Chef Todd Richards knows fried chicken. “I feel like I’ve been making fried chicken my entire life,” Todd says. The Atlanta-based toque can prepare a batch of crispy chicken and tell you in a matter of seconds whether it tastes good or not — before he even puts it in his mouth. “I smell things. I use a lot of senses for the art that I do because it’s such a temporary art,” Todd says. “If I smell something and it doesn’t bring me back to a certain place in time, it’s not right. And with the recent opening of Richards’ Southern Fried in Krog Street Market last week, Richards’ olfactory senses have been put to the test. He has perfected the pheasant just for you.
After seeing Chef Todd’s Instagram posts, I made it a point to stop by Richards’ Southern Fried for lunch. I started with Richards’ Classic Chicken Sandwich — the tasty boneless and skinless bird, battered in seasoned flour, sitting between a potato bun with pimento cheese, lettuce and “chow chow” relish (aka pickled vegetables). I washed the sandwich down with homemade strawberry rhubarb lemonade (the blackberry iced tea is a winner, too).
Other staples on Richards’ menu include Whole Wings — three big pieces of chicken (in the restaurant’s three levels of heat: Classic, Hot or Richards’ Hot) served with savory pickles and scratch-made cornbread. Top it with bourbon sauce for an extra kick or try the off-menu ghost pepper sauce if you need something more extreme. Delicious sides include jalapeño creamed corn and the cucumber and tomato salad, transporting you back to your grandmother’s kitchen.
As I sat there, about 20 people had either placed their orders or were in line, patiently perusing the menu. One family of four ordered lunch — and dinner — at the same time! Yes, it’s that good, which also goes for the warm, just-can’t-have-one-bite strawberry cobbler.
No stranger to the national and local food scene, Todd is a two-time James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist. He currently serves as the executive chef at White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails and also has played a role in developing the menus at both One Flew South and Atlantic Station’s The Pig & The Pearl. Intrigued by what Todd is doing in and for the community, we spoke with him about everything from his very first encounter with fried chicken to the cookbook he’s penning.
What is so special about fried chicken?
It’s the most universal food on the face of the earth. Everyone loves it, everyone has a story behind it and everyone’s fearless in presenting it. You just don’t put a plate of bad fried chicken out in front of somebody. Making fried chicken requires integrity. It’s more than just a pinch of this or a pinch of that; there are tried-and-true recipes. It has to be one of the best foods ever.
Growing up, did your mom or grandmother teach you how to make fried chicken?
No, they didn’t. We didn’t eat a lot of fried chicken in the house. I had to go next door to get fried chicken. Mrs. Arnold would make it. She taught me reverence for food. That’s my first experience really understanding fried chicken. I was 4 or 5 years old. I have that whole image painted in my mind. I opened that screen door and smelled that fried chicken. That’s what shaped my love for it.
Talk about the three variations of fried chicken you serve at Richards’ Southern Fried.
We have Classic, Hot and Richards’ Hot. The Hot and the Richards’ Hot are just because I enjoy hot food. My favorite version of the hot is Richards’ Hot actually (served) cold the next day. It is spicy but everything is all there. Just wake up in the morning with soft scrambled eggs, a piece of Richards’ Hot and a glass of champagne. The person that doesn’t like spice at all can have the Classic. They’ll find that delicious.
Talk about the process of making the chicken.
You have to start with good quality chicken, first. Good quality is when you touch it and it springs right back. We brine our chicken for more than 24 hours (usually it’s somewhere between 24 and 28 depending on the size of the chicken). After that, we pull it out and let it air dry. We marry some of the spices in the seasoning and flour to what’s in the brine, so those work in harmony.
Sounds like you’re very detailed in what you do.
With the fine dining background, we are really fanatical about things that we do. For example, we’re making our own buns for our chicken sandwich. We’re making cornbread every day. We have a strong commitment to quality and excellence and that’s the way we control it — by doing it ourselves.
Talk about the sides you offer. What’s your favorite and why?
Our sides are going to change seasonally. We opened with jalapeño creamed corn, potato wedges, cucumber tomato salad and vegetable slaw. My favorite is the cucumber tomato salad because my dad makes the best cucumber tomato salad and it just reminds me of him so much. But the creamed corn — if people only knew what we do. We’re getting a whole corn, peeling it, making stock, roasting the cob, putting that in the stock, taking all of the milk out of it — it’s not like we’re just getting bags of frozen corn.
Does your dad try to change the way you do things?
No, my dad is very respectful of my talents in the kitchen. What my dad has taught me is perseverance more so than anything. He sees that I have that ability to rise above the fray. Plus, he’s a terrific cook in his own right. Perseverance always leads to balance and he always talks about things being in balance. We take those life lessons and apply it to the kitchen.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a cookbook right now. There’s a lot of good I can do in the world in telling people my story of the kitchen. Plus, we have to understand what the ocean is saying to us. How much fish can we really keep taking from the ocean? How many rooftops do we have around here that have nothing on them, except for drainage systems, where we can actually get more young people into urban gardening and farming? We have a big task ahead of us but we can only do it one person and one restaurant at a time. The more you do, the more like-minded people you get yourself attached to, and that’s how we’re going to change.
Check out our delicious fried chicken recipes, as well as other yummy meal ideas, by visiting our recipe page!