In Search of Fried-Chicken Perfection at the New Crispy Bird in Indianapolis
Battered, crackled chicken breast holding down a jalapeño-studded slaw and puffs of white bread, it soon became the focus of an experiment for the young student at the University of Southern California: how to replicate this perfect fried chicken sandwich. He took his R&D home to Indianapolis during holiday visits, and the whole family got in on it, dialing down the dough for the softest brioche and playing with the chicken brine. Hoover eventually went onto the culinary school in Paris, then cooking in fine-dining kitchens from Spring and La Bourse et La Vie in the city of lights to Relæ in Copenhagen. But at the back of his mind, he always had that experiment in the back of his mind.
“Percolating,” says Martha Hoover, the pioneering restaurateur behind Cafe Patachou, Petite Chou and more in Indianapolis and David’s mother. “Percolating to the point when this great location came up a year ago, I told David, ‘Hey, your work visa has expired. Come here and open the restaurant.’ Long story short: chicken, why chicken? We eat a lot of it.”
When the Hoover family decides to do something, they don’t do it half-heartedly. Martha, one of Fortune’s 2017 Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink, left her career as a sex crimes prosecutor to open and operate restaurants in a radically different, radically better way (the slogan of her hospitality company, Patachou Inc.). 28 years ago, she committed her first restaurant Cafe Patachou to local ingredients and everything made to order, and now with 11 more restaurants and catering under her belt, she and her son are onto the next thing: the perfect fried chicken. It’s the star of their latest venture together, Crispy Bird, which just opened in Indianapolis last week.
“If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, it would be fried chicken,” says David. “Despite the simplicity and humbleness of the fried chicken, there’s actually quite a bit of technique involved and some room to differentiate from what others are doing.”
That starts with the bird, American Freedom Ranger. The Hoovers loved the Poulet Rouge variety from France, so their farmer Greg Gunthorp of Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana, worked with them to find something similar in the US. Now he breeds the American Freedom Ranger exclusively for Crispy Bird.
“Their natural flavor and fat content is so fabulous,” says Martha. Finding the right bird led to more rounds of R&D for David. He played with the brine, cooking process, temperature, type of oil, everything until he found a blend of variables that were just right.
Same goes for the rest of what makes Crispy Bird a Hoover family project. There are sides, like fried Carolina gold rice with persimmon sauce and chicken skin, and desserts like Hoosier pie and maple soft-serve. There are, of course, non-fried chicken things, like Nashville hot cauliflower and charcoal-grilled chicken with coleslaw and pickles. But, really you’re here for the chicken. Martha’s own chicken coop at home inspired the design—“I know it seems insane,” she says. “I say it’s chicken coop chic.” That means raw materials used to construct her coops make up the interior and blown-up photos of show chickens from a collector in Singapore hang on the walls.
However, it’s not so insane sounding when you’re talking to these two fried-chicken obsessives.
“My favorite dish is probably the fried chicken. That sounds boring, but it’s super addicting,” says David.
“It’s a dish that’s become remarkably ubiquitous,” adds Martha. “But when people ask what we serve at Cafe Patachou, it’s omelets and homemade soups. It sounds so uninspired, but when you dig down and peel back the onion, you realize it’s a combination of a lot of magic and science to make it a distinguishable product. I feel like that regarding Crispy Bird.”
And that’s how the Hoovers make their fried chicken.