The film's director spoke with Food & Wine about his favorite chicken restaurants and why fried chicken is a political food.
American food conjures images of a different dish for just about everyone. For me, it’s a juicy burger, with beefsteak tomatoes, crispy lettuce, and cheddar cheese. For video producer and editor Daniel Thoennessen—and probably huge numbers of his fellow Americans—it’s fried chicken. But the seemingly simple dish actually has a complex history, which Thoennessen is exploring in an upcoming documentary titled Holy Bird.
Thoennessen has long been interested in the intricacies of American history, which inevitably led him to the world of food. “I took a class in college where we read Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs and High on the Hog,” told Food & Wine over the phone. “[Fried chicken] has a fraught history. It’s the center of a lot of stereotypes, and the imagery surrounding it has been problematic.”
He also began to notice a trend: Documentaries celebrating chefs began to pop up on Netflix—he points to Chef’s Table and Jiro Dreams of Sushi in particular—chefs who have achieved Michelin stars and restaurant empires, but he didn’t see any documentaries in that genre highlighting the people who have mastered the humble fried chicken.
“'Why hadn’t that been made yet?'” Thoennessen recalls asking himself. “Its original origins are disputed, but it’s a quintessential American dish. Why aren’t these chefs celebrated for their skill or technique? They’ve have been working on this dish for 30, 40, 50 years.”
Thoennessen decided that he wanted to fill this gap in America’s culinary knowledge, and planned on producing a quick ten-minute short on the subject. But the project quickly expanded, and he realized he had a full-length documentary on his hands.
As a full-time video producer, Thoennessen's background isn't in food. As a descendant of German immigrants who grew up eating what he calls the Mid-western version of his ancestor’s traditional cuisine, he also readily acknowledges that this is “not my tradition… It’s not my story to tell, but it’s a story I can tell because I have this ability to film and the ability to edit.” His mission is simply to celebrate to fried chicken “masters,” and to explore “where the dish came from, how it got to where it is now, [and] how it takes on certain race and class stereotypes.”
In order to tell that story, he had to travel to the south, starting in Gordonsville, Virginia for the Fried Chicken Festival, where he began filming in May 2016. From there, Thoennessen began cold-calling legendary fried chicken restaurants from Dooky Chase’s to Willy Mae's Scotch House, asking if he could interview the cooks and film in the restaurants.
“I actually can’t think of a single person who didn’t want to talk,” he says.
With suddenly unfettered access to restaurants where the living legends of the southern food tradition are still cooking, Thoennessen continued his travels around the south, to Charleston, New Orleans, and several towns in Mississippi, interviewing chefs who are “aren’t given the same critical attention or publicity,” as he terms it.
“Fried chicken is often described as a simple food and that didn’t strike me as correct,” he says of his motivation for interviewing seasoned fried chicken cooks. “It’s often African American women chefs, who are structurally marginalized and not given attention [making this type of cuisine]. You can’t make a documentary about fried chicken without highlighting the important role that African-American women chefs have played.”
Thoennessen tried to do just that, interviewing Leah Chase; Nicole Taylor, author of The Up South Cookbook; Lillie Mae Gadsen, who inherited Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston from her mother; Kerry Seaton-Stewart, the manager at Willie Mae’s Scotch House; and Linda Pinckney, the owner and chef at Bertha’s Kitchen.
The amateur documentarian quickly learned that fried chicken “has been stigmatized, but it has also represented economic opportunity [for] people who are marginalized and have limited opportunities.”
“One thing that has struck me about this particular dish is how America is able to have something be so ubiquitous and really beloved while also stereotyping its origins and in many ways only crediting the people making it when they have a negative point to make,” he continues. “A very famous chef can open a fried chicken pop-up and get written up and get a lot of attention but that divorces [fried chicken] from the tradition and the people perfecting the dish. I wanted to refocus the lens.”
Thoennessen is still working on finishing Holy Bird; he has plans to travel to Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, and North Carolina to conduct more interviews before wrapping up the documentary at the end of 2018. The best fried chicken he’s tasted yet might just come from Nicole Taylor’s kitchen, where she cooked up the dish with lard in a cast iron skillet. But if you’re looking for the best fried chicken you can find in a restaurant, Thoennessen recommends a classic: Willie Mae’s Scotch House.
In the meantime, Thoennessen is curious to see how a new generation of chefs will negotiate paying tribute to their predecessors—the often unappreciated masters who invented the techniques behind cooking fried chicken—as the dish continues to grow in popularity.
“How [should] someone from a new generation cook this dish and place it in the context of its history and properly give credit to the people who have perfected it?” Thoennessen asks. “You tell people, I learned this from this person. You don’t say this is ‘my technique.’ We [should] pay respect to the tradition and the people who make the dish.”