For the Big Eat 2010, we went behind the scenes of three establishments to learn the true story behind our current cravings. Following is the story of #4.
Who’s to say that slinging fried chicken and waffles at a to-go restaurant is less fulfilling than preparing kobe filets with a spicy tuna tempura? Not Christian Ciscle. The CCA graduate left “his baby”—SF’s soul-food-driven BlueJay Cafe, known for its fried chicken— a year after it opened, when owner Jay Foster bowed out to launch Farmer Brown. From there, Ciscle retreated to his hometown of Baltimore to become the sous chef at Nasu Blanca, an upscale Japanese-Spanish fusion restaurant. Last spring, he returned at Foster’s request to open Little Skillet. The call of the fried chicken is a powerful one.
“Fried chicken crosses every age, every race. Every culture likes fried chicken. It’s beautiful seeing an 80-year-old grandmother eating next to a 20-year-old hipster,” says Ciscle. It’s a touchy-feely California sentiment coming from an East Coast guy sporting an Orioles cap, crisp baggy jeans, Adidas kicks and a oversized gray hoodie. “Originally, they wanted to do the chicken in a cast-iron skillet. The irony is, you can’t do chicken for 200 in a big skillet, much less a little one!”
Since the windowfront spot, which operates out of the cramped kitchen of the SoMa nightclub 330 Ritch, opened last May, Ciscle has overseen his five-man crew, but works most closely with Tino, his “lightening fast” right-hand man, who does everything from butchering to deep-frying around 400 chickens a week in two fryers. As for the secret to their crisp yet light chicken (fried chicken always has to have a secret recipe), Ciscle is hardly cagey. “Our technique is really straightforward. We don’t try to get too aggressive. We use organic Giusto’s flour, about 15 to 20 spices, salt-water brine for 24 hours. No double-coating, or rice flour, or buttermilk.”
Ciscle admits that he didn’t grow up eating chicken and waffles (that came later), but he did grow up in Baltimore, where there was a bucket of fried chicken to be had at every corner store. “I still go to Lexington Market. Each vendor does it their own way—you get the gizzards and hot sauce.”
He’s not sure where the salty-sweet pairing of waffles and syrup came from, but says he’s heard people credit Thomas Jefferson’s cook (adding to the long list of things attributed to the presidential bon vivant: heirloom apples, a vast wine collection, scandalous bastard children). Others report that the combo goes back to the jazz musicians who frequented the Wells Supper Club in Harlem that bares the slogan: “Wells: Home of Chicken and Waffles, Since 1938.”
But of course, Little Skillet keeps it very SF by using free-range Petaluma chickens and making the waffles Belgian-style—as well as Twittering about the day’s specials. And while the regular customer of Little Skillet might be less the likes of Snoop Dog, known for his love for Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, than the SoMa high-tech geek willing to eat cross-legged on the loading dock across the alleyway, the passion people feel for the dish is just the same—whether or not it’s good for them. “It’s kind of unsettling when people come here three to four times a week and get the fried chicken,” muses Ciscle about the potential for clogged arteries. “But people are creatures of habit.”
In regards to how to tackle a plate of chicken and waffles, everyone has their technique. “I’ve seen people shred the chicken and put it on the waffle and pour sauce over it, but I eat the waffle with the syrup and dip the chicken in the syrup.”
Ciscle believes that the “chicken boxes” he grew up ordering from Baltimore corner stores have better fried chicken than any “cooking-school student or Michelin-star chef could make.” (Take that, Thomas Keller!) But one bite of Ciscle’s chicken at Little Skillet and it’s also apparent that the culinary school graduate’s degree clearly didn’t hurt.
Little Skillet, 360 Ritch St., 415-777-2777, littleskilletsf.com