Category Archives: Great Chefs of New Orleans

Austin Leslie’s Fried Chicken Recipe

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From Nola Cuisine

This is part 2 of Great Chefs of New Orleans: Austin Leslie, which I’ve been working on with my friend Texas Chef Bill Moran. Like I said, with each Chef we feature, we will include a recipe that he/she is most famous for, in this case Austin Leslie’s Fried Chicken.
A lot of people think Austin Leslie had a secret ingredient, heck, maybe he had a little secret, but I believe his main secrets were patience and knowledge.

The following passage about frying chicken by Austin Leslie is from the 1978 book Creole Feast by Nathaniel Burton and Rudy Lombard:

“The first time I cut up a chicken I was working at Portia’s. The chef there , Bill Turner, asked me where I learned how to do it. I said I learned from my mother at home. He taught me how to get twelve pieces from a whole chicken; my mother was able to get thirteen pieces from the same chicken because she broke the back into two parts. I learned all about fried chicken from Bill Turner, too. It’s the easiest job in the kitchen. You can tell by the sound when fried chicken is done. If you listen to it, you can hear how the sound of the grease crackling in the fryer changes. Then you know it’s time to bring it up. I never cook it well done; I never cook any meat well done. What I do is take the blood out of it first-while the chicken is frying, take a pair of tongs and squeeze each piece. Squeeze it till it bursts to let the blood out. You can look right down there by the bone and see if there is any blood there. When it’s ready the chicken will float to the top, a part of it will stick up. Then you take it and check it over. If you cook it properly you can keep your guests or customers from ever seeing any blood. That’s what they object to, when they prefer well-done meat-not the taste, but the blood.
If you’re serving fried chicken to twelve people you will need three chickens so you can provide three pieces each. The wings-two pieces; the breast-four pieces; the back-two pieces; the thighs-two pieces, the leg-two pieces; that’s twelve in all. Since people want to handle chicken easily when they eat it, we cut it that way. Actually we can fry it just as well in larger cuts. When you cut it properly you won’t loosen the skin. You start by cutting it down the back. Split it down the middle. Then take a sharp cleaver and place the chicken firmly on a block and hold it down. After you split it down the back, then you open it up and take out the insides and put them aside. Then you cut straight through the breast. Cut it into quarters with the cleaver, seperating the thighs from the breast. Then disjoint it at the wings, and disjoint the legs from the thighs. If you use a cleaver, be careful. If you use a knife, always cut away from yourself. Always move all other knives away from the board when you use a cleaver because you can mis-strike, and if that cleaver hits a knife, it can jump up and hit you.
After the chicken is cut up, salt and pepper it, mixing the pieces around so the salt and pepper get all over the chicken.
If you are preparing the chicken to be cooked later, don’t do what they do in markets-cover it with plastic wrap or wax paper. If you do that and then put it into the refrigerator, some of it might go bad. The best thing is to put the seasoned chicken in a bowl uncovered. That way the cold air can get call around the chicken and keep it fresh. The next step is to make an egg wash. Use any kind of cream-for one chicken, use one egg and half a can of evaporated milk. Add some salt and pepper, stir it up, put the chicken in and let it sit. Put enough flour to cover the chicken either in a bag or in a flat bowl and coat the chicken with flour. If you use an electric fryer, set it at 350 F, if you pan-fry, wait till the oil is beginning to bubble. I use peanut oil for frying. Put the heavy pieces in first (thigh, leg and breast), making sure you don’t crowd the chicken. If you put too much in at one time the heat and oil can’t get all around the meat and it will cook unevenly. You have to watch the flour that falls to the bottom of the pan very carefully. After each set of pieces gets done, strain the oil out and clean the pan, otherwise the flour at the bottom is going to burn. You’ve heard people say the first chicken looks good, the second so-so, and the third you can forget. That’s why. Never fry anything else (meat, fish, or sausage) along with the chicken, because it will give it a bad taste. It’s like frying hot sausage on a grill and then following it up with steak or ham. You see that a lot in restaurant kitchens and that’s why the food has a strange taste. You can’t cut up a lobster on the same board you use chicken or some other meat.” -Austin Leslie

The above pic is my recreation, using the instructions at the bottom of this page and following the recipe. It may not have been Austin Leslie’s, but it was a damned good plate of Chicken. Here is the recipe:

Austin Leslie’s Fried Chicken with Persillade Recipe

1 ¼ Cups Peanut Oil for frying
1 3-3 1/2; lb Fryer cut up (see above)
Salt and Black Pepper
1 Egg, lightly beaten
1 cup Evaporated Milk
1 cup Water
½ Cup flour

4 Tbl fresh minced garlic
4 Tbl fresh minced parsley
Dill Pickle Slices

Heat oil in a cast iron skillet to 350 F, the oil should come about halfway up the sides of the skillet. Adjust the amount in accordance with the skillet size. Combine garlic and parsley (persillade) in small mixing bowl and set aside.

Wash chicken pieces in cool water, pat dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk egg, evaporated milk and water. Season with salt and pepper. Place flour in a separate bowl. One piece at a time, starting with heaviest pieces, dip chicken into egg wash, squeeze, dip into flour and place gently in skillet. Do not overcrowd skillet.

Maintain temperature of 350 F. Use tongs and long fork to turn chicken often for 7-8 minutes. Remove chicken from oil with tongs, pierce with fork and squeeze. Place chicken back in oil approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Chicken is done when no longer hissing and juices run clear. Remove from oil and place on paper towels to drain. Immediately top with a sprinkle of garlic and parsley mixture. Continue until all the chicken is cooked.
Garnish each piece with a slice of dill pickle.

Related links:
Buttermilk Fried Chicken Recipe at American Gourmand
Austin Leslie related links:
Great Chefs of New Orleans: Austin Leslie
Austin Leslie Obituary at Egullet (Pictures)
Jason Perlow’s pictures from Jacques-Imo’s and Pampy’s Creole Kitchen
Pictures of Austin Leslie’s Jazz Funeral
Austin Leslie Obituary thread at Mr. Lake’s Nonpompous New Orleans Food Forum.

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Great Chefs of New Orleans: Austin Leslie

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My good friend Texas Chef Bill Moran and I recently came up with the idea to showcase some of the great Chefs of New Orleans, past and present. We’re not talking about the superstars like Prudhomme and Lagasse, but the somewhat lesser known New Orleans Chefs and cooks that, although not nationwide superstars, are heroes to anyone who has had the pleasure of tasting their top notch cooking. In addition to a bio on each Chef, we will have a follow up post with a recreation of a dish he/she is most famous for, in this case Austin Leslie’s Fried Chicken Recipe. I’m sure mine won’t be as good as theirs, but I will do my best. Special thanks to Jason Perlow from Egullet for letting us use his wonderful photo.

For the many who never got to experience the late Austin Leslie’s expertise, he was one of the great, real Creole Chefs in the country. His long tenure at Chez Helene got him recognized by many as, “The Godfather of Fried Chicken” but he was more than adept at the other facets of Creole cooking like gumbo, stuffed peppers and many others.

Austin Leslie was born in New Orleans on July 02, 1934, and he began his food career as a boy, delivering herbs, peppers, and celery to his neighbors in the Lafitte projects. As a teen he began delivering fried chicken by bicycle for Portia’s Fountain on S. Rampart Street. As Leslie said in John T. Edge’s book, Fried Chicken: An American Story, “Back then, that was the black Bourbon Street. They were always telling me I was too little to work Rampart, but I proved myself. The owner Bill Turner, he looked after me, he educated me on how restaurants worked. That’s where I picked up a lot of what I know about fried chicken, where I learned how to season it right.”

In 1952 Leslie left Portia’s and his home town for a crack at business school, but returned home the next year, working for a time at Portia’s and then in a sheet metal shop. When times were slow at the shop he also worked at his Aunt Helen DeJean Pollack’s restaurant, Howard’s Eatery on Perdido.
In 1959 Leslie began to come into his own, working as assistant Chef at the restaurant in D.H. Holmes Department Store on Canal. There he learned from Chef Russell about Haute Cuisine and the classic Creole dishes that New Orleans is famous for. “I had grown up walking by there, hearing the dishes clatter and smelling the food, and then all of the sudden I was working in that big kitchen. I learned how to make oysters Rockefeller and shrimp remoulade.”

In 1964 Austin’s Aunt Helen moved her Eatery to 1540 N. Robertson Street off St. Bernard, and added an e to her name, calling the restaurant Chez Helene, for a touch of class. Leslie came along, working at the beginning as Co-Chef with Aunt Helen’s brother Sidney DeJean. Leslie brought along what he learned at D.H. Holmes, and combined those dishes with some of his Aunt’s menu items, this was the beginning of the cuisine he became famous for: Creole-Soul.

In 1975 Aunt Helen decided to retire and sold Chez Helene to her nephew Austin. The small unpretentious neighborhood restaurant, became known for wonderful Oysters Rockefeller served on bent tin pie plates, mustard greens, stuffed peppers, fried chicken livers, buttery cornbread and the best Fried Chicken around. Chez Helene built a steady clientele of black and white, tourists and locals alike, all coming together in the little restaurant for it’s excellent cooking. As Leah Chase said, “It was just good old Creole food, good old-time New Orleans food, and he was good, damn good. You couldn’t fry a chicken better than Austin. You couldn’t stuff a pepper better than Austin Leslie.”

Leslie’s persona also grew in popularity, with his big smile, mutton chop sideburns, a diamond crusted crab pendant, trademark yachting cap and the gift of gab. Business deals came out of the woodwork, including French Quarter and Chicago versions of Chez Helene, and a chain of Fried Chicken restaurants. He also published a cookbook in 1984 titled Chez Helene: House of Good Food. Leslie said, “Seems like everyone wanted to use my name to sell this, my face to sell that, I made the mistake of listening.”

In 1987 Chez Helene drew the attention of producer Hugh Wilson and actor Tim Reid, best known for his roll as Venus Flytrap on the show WKRP In Cincinnati. After dinner at Chez Helene the two thought the restaurant would be a perfect setting for a hit television show, Leslie signed on as a consultant and later ran television ads calling Chez Helene the inspiration for Frank’s Place. Frank’s Place aired in the Spring of 1987 to rave reviews, but was cancelled after a year, citing low ratings and a huge budget. This was the beginning of the end of Chez Helene. Business at the original Chez Helene slowed and the other restaurants began to close, one by one. As Leslie told Edge, “I knew I could ride it out, that it all would pass, I was still cooking, still had my little restaurant. The real problem was that I was sitting on dynamite. The dope fiends and pushers were moving into the neighborhood. Now don’t get me wrong, I know the streets. I’ve lived my whole life around pimps and whores. They’ve got a job to do same as me. But this was something different.”

Leslie declared bankruptcy in 1989 and the last Chez Helene closed its doors for good in 1994. The building that once housed the original restaurant burned down shortly after. Here is a picture of the lot where Chez Helene used to stand.

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Leslie worked around town for a time, popping up in different restaurants around the city, like The Bottom Line and The Basin Street Club, but in 1995 he answered a want ad for a “Creole and Cajun Chef”. He hired on, not as Executive Chef or Sous Chef but as the Fry Cook at a funky little restaurant called Jacques-Imo’s (pics at Egullet), owned by restaurateur Jack Leonardi. Their odd couple partnership became legendary on the New Orleans restaurant scene. Jack Leonardi said, “I would have never really done the Creole-soul thing and the fried chicken if it hadn’t been for Austin, he also just taught me a lot about things, not just running a restaurant. He had such a big menu at Chez Helene. It was like a Chinese restaurant menu. He taught me how you could do that, how to incorporate sauces and stuffings in all sorts of different ways.”

At Jacques-Imo’s, Leslie turned his signature Fried Chicken on to a new generation of diners, finishing each order with a persillade (minced garlic and parsley) and a slice of dill pickle. During this period, Leslie also helped open a restaurant called N’Awlins in Copenhagen, Denmark, and in 2000 he released his second cookbook, Austin Leslie’s Creole Soul: New Orleans Cooking with a Soulful Twist. In October of 2004 Austin left Jacques-Imo’s saying, “I didn’t move away from Jack because of money. I moved away from Jacques-Imo’s because I wanted to get away from frying. I’m going to die. But I’m not going to die over that fryer.”

In 2005 he signed on as Executive Chef at Pampy’s Creole Kitchen (pics at egullet) owned by Stan “Pampy” Barre. There he taught a new generation of cooks some of his secrets, and could often be seen talking with the diners in the front of the house. When asked about retirement he said, “I’ll never quit, I’ll work as long as there is breath in my body.”

In the midst of the flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the 71 year old Austin Leslie, like many others, was trapped in his attic for 2 days in the stifling humidity and 98 degree heat. He was later rescued and relocated to the New Orleans Convention Center, until being taken to Atlanta. The last time Barre spoke with Leslie he was anxious to get back to work. Barre said, “Austin called me two days ago, and we had an extensive conversation. He wanted to get back to work. He wanted to get back into the kitchen.” On September 28 he was admitted to an Atlanta hospital for a high fever and died the next day.

On Sunday October 9, 2005, Austin Leslie was honored with the first post-Katrina New Orleans Jazz Funeral. Two dozen marchers carried black & white photos of Leslie (the one seen above, taken by Jason Perlow of Egullet), marched through the devastated Seventh Ward to honor the legendary Chef. The procession started at Pampy’s, taking a route that passed the former site of Chez Helene, and ending at the Backstreet Cultural Center at 1116 St. Claude Street. Stan “Pampy” Barre said the crowd was “going to march into New Orleans and dance him into Heaven.”

Related Links:
Part 2 to this post: Austin Leslie’s Fried Chicken Recipe
Pictures of Austin Leslie’s Jazz Funeral at
Jason Perlow’s pics from Jacque-Imo’s and Pampy’s
Pampy’s Creole Kitchen Website (Pampy’s was destroyed by flooding)
Obituary at Egullet
Austin Leslie Obituary thread at Mr. Lake’s Nonpompous New Orleans Food Forum.

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