Let’s tell it like it is. The French do things better: Bread, cheese, wine—the major food groups leave little need for anything else. Yet there’s always room for more—more dessert, more butter, and more salt, as my instructors at what was formerly the French Culinary Institute used to say on repeat. The glory of French cuisine extends past the dishes themselves—the chocolate mousse, cheese soufflé, and croque monsieurs—however. The appreciation for ingredients and time spent acquiring, prepping, and enjoying them is obligatoire, as Paris-based writer and food stylist Rebekah Peppler points out when you ask her about French fried chicken.
No, fried chicken is not a traditionally French food, but yes, there’s always room for some decidedly French improvements. As Peppler explains, putting a French touch on fried chicken isn’t just about how you make it, but how you enjoy it, too.
“While roast chicken is a Sunday tradition in France, fried chicken (poulet frit) isn't something classically French,” Peppler says. But “classically French” isn’t a boundary by which French cooks feel confined these days, as the poulet frit at Paris restaurant Ellsworth proves. When co-owner Laura Adrian put the non-traditional dish on the menu at her Verjus wine bar, it became an instant hit and eventually a permanent fixture at Ellsworth, a restaurant Adrian opened a few years later.
Tip #1: Rethink Your Frying Oil
To make fried chicken with a French touch at home, Peppler first suggests rethinking the frying oil. While typical recipes for fried chicken might call for canola, peanut, or grapeseed oil, there’s another fat that would add a truly French flair, and no, it isn’t butter. It’s duck fat. Use half duck fat, Peppler suggests, or use only duck fat if that’s available to you. “In France we have easy access [to duck fat], but I've found it less accessible in both availability and price in the US,” Peppler says. American food writer in Paris David Lebovitz and French chef in L.A. Ludo Lefebvre would agree—both use duck fat for their fried chicken recipes.
Tip #2: Grab Some Mustard
While it’s a surefire crowd pleaser, swapping in duck fat isn’t the only way to French-ify fried chicken. Another tip? Bring on the Dijon mustard. Specifically, serve your crispy thighs and drumsticks alongside Dijon mustard, and/or use Dijon in the marinade, Peppler suggests. Now that’s a pro tip.
Tip #3: Consider the Whole Picture
Fried chicken is of course great on its own, but it never hurts to pair it with something that balances the dish. “I'd also make sure to have a big green salad and plenty of cornichons to balance the rest of the meal,” Peppler says. (Check out the Salade Verte with Cornichon Vinaigrette from Peppler’s book “À Table” and you’ll never make another green salad again. You read that right: Cornichon Vinaigrette.) Another French culinary dictum: Nothing in isolation. Always serve snacks with aperitifs, as Peppler’s first book, “Apéritif,” reminds us, and serve fresh greens and briney, acidic flavors alongside something fried and heavy, like poulet frit.
Finally, and speaking of considering the whole picture, serve that French fried chicken with the proper beverage. Champagne’s a solid bet, but you can think outside the coupe for a French fried chicken pairing. As Pepplers says, “Also, pour wine or even a dry, bright cider alongside.”