"In New Orleans, Popeyes doesn’t even qualify as fast food."
Photo via Flickr user Lady Ducayne
My restaurant, Willa Jean, is named after my grandmother, and everybody wants that really nice Southern story about how my grandmother taught me how to cook, but in reality she was absolutely terrible in the kitchen. She was the one who was always my champion, like, 'Yeah, move to New Orleans,' and 'Yeah, you should cook, and I'm going to help you.' She taught me how to be myself and put myself out there without apologizing for it. She's badass.
New Orleans is one of those cities that you either love or hate. It's part of who you are, or it's not, and there's rarely an in-between. I snuck down here for the first time in high school and felt like I was part of it from that first time. I used the idea of college as an excuse to leave home and come down here, and then I started cooking.
RECIPE: Super-Crispy Fried Chicken
In New Orleans, Popeyes doesn't even qualify as fast food, not the way that it would in any other city. I think that's part of what makes it more of a draw here. It's our heritage; it's where we come from. It's been at every party, it's been at every parade, it's been at Jazz Fest and all of the things that make New Orleans New Orleans. Popeyes has a role in that and has a place in that.
What makes Popeyes fried chicken the superior fried chicken? Where to even start with that? I think there's a lot of nostalgia wrapped in it for me, where maybe it's not technically the best chicken ever, but here in New Orleans, Popeyes plays into our lifestyle. That's what makes it the best.
Yeah, a lot of it has to do with Mardi Gras. A lot? Like 100 percent of it, especially when you're at your first Mardi Gras or it's your first morning making it to the [Krewe of] Zulu Parade. Zulu starts at 7 or 8 AM and nobody wants to be alive at that time, especially if they're an amateur at Mardi Gras. I have been in that position, and that's when you just get a box of Popeyes and go out to the parade route. It totally brings you back to life.
Popeyes biscuits are a religion of their own. For sure. What puts them in this category? I'm going to go with butter. And it's not even good butter, it's pretty cheap butter, but the biscuits taste like butter and hardly anything else.
My first Popeyes experience was being on the parade route, at 8 in the morning. It was 1) Popeyes for breakfast—nothing wrong with that, and 2) You're literally so hungover that you want to die, and that spicy chicken and butter with the biscuits just makes you feel like you can start Mardi Gras over again and keep going. If you've ever been in New Orleans on Mardi Gras Tuesday, there's only one restaurant that really needs to be open. It's Popeyes. If you've done anything else or eaten anything else, you haven't done it right. You'll have to try it again.
My mom made fried chicken at least once a week growing up, and it's always been probably my favorite food group. (Yes, fried chicken is a food group unto itself.) I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and we didn't have Popeyes—or if there was Popeyes, as a kid, I didn't know what it was or where it was. We had Bojangles, so it wasn't until the late 1990s when I moved to New Orleans that I popped my Popeyes cherry, for lack of a better term. (And Bojangles has that Cajun Chicken Biscuit at breakfast; that's not bad. It's not bad at all.)
I'm going to say this, full disclosure, as a restaurant owner of a restaurant known for their biscuits: Popeyes biscuits are a religion of their own. For sure. What puts them in this category? I'm going to go with butter. And it's not even good butter—it's pretty cheap butter—but the biscuits taste like butter and hardly anything else. Every couple of months I do a 'Biscuits and Bubbles' brunch at my house, and it's always biscuits, sausage gravy, and tons and tons of stuff. I always get 200 pieces of Popeyes and just have a mountain of Popeyes in my kitchen.
It's amazing—and there's never as much leftover as I want there to be.
Kelly Fields is a James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef and longtime New Orleans resident. She is the co-founder and chef at Willa Jean, which literally has a menu section called 'The Biscuit Situation.'