In the last two years, fried chicken has proliferated like mad: at high-end restaurants like Locanda Verde an Momofuku Noodle Bar, at Korean chains, and on bar menus. But we thought we’d catch up with a guy who’s been frying chicken since he was eight years old, who has dedicated his life to cooking Southern food.
We talked to Gabriel about learning to cook in his mother’s South Carolina kitchen and his path from working at legendary soul food restaurant Copeland’s to hawking food from a table on the street, to starting the prototypical food truck, to being written up in the New York Times.
And check out the second half of the interview, in which he reveals his technique, talks about the new faddishness of fried chicken, and sounds off on KFC.
Where did you grow up?
Charlotte, North Carolina.
And did you learn to cook while you were a kid?
Well, when I was coming up, I got 12 brothers and eight sisters, and we had to do sharecropping. So we all had to go to the cotton field in the morning, and then come home and cook with my mother. We left at six and we come home at six. And when we got home, we’d all get in the kitchen with my mother and cook. So I’ve been cooking since I was eight years old.
What foods would you cook for dinner?
Mostly we had chicken, you know.
And when did you come to New York?
I came to New York when I was 18, and I’m 63 now so that was a long time ago.
What brought you here?
I came here because my brother had a restaurant here, chicken and fish, and so I came to work with him. We worked together for about eight years. It was called Gabriel’s Fish and Chips.
What did you think of New York when you first arrived?
It was very cold when I first came. I went back home, I couldn’t take it. I stayed about a week, and it was during that big snowstorm and blackout they had here. But then I came back and stayed and just got used to it.
What was your first impression of the food?
Well, it wasn’t like down South, most of it. It wasn’t like that. Certain things were very different. Pretzels, we didn’t have that down there. And small hamburgers, two for a dollar. It shocked me: Hot dogs, two for a dollar, stuff like that, we didn’t have down there.
So where did you work after you left your brother’s restaurant?
I went and worked in a grocery store on 82nd Street for a couple years, a Spanish grocery. And then after that I came uptown, and that’s where I met Mr. Copeland. I came up and got a job with him [at Copeland’s Restaurant and Reliable Catering], washing dishes and making deliveries. He had a lot of catering. I worked there on and off about 20 years.
What did you cook there?
Southern food almost the same as this, but he taught me about cooking food, I learned how to cook his way. He’s from Virginia, so we cook a little different in the seasonings and stuff. And then I left him and went off on my own. That was about 20 years ago.
How did you get the idea to sell fried chicken out of a truck?
I didn’t. What happened was that I would cook food in my house, and I had a table on the corner of 152nd Street. I had a table, I’d put on the food, and take it out onto the street. And that’s how I started, with fried chicken, barbecue, hot dogs, stuff like that.
And one day this lady came by, she was retired, and she said, “I was just wondering what you’re going to do when it gets cold.” And I said that I didn’t know. And she said, “I have a truck, maybe we can work something out.” So I went and looked at the truck, and she said just pay me 100 dollars a week until it’s paid off. So I paid the truck off, and she let me use her license until I got my own.
From there, I would have my truck in the same place that I had had my table. And business got so big that people were coming from downtown, from all over, all these people used to come up to the truck. And someone said, “Why don’t you have a route?”
So then I used to have three bit stops: the housing office, the post office, and the welfare center. I’d give each place a half an hour. I’d be finished around three o’clock, and then go to all the barber shops. I had a girl in the truck, and she would go in and take the order, and I would fix them. I had about 12 barber shops I used to go to, and I used to wind up around five or six, and then I’d go to the market and pick up food for the next day, and get back to the shop — then I had got a place on 124th street, where I had a commercial stove.
And that’s when the guy from the New York Times came up. He used to come up all the time to get food off the truck. Eric Asimov. I didn’t know who he was, he’d come up in a cab, and stand there and eat, and then get back in the cab and go back downtown. And then he gave me that big write-up in the Times.
And you must have gotten even busier.
Then I was so busy, moving, people used to be trying to track me down, driving to catch up. They’d be driving all over New York trying to find the truck. So I thought maybe I ought to open a restaurant. So I set up the restaurant here. And at night I’d prepare stuff for the next day.
Does fried chicken hold up okay for a day?
I had a steam table in the truck and the restaurant, so it was never cold. But see, I don’t deep-fry chicken, I pan-fry, that’s a big difference. Chicken breaks down when it has a lot of grease in it. So mine holds up, it keeps the body because the oil doesn’t soak into it. When oil breaks down in the chicken it gets real greasy.
Check back here tomorrow for the second half of the interview with Charles Gabriel…