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Nashville Hot Chicken’s Cayenne Pepper Heat Hits Los Angeles

Rico gets a taste of Music City's fried chicken addiction.

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Nashville Hot Chicken isn’t a blues band — it’s a spicy and lightly sweet fried chicken preparation that’s beloved in, yes, Nashville… and is increasingly appearing on menus around the country.  This week Los Angeles gets a taste when chef Johnny Zone serves it at a pop-up night — May 4th — at the restaurant Barrel and Ashes. The event happens just before the launch of Zone’s Howlin’ Ray’s Hot Chicken food truck.

Rico met with Johnny and the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Mike Kahikina, who specializes in Southern cooking (the two first connected while working under master chef Thomas Keller). Rico first asked Johnny to explain a little more about what sets this fried chicken apart from the rest.

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Johnny Zone: So Nashville hot chicken is a dish that originated in the 1930s, and it’s basically a Southern fried chicken that’s coated in this hot pepper paste. It’s like three parts cayenne, one part a little bit of sugar, and hot oil poured over those spices to toast them.

After the chicken’s fried, you coat it in that pepper paste, and you can go extremely hot, or you can go mild, or you can go not that hot at  all.

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Rico Gagliano: So, how is that different than Buffalo wings?

Johnny Zone: So, Buffalo wings are completely different than Nashville hot chicken. They have a wet kind of sauce, like a Frank’s or a Crystal’s Hot Sauce. It’s hard to keep them really crispy because they’re coated in that wet sauce.

Rico Gagliano: Where did this come from? You say it originated in the 1930s, Johnny?

Johnny Zone: Yeah, so in the 1930s, there was this guy, Andre Prince Jeffries, and I think it was either him or one of his brothers, was a womanizer, right? [Ed. correction: Andre Prince Jeffries is a woman who owns Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville. Jeffries says it was her great-uncle, Thornton Prince, who was the man in question.] So, he would, you know, cheat on their women and…

Rico Gagliano: Is this apocryphal or do we know this for sure?

Johnny Zone: Well, I mean, it’s hearsay. There’s no written documents stating, you know, where it originated.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah — there are not Nashville hot chicken historians.

Johnny Zone: Yeah, exactly, I don’t think there is.  So this guy was a womanizer, and basically, the woman, in the morning, she was cooking him breakfast…

Rico Gagliano: His wife or girlfriend, I guess?

Johnny Zone: Yeah, and she made him some fried chicken, and she wanted to burn his palate. She wanted to destroy him.

Rico Gagliano: So, this was a revenge food, basically?

Johnny Zone: It started as revenge, just a woman trying to get this guy back. But it turns out, after the guy ate it, he ended up really liking it.  And then they opened up a little chicken shack that’s now called Prince’s.

Rico Gagliano: How big a deal is this in Nashville?

Johnny Zone: It’s really starting to kind of blow up now. There’s about, I think, 14 restaurants serving Nashville hot chicken, or restaurants that specialize in Nashville hot chicken.

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Michael Kahikina (L) and Johnny Zone (R) present the hot chicken that will set mouths across Los Angeles on fire on May 4.

Rico Gagliano: Actually this reminds me: Mike, you’re kind of a specialist in Southern cuisine. I’ve asked this question of a number of different people, but I’m interested in what you think… Why is it places that typically have hotter climates, like the South, like super-spicy food?

Michael Kahikina: Yeah, all over the world, in the hottest areas. If you look at India, the cuisine is very hot; Thailand, the food is very hot.

Number one, it’s comforting, I think. There’s something about the endorphin rush that you get when you eat something really hot. There’s something about the sweat that’s going to cool you down a little bit.  And you know, maybe some of it’s a dare too, a little bit.

Rico Gagliano: It’s more of a macho culture there?

Michael Kahikina: Yeah, right, exactly.

Johnny Zone: I’d say it’s also part of the experience. All of a sudden, eating is not just about getting full. It’s like, “Oh, man, remember that time we went down to Prince’s?  Oh my God you were sweating!” you know? “We had to change your shirt because so much sweat was coming off your back!”

It’s a memory. I mean, a big thing in Thomas Keller cooking is he wants to create memories, or invoke memories.

Michael Kahikina: Something that’s so fun about Southern cuisine too, is the community aspect of it:  Everyone gathered around the grill, and it’s long cooking times, and you’re eating with your hands a lot, and your fingers, and all your senses are involved. I think that’s a big part of it as well.

Johnny Zone: Although, when you are eating hot chicken, and the paste gets on your hands, do not touch your face! I’m serious. You’re laughing, but I’m saying don’t touch your face, don’t touch your nose, any sensitive things.

Rico Gagliano: All right, let’s make some memories for me here.

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The before…

 Johnny Zone: Medium hot?

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, medium hot sounds good to me.

Johnny Zone: Or hot? I’ll do medium hot and I’ll do a hot.

Rico Gagliano: And is there a way that this stuff is served, typically? I mean…

Johnny Zone: Generally, how I’ve had it, you get white bread on the bottom, chicken on top, and then you have pickles on top of that. The purpose of the white bread is it soaks up that paste. It’s delicious, and it also kind of soaks up the heat, too. And then, the pickles, what they do is they cut through the richness of the fried chicken and the spice too, so it kind of cools you down.

Rico Gagliano: All right, let’s do it.

Michael Kahikina: So, here we go. Here’s the Nashville hot chicken. We’ve got medium hot and very hot.

Rico Gagliano: And they look — it is, like, an entire chunk of chicken. It’s not like pulled meat or anything. It’s on the bone, and just served directly on top of the bread, and it looks delicious. I see what you’re saying now. It’s not that kind of gloppy, gluey sauce.

Michael Kahikina: Yes, you can smell the toasted chiles.  When you have — you know, you were talking about the difference between Buffalo wings — when you have that, it’s a vinegar-based sauce, and so it’s a very raw chili taste. This is toasted. It gives more depth of flavor, brings out some of the sugars in it.

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The aftermath of Rico handling the Nashville hot chicken heat pretty well.

Rico Gagliano: I’m pulling the pickles off. This is the medium hot one? All right, here we go… [tasting it] Oh, wow, that is juicy.

It’s not too hot. I can handle this.

Johnny Zone: That’s what everybody says at the beginning. They’re like, “Oh, it’s not that bad.”

Rico Gagliano: Oh, yeah… It’s building in heat. It’s still not too bad, though. Oh, my God, that is good.

And it is true: unlike Buffalo chicken, it doesn’t have that kind of buttery feeling. Actually, it reminds me a little bit of Sichuan or Thai-style spicy, crispy food.

Johnny Zone: Definitely, in Thai food, there is a balance of sugar and spice. It counteracts the heat of it by sweetening it just a little bit.

Rico Gagliano: I’m going to try the hot stuff. [tasting it:] Holy cow, that’s delicious… Oh, now I’m getting some heat!!

Johnny Zone: There’s one story about putting toilet paper in the freezer before you have it, so that the next day it’s ready to go.