Earlier this summer, when I opened the e-mail from Williams-Sonoma promoting chef Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Kit, I was more than a little skeptical. It's not that I don't think Keller is a genius—I do. He is the only American-born chef with two restaurants (The French Laundry and Per Se) awarded Michelin's highest rating (three stars); the braised-and-grilled lamb breast at Rakel, Keller's short-lived, late-'80s Manhattan restaurant, still pops up in my dreams. But I am a Southerner and a tad proprietary about a dish that we can claim to have bestowed upon the nation. Also, though it is certainly a delicacy, fried chicken has always been a humble and highly personal offering, marked by the hands of individual cooks using well-cured, black-iron skillets and tricks including bacon grease and brining in a bath of sweet tea. I wondered what the high-flying Keller, a Yankee after all, would have to contribute.
As it turns out, a lot. Before I coughed up $14.95 for Keller's kit, which includes two packets of brine and two packets of coating mix, I did a little research. I have yet to dine at Keller's Ad Hoc restaurant in Yountville, Calif., a casual place that serves a different four-course "family style" menu every night, but my friend, the New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, has, and he described the chicken as nothing short of "phenomenal." Then I discovered a surprisingly good food blog, Inuyaki.com, whose author is so obsessed with Ad Hoc's chicken that he features a calendar marked with the dates on which it is served. Finally, there was a reassuring conversation with Keller himself: he told me he spent part of his childhood in southern Maryland, where his mama fixed chicken the old-fashioned way, shaking it up with the flour and seasonings in a brown paper bag.
For comparison purposes, I chose an equally old-fashioned recipe—from The Gift of Southern Cooking, by the late Edna Lewis and the great Scott Peacock—to make alongside Keller's version. The recipe combines tips from Peacock's native Alabama and Lewis's Virginia and calls for a frying fat that is a sinful combination of butter and lard in which slivers of country ham have already been fried to intensify the fat's flavor.
Both recipes call for the chicken to be brined, an essential first step for turning out white meat as tender and juicy as dark meat. Keller says that a brine is "all about the salt," but he also uses his as an additional flavoring vehicle, and includes so many herbs and spices that it rivals Colonel Sanders's much--ballyhooed secret blend of 11 (at one point celebrity security expert Bo Deitl was hired to safeguard the formula). Both get bathed in buttermilk, but Keller's chicken, which gets dipped in the coating mixture twice before being fried in peanut oil, had a faintly lemony tang and a thicker, more deeply colored crust. Peacock's, imbued with the flavor of pork on pork, more closely resembled the golden fried bird of my youth.
To taste them I assembled a panel of four fellow Southerners, including one who now lives in Los Angeles and a New Yorker (albeit one with a Southern mother), and we fell upon both platters with equal passion, devouring all but two pieces of three cut-up chickens—22 pieces in all—and in embarrassingly short time. We added sliced tomatoes and field peas and potato salad made with Keller's delicious Ad Hoc dressing, and washed it down with rose champagne and a Grüner Veltliner, both of which matched the chicken perfectly.
By the time we got to dessert (berry cobbler), we'd flip-flopped on our favorites so much that we settled on a draw. At first, I was more partial to the Peacock recipe—it was slightly moister, with a lighter crust, and it looked like Sunday lunch. But the Keller chicken kept holding its own on the plate, gorgeous and still crunchy, until even the most fiercely loyal and nostalgic among us were forced to hand it to him—and to keep on eating.