Fried chicken is in the midst of a moment, which means skillet and fryer owners across the country are busily trying to filch chicken know-how from the greats. Do they need to brine with buttermilk? How important is the brown paper bag? This week's review of Heaven Sent, the mini-chain launched by local chicken legend Ezell Stephens, provided an opportunity to further probe the secrets of extraordinary fried chicken.
I rarely subject the food I review to a head-to-head comparison, since the real question when assessing, say, a burger, is not how it holds up against some other beloved burger, but whether its particular preparation, taste or story makes it a burger worth eating. But I couldn't resist the opportunity to stage a blind taste test of chicken from Heaven Sent and Ezell's Famous Chicken (Stephens founded the chain, but is no longer associated with it: Refer to my review for the tawdry legal details.) Since both restaurants reportedly use Stephens' recipe, a drumstick-to-drumstick match-up could objectively settle whether chicken genius ultimately resides on the page or with its maker.
Harlan Sanders, the legendary creator of the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand, believed anyone could be taught to make great chicken. As chronicled in his newly-published 1966 autobiography, Sanders' fortunes faltered during the Depression, when his family was forced to subsist on oatmeal. To make extra money, Sanders - then a struggling gas station owner - declared himself an obstetrician, delivering babies in the Kentucky hills. But after a patient nearly died in childbirth, he decided to pursue a different line of work: He rolled his family's dining room table into his service station and started serving meals.
"I was selling an awful lot of chicken and building a wide reputation for it," he recalled.
Sanders made his chicken in a pressure cooker, which he called his pot. At the age of 68, when he was ready to franchise, he drove around Ohio and Indiana in a car packed with demonstration pressure cookers and a bedroll. He had limited luck, so he handed out brochures at the National Restaurant Convention in Chicago.
"Every day I'd go to the post office to see if anybody wanted a fried chicken franchise," he wrote. "If I got three or four I was elated. I remember getting one from Canada and I was thrilled but I didn't know how on earth I'd ever get enough money to go way up there and show the man how to fry my chicken. I didn't rely on sending out written instructions."
Fortunately, a guest at Sanders' motel - another outgrowth of the service station - was headed to Canada. Sanders offered to put him up for another night if he'd take a fried chicken lesson and serve as his proxy. "Today that man's one of the biggest Kentucky Fried Chicken operators in Canada," he wrote.
But did the fried chicken served in Canada taste the same as the fried chicken which earned Duncan Hines' endorsement back in Kentucky? If the Seattle showdown is any indication, probably not.
For my fried chicken tasting, I instructed a friend to order a mix of white and dark; original and spicy chicken from Ezell's. I did the same at Heaven Sent. Since freshness is critical when it comes to fried chicken, I didn't want to disadvantage either restaurant by picking up one bird first: We timed our orders so we'd arrive at my friend's house nearly simultaneously. My husband was assigned the task of arranging and labeling the tasting plates, so he was the only member of our six-person tasting crew who knew which restaurant's chicken we were eating.
The results were conclusive. Since arriving in Seattle, I've struggled to understand the fuss over Ezell's fried chicken. Sanders might strenuously disagree, but the chicken from Heaven Sent made clear that recipes and equipment aren't the end-all of fried chicken prowess: Inborn talent matters.
For more on Heaven Sent, read my full review here. And for bonus pictures of pit master Willie Turner, who's taken in Stephens operation at his Rainier Valley restaurant, check out Joshua Huston's slideshow.