Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen is a woman on fire. Not only does she preside over an ever-growing family of hot, superbly Southern eateries (Poole’s Diner, Beasley’s, Chuck’s, Fox Liquor Bar, Joule Coffee), she’s got a shiny-new, prestigious James Beard Award for 2014 Best Chef Southeast to show for it.
She’s a busy lady. But she’s also a down-to-earth, self-taught chef who works hard and often reaches beyond her comfort zone – she traveled to Uruguay with the Fatback Collective of Southern chefs and pit masters to compare notes on grilling methods. (“We all came home and thought about food a little differently,” she says.)
Her cuisine is equally honest, paying homage to roots, family, a beloved region and its “beautiful ingredients,” as she puts it, “those heirloom grains and greens and the ingredients that take food to another level.”
And most pertinent to the fried chicken spree in today’s Food & Dining section, Christensen has a way with crispy fowl. In fact, she built an entire restaurant concept around her family’s love of fried chicken, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey. (“Beasley was my mom’s nickname for me as a child,” Christensen told me by phone earlier this year.)
The inspiration for Beasley’s signature dish is a mingling of the skillet fried chicken her mother, Lynn, learned from her grandmother in Memphis and the honey her father, Robert, collected as a hobby beekeeper in Kernersville, N.C., where the chef grew up.
“It’s the popcorn and chocolate theory, the salty and the sweet. It’s about what one ingredient makes the other taste like,” says Christensen.
The chef’s method of making this chicken has evolved into a rather complex process. She and her crew brine the chicken in a salt-sugar-water bath for 12 hours. The brine, she says, is very important as it helps keep the chicken moist and flavorful.
She dips the chicken in buttermilk, then rolls it in unseasoned all-purpose flour. The chicken is then pressure fried. “It keeps the skin very crispy and the juice in the chicken.”
Then it’s kept warm in a CVap, a controlled vapor oven, where it rests. Before serving, the chicken is dropped into an open fryer for about three minutes, then drizzled with honey for Beasley’s signature flourish.
“Some ask for the honey on the side,” says the chef, “but it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t want it at all.”
ONLINE: Learn more about chef Ashley Christensen’s restaurants by visiting AC-Restaurants.com.
ASHLEY CHRISTENSEN’S FRIED CHICKEN
The Raleigh, N.C., chef says this recipe, adapted from Garden & Gun magazine, is her go-to fried chicken recipe.
Serves 2 to 4
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
8 cups cold water
1 cup granulated sugar
1½ cup kosher salt, plus 1 teaspoon
1 gallon ice cubes
Canola oil (for frying)
4 cups whole buttermilk
4 cups all-purpose flour
For the brine: Bring water to a boil, stir in sugar and 1½ cup salt until dissolved. Remove from the heat. Pour the brining liquid and the ice cubes into a large container. Add chicken to the brine and cover. Refrigerate for 10 to 12 hours (no longer).
Prepare to fry: Pour enough canola oil into a large cast-iron skillet to fill it halfway. Heat oil to 325 degrees. In a paper grocery bag, add flour and remaining teaspoon salt. Close bag and shake to blend. In a large bowl, pour the buttermilk.
Coat the chicken: Remove chicken pieces from brine. Pat dry. Dip each piece in buttermilk, allowing excess liquid to drain off. Place chicken in the flour-filled paper bag, then close bag. Shake well to coat chicken. Shake excess flour from chicken.
Fry it: Fry chicken in skillet, turning it once. You’ll know it’s done when it reaches 155 degrees on the inside for white meat, 165 degrees for dark meat. Adjusting the heat as needed to maintain the oil at 325 degrees.