Mise en place: The things we do for fried chicken

Carlo Javier // Columnist 

It rained in Vancouver on the night I first went to Juke Fried Chicken. I remember this inconsequential detail because all the times I’ve been to Juke occupy a space in my brain where memories are clear sequences rather than fragments.  

Memory is funny like that sometimes. 

It was the summer of 2016 and I was an intern at Western Living Magazine. My days were often spent doing the “grunt-work” of journalism and I remember coming across a number of articles mentioning Juke as the hottest, trendiest place for fried chicken in Vancouver.  

After dinner, I blitzed my way from the gentrified side of Keefer Street towards Main Street-Science World Station. I remember not having an umbrella and being in utter disbelief about the torrential downpour coming down on my sorry self. I remember taking pit stops at available awnings as shelter against the rain, until I managed to catch a timely bus to the station that was only a stop away. 

I had a to-go box in my backpack containing two thigh-pieces that weren’t finished during my mini-feast, exuding an aroma that was being increasingly overcome by the untimely summer rain. 

The things we do for fried chicken. 

Like many of the finer things, good fried chicken does not happen overnight. It in fact happens over two or three, depending on how long you choose to marinate your chicken.  

The first step should always be soaking the meat in a cold water brine. I can get away with imparting lasting moisture with a simple mix of salt and water, but I always like to take the extra step by adding herbs like rosemary, bay and thyme. I also like to throw in some garlic, black pepper, sugar and lemon for maximum flavour. 

The second night is spent moving the chicken to a buttermilk mixture. Buttermilk is only marginally acidic, allowing the chicken to tenderize without toughening. Later, the buttermilk will also double as a binding agent with the flour coating. Plain buttermilk can do wonders, but again, I like to go the extra mile by adding hot sauce and a healthy mix of spices. It seems tedious, it seems like overkill, but some things are worth doing the hard way. 

The single most important thing about cooking good fried chicken has nothing to do with the ingredients in the recipe. Cooking good fried chicken involves a number of internal and external factors like time, tools and how much space is available, because I swear, I’ve never managed to keep a kitchen clean whenever I decide to double dredge. 

This is to say that commitment is the single most important factor to cooking good fried chicken. This is to say that cooking good fried chicken is much like romance. 

For years, I wanted to go to Juke with someone I loved, but we never could quite make it work. There always seemed to be something that influenced our schedules or decision-making. 

When we did finally go, one late winter night, it felt like one of those storybook moments where all the things you envisioned finally came true. This may sound like a bit much for eating higher-end fried chicken, but we bonded over that stuff. It’s a weird thing to have a shared passion for spicy fried chicken, but some things either can’t be explained, or don’t have to be. 

In my early attempts to cook fried chicken, I struggled with finding the balance of a perfectly crunchy coating and a perfectly cooked-through meat. So she suggested I finish the chicken in the oven. Foolishly, I placed the pieces on a flat surface, making the rookie mistake of leaving the chicken to swim in its own pool of oil—thereby ruining a side of its coating. 

The next time, she helped me find the right wire racks to fit my roasting sheets, so that each drum or thigh could have space to blossom on its own. Then came the actual most important part, which was to take photos of the finished product and send them over to her for validation. 

Much like memory, the notion of space is a funny thing too, because that same winter evening at Juke would also wind up being the last dinner we shared with each other. After that, all we had left was space to blossom on our own. 

The most tedious thing when cooking fried chicken happens during the coating process. This is when you might feel brave and elect to dredge the chicken twice to improve texture. During this phase, batter tends to build up on your hands, making the process all the more difficult. Rookies often make the mistake of washing their batter-infused hands with warm water—completely unaware that warm water activates gluten, thus only making a worse mess than before. 

But you still do it anyway, because again, some things are worth doing the hard way. 

This is what I mean when I say that cooking good fried chicken is much like romance.  

I still cook fried chicken a little too often. I haven’t been to Juke since that winter, but I will probably be back eventually. I still use the same wire racks. I still have the same appetite for a spicy fried chicken and I still take photos of the meals I cook in the kitchen I can’t keep clean. 

I never send them anymore. They just rest in my gallery, taking up the spaces that didn’t use to feel so empty. 

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