Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Fried Chicken Report Teaser 2

Peeps I'm gonna be honest with you... surprisingly, there's a lot of fried chicken in LA. And... it's still bathing suit season.

Yeah this means I can't try all the oodles of fried chicken (F.C.) I want to for the F.C. Report. Instead, you know it, another F.C. Teaser (without a southern accent) while I stretch out my taste-testing over a few months, updating along the way, and ultimately announcing the winner of the L.A.F.C. (also could stand for L.A.FatChick) Report later on.

Now, this week's entry is just as relevant, a sorta long-ish true food story about a man named Austin Leslie, photo above. Here goes...

Our story begins somewhere in the early 90's. I was collecting the cookbooks in the Time Life Foods of the World series. From the late 60's/70's, these were monumental in that they divided the world into food regions for the home cook pretty much for the first time.

One of the cookbooks -- American Cooking: Creole and Acadian -- included a big New Orleans section with a photo of a chef and his staff in a restaurant, Chez Helene. The caption referred to the guy in charge: Austin Leslie. The food looked comforty and delicious, the people warm and gracious. I decided if I ever visit New Orleans I'm going to Chez Helene!

So a coupla years later, in '94, Matthew and I flew down to the Big Easy and hopped in a cab bound for Chez Helene. The cab driver drove to nowhere until finally admitting he'd never heard of it, and then "Oh yeah, that place closed." I mean sure, that cookbook was printed roughly 30 years prior, yet this was still disappointing.

The next day we landed at a flea market after delightful Cafe du Monde chicory coffee and beignets when OMG, there in the piles o' stuff was a tiny Chez Helene cookbook which I rightly snapped up. This made me feel much better, because if I couldn't eat Chef Leslie's food, at least I could make it myself! (note: you guessed it, I have not, but we digress.)

About eight years or so later I read a "$25 and Under" review in The New York Times food section, which claimed that an Upper West Side hole-in-the-wall with a New Orleans-theme called Jacques-Imo served the best fried chicken in New York. Did I run? Did I doubt? Bingo, I doubted... feared it wasn't true, and drooled at the possibility of it being true.

Another year had passed before Matthew and I took a chance and went to Jacques-Imo. Beyond the slumming-it coolness of the free warm corn muffin topped with liquid Parkay, we agreed, it was the best fried chicken in New York. (To date it is still my favorite.) Excited, I went online and perused. Found out the original Jacques-Imo was in New Orleans and NY was a spin-off. The restaurant is known in both spots for its fried chicken, and oh my goodness, this because Jacques-Imo himself hired Austin Leslie as his fry cook.

(Note: Before this hiring, a late 80's TV show called "Frank's Place" was on-air, based on Chef Leslie and his Chez Helene, tho it and its revenue for Chef Leslie sadly did not last long.)

So check it, the recipe for Jacques-Imo's chicken in New York was Chef Leslie's (you can also tell because of the signature touch of persillade and sliced pickles). Meaning after all these years I did get to taste this chef's Chez Helene food, and not only was it beyond my crunch-lovin' dreams but the whole idea of it was soooo satisfying.

Soon after, John T. Edge published his book "Fried Chicken: An American Story." One of the sections features Austin Leslie, and the author mentions that he's tried to personally pry the secret fried chicken recipe out of this wonderful man but in reply the chef would merely hold out his flour-covered hands and say "The secret is in here."

I got in touch with Mr. Edge to say thanks for writing about this person, and he wrote back happy to hear there were other fans out there. So I sent Mr. Edge the fried chicken recipe from my old Chez Helene cookbook in case that was the secret one (and here is a version of his recipe that includes the persillade garnish).

Actually I was pretty thankful to have the chance to share my feelings about Chef Leslie with Mr. Edge, since I'd read in the Times that after Hurricane Katrina, Austin Leslie's health had suffered and as a result, at the age of 71, he passed away. He had recently stopped working at Jacques-Imo, however his fried chicken still lives on. If you're ever in New Orleans (sadly after this posting the New York location closed), go to Jacques-Imo and taste a few pieces of fried chicken Shangri-La -- or try to make it yourself -- as inspired by the late, great Austin Leslie.


Sussy said...

Wow, that was really touching, your tracing this man back for years and years and yes, you finally got to taste his loving touch with food. Now I know what persillade is! Who knew?! I feel French!

Marly said...

Sadly the New York location of Jacques-Imo has closed!