Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 6:30 PM
The hardest part about placing a to-go order from Central Michel Richard is actually spitting out the words over the phone: "Yes, I'd like a bucket of fried chicken, please." It's sort of like calling the White House and asking to speak to the groundskeeper.
Just as mind-boggling: Richard, the local French chef-restaurateur better known for his haute eye candy, says KFC was the inspiration behind his bucketful of fried chicken, one of many items on Central's new to-go lunch menu. (In addition to ordering by phone, you can place a walk-in order and wait 15 minutes in the lounge.) It seems that back in the mid-1970s, when Richard was working in Manhattan, he and a friend made a road trip to Boston and detoured to one of the Colonel's outlets.
"I fell in love with the texture of the fried chicken: crisp, crisp, crunch, crunch," Richard recalls, laughing. "That texture, I never saw that in France before."
If Richard's fried chicken proves anything, it's that "context" is not some lofty term exclusive to conceptual artists. Inside the warm golden cocoon of Central, the chef's signature chicken is just another part of the refined gustatory experience, a chef-driven take on the people's fast food. Outside those downtown walls, however, Richard's dish is transformed into God's takeout, immediately reordering the hierarchy of to-go fried chicken options into Central and everybody else. Granted, deities will have an easier time coughing up $29.95 for three breasts, three bone-in thighs, six "nuggets," a container of mashed potatoes and creamy Dijon dipping sauce.
This chicken is no hothouse flower. The bird parts travel well. We at The Post Food section didn't dig into our bucket until an hour after the scheduled pickup time. While cooler than normal, the chicken remained crisp and moist, its flavors still concentrated inside Richard's unique binder. Like most chefs, Richard at first tried to bind day-old bread crumbs (he prefers the term "bread lumps") to his chicken by using egg. It didn't work. That's when he developed his "chicken mayonnaise," an integral part of the fried chicken recipe found in the chef's "Happy in the Kitchen" cookbook (Artisan, 2006).
"Chicken mayonnaise is [processed] raw chicken with a little bit of chicken stock and a little bit of milk," he said.
First poached, then cooled and coated in the "mayonnaise," the skinless free-range bird is next dipped into day-old bread crumbs and briefly fried in vegetable oil. The Colonel would have surely changed his secret recipe had he lived long enough to taste this fried chicken, though he might have bought the farm earlier had he sampled Richard's decadent mashed potatoes, which contain enough butter to cause a dietitian to faint on the spot.
The only failing is in the packaging. Richard's bucket comes with Central's logo affixed to it, a sort of sloppy DIY job. That could change. "Somebody [told] me yesterday, I should have my face on that bucket," the chef says. Wearing a white suit and black string tie, we hope.
Central 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-626-0015. www.centralmichelrichard.com. The takeout menu is available at lunch only: Mondays through Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.