it on a sweet-potato waffle. It was the most delicious fried chicken I’ve ever had.
You said writing this book was humbling. How so?
I’m so used to dealing with food personalities and pop-culture chefs that I think it was traveling on the back roads, and stopping and talking to people who are so passionate about food—people who cook to support their families. One of the things that came up the most was people talking about food and using the word “love.” If you hear that from a lot of chefs, you think, Oh, what BS is that? But from these people on the back roads of the South, you really believe it. These people are so hard working and so committed to pleasing people. Meeting them was really humbling.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on two more books, one called Morning Glory, on breakfast foods. At the same time, I’m working on Hole in One, which is a book on doughnuts.
photography by gary james