The idea of chef-as-celebrity is an odd one. When you actually consider what it is a chef does – they make food for you to purchase and consume – it becomes even more absurd. After all, what makes a chef all that special?
Until fairly recently, chefs were unknowns, whispers hidden behind swinging dining-room doors that led to god-only-knows. No one cared about the kitchen, or how their food was made; and they most certainly didn’t care who made it. In today’s culture, chefs such as Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck have become household names. Both men have earned numerous awards; own successful restaurants around the world; and are easily identified by their work – the oysters and pearls of Keller, and the smoked salmon pizza of Puck. In other words, their signature dishes.
To say something is “signature” is to take a risk. In essence, you’re concentrating every characteristic of that producer and distilling it into one, singular product. Hulk Hogan’s leg drop was signature because it encompassed everything that was Hulk. What the leg drop did for Hogan was representative, in an instant, of exactly what the man stood for: a leg drop is honest, simple and effective (not counting the WCW NWO years, obviously).
But what makes something signature? Certainly the creator can’t knight something of theirs as signature. To have something be signature, to be truly known for something, you must have a lot of people know and acknowledge that something.
Like Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck, Josh Galliano has a signature dish, something known and acknowledged as inextricably tied to the James Beard semi-finalist. But unlike Keller and Puck, The Libertine’s executive chef doesn’t use expensive ingredients like caviar in his most famous dish. Instead, he uses lard – because Galliano’s leg drop is fried chicken.
Though The Libertine has been open since May, the Clayton eatery still has the feel and energy of a brand new space. On an evening in early autumn, the restaurant is flooded with people. And when Galliano comes out from the kitchen, everyone turns to see what the celebrated chef is doing. Is he eating something? Did he make something special for a VIP? A communal look of confusion washes over the room as Galliano makes his way proudly from the kitchen, his hands full with takeout boxes of food from other restaurants.
To say that Galliano loves fried chicken is an understatement. Galliano obsesses over fried chicken, speaking in reverent tones about its history and cultural significance. He speaks of The Great Migration and The Chicken Bone Express, a train that earned this nickname due to the bones that lined the track’s path from New Orleans to Chicago – discarded remnants of chicken dinners that poor families packed and brought aboard for the trip north.
“Fried chicken is the food of the masses,” Galliano says. “It’s part of our identity as Americans: you don’t see fried chicken as a dinner table centerpiece in any other culture, but it’s become a part of our genetic structure. A 10 year old could tell you, in a heartbeat, if they’re eating good fried chicken.”
This brings us back to Galliano proselytizing about other restaurant’s food while standing in The Libertine. The boxes he brings forth are filled with fried chicken from some of the area’s best: Winslow’s Home, Farmhaus, Porter’s, King Edward’s, Eckert’s, Sweetie Pie’s, Potnar’s. As Galliano begins opening boxes, he offers his reasoning behind the buffet of artery plaque that sits in front of us.
“There are a number of reasons why a specific fried chicken is good and warrants being eaten,” Galliano says. “Sometimes the reason may be because it’s good and affordable. Other times, it’s because it’s a source of town pride; an institution that has slowly educated and massaged an entire city’s conception of what fried chicken should taste like. It’s amazing the level of fried chicken diversity we have in St. Louis, and I wanted to showcase that.” To be honest, I think that was just Galliano-speak for, “I want an excuse to eat a lot of fried chicken.”
We fulfill what I perceive to be Galliano’s wish, and eat a lot of fried chicken. Through it all, he explains the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the birds. How this one is breaded this way, how that one is brined that way. Later, Cherry Kool-Aid in hand (“There’s nothing better to have with fried chicken than red Kool-Aid”), Galliano goes back into the belly of The Libertine to share how he makes his signature dish.
By my estimations, there were approximately 2.3 billion people at All-Star Chicken and Fish last year, Galliano’s pop-up restaurant project that he executed in the lull between the closing of Monarch and the opening of The Libertine. The popularity of his fried chicken speaks for itself, so I’ll leave it at this: It’s good.
It’s so good, in fact, that it has started growing its own legend. There’s the story of when Galliano worked at Daniel Boulud’s flagship New York City restaurant, Daniel, and was asked to cook fried chicken. On Valentine’s Day. For P. Diddy. There’s the story of how Galliano decided, on a whim, to make fried chicken at Monarch, which in turn created a frenzy that forced him to put it on the menu. When it was announced that Galliano would be leading the kitchen at The Libertine, owner Nick Luedde fielded questions about the chef’s fried chicken so often that he regularly led-off interviews with, “Don’t worry, we’ll be finding a place for Josh’s chicken on the menu.”
And then there’s the story of Josh Galliano giving his recipe away to anyone who wants it. Nearly a year ago, Galliano published his famous fried chicken recipe in The Okawville Times – not a “lite” version or a home cook’s version, but his actual recipe. On the surface, it’s deceptively simple – the breading recipe is flour, cornmeal, Creole seasoning and cornstarch. When asked why he would be crazy enough to publish it, his response was immediate: “Do you want to prep for three to four days to make fried chicken?”
To make Josh Galliano’s Signature Fried Chicken™, you must first brine the protein in a sweet tea mixture…followed by a buttermilk soak…followed by a breading process…followed by frying…(preferably in lard)…followed by a CVap oven afterward to keep it warm. It’s an exhausting process, but Galliano’s response is almost certainly correct: Everyone wants good fried chicken, but no one wants to take nearly a business week to make it. This is an interesting position to be in – fried chicken is an everyman’s dish, which is what attracts all of us – Galliano included – to it. But to have really good fried chicken takes time, effort and skill. And while anyone might technically be able to make Galliano’s signature dish, neither of us wants the responsibility – we’d rather visit The Libertine and have it placed in front of us on a platter. This is what makes it special. This is what makes it signature.