Danny Bowien is a fan. So are Dale Talde, Paul Qui, Anthony Bourdain, and Hugh Acheson. David Chang might not have got through the Momofuku Ko revamp without it. Wylie Dufresne served it at his wedding.
For years, Popeyes has been the food world’s dirty little not-so-secret—the fried chicken of choice for the who’s who of the chef set. It’s easy to peg their love as ironic, the same winking hipsterism that made watery PBR the top-selling beer in Williamsburg for most of the 2000s. But the truth is that Popeyes’ connection to the food world goes back way before normcore posturing, and it’s intimately bound to New Orleans’ own culinary renaissance.
The Popeyes origin story is well-trod territory: Founder Al Copeland starts a doughnut stand in the New Orleans suburbs, but switches to fried chicken when he sees a neighbor doing well with it. In 1972, after a lukewarm reception, he amps up the spice in his recipe, renames the place after Gene Hackman’s character in The French Connection, and crowds go wild. He quickly becomes New Orleans’ most polarizing zillionaire (Ann Rice hated him, speedboat salesmen loved him). And while that chicken recipe is all Copeland’s own—even after he sold the chain, he retained the rights to the Cajun spice blend, licensing it back to Popeyes for over 20 years until the brand finally purchased it from him in 2014 for $43 million—some of the chain’s most beloved dishes came from a high-profile friend.
It wasn’t until 1983, 11 years and more than 300 locations in, that Popeyes added biscuits to its menu. Those biscuits, as well as the dirty rice and red beans and rice, were created for Copeland by New Orleans chef Warren Leruth, whose eponymous restaurant led the Creole-food renaissance when it opened in 1965. In 1971, LIFE magazine called the food at LeRuth’s “not only perfect in execution but also inventive and imaginative”; the New Orleans Underground Gourmet guide called it “a culinary miracle…one of the finest eating places in the world.”
Leruth’s red beans—an ancient Creole tradition that’s as deeply emblematic of New Orleans as Mardi Gras—still inspire reverence. When asked where to find the platonic ideal of the dish, Cochon chef Donald Link named Popeyes. All’Onda chef Chris Jaeckle, who once received a box of Popeyes with a candle stuck in it in lieu of a birthday cake, likes the red beans so much he offered this pro move: “Peel the skin off the thigh and use that as the taco shell, and fill it with the red beans and rice. It’s crispy on the outside and fatty from the skin, with the saltiness from the red beans and rice—it’s good eating.”
“It’s easy to peg their love as ironic, the same winking hipsterism that made watery PBR the top-selling beer in Williamsburg for most of the 2000s. But the truth is that Popeyes’ connection to the food world goes back way before normcore posturing, and it’s intimately bound to New Orleans’ own culinary renaissance.”
The biscuits, meanwhile, have a high-profile fan in pastry chef Shuna Lydon, who wrote, “Except for the odd In-N-Out burger once every few years, fast food is not my thing. But here stand I, a waving-my-hand-in-the-air kinda convert. Praise these biscuits, they are yum.” And then there’s the chicken, “just the most delicious chicken,” according to Dufresne, with a combination of flavor and consistent execution that places it at the top of the fast-food heap. “I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed with Popeyes’ fried chicken, which is an amazing thing to say,” says Acheson.
Throughout the 1980s, even as it expanded across the Southeast and beyond, Popeyes was deeply rooted in New Orleans—from the jingle sung by Dr. John, to the children’s show it sponsored on local TV (kids in the audience were given a chicken meal to eat on the air). At the exact same time, the rest of the U.S. was discovering New Orleans cuisine, thanks in large part to chef Paul Prudhomme, whose restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, was brought as a pop-up to San Francisco in 1983, then to New York in 1985. His line of “magic” seasonings sold in grocery stores cemented the idea that Louisiana’s unique food hinged on spice blends—just like the secret blend that flavored Popeyes’ chicken. For a while in the mid-’90s, in fact, one Popeyes promotion offered a free bottle of Prudhomme’s Magic Pepper Sauce with purchase.
But their relationship was more than just opportunistic co-branding. Prudhomme, a sharecropper’s son from rural Opelousas, Louisiana, was an avowed Popeyes fan, taking a LIFE magazine journalist there on a 1983 tour of his personal culinary journey. And in 2000, the chain sponsored a series of charity dinners highlighting Cajun restaurant royalty to benefit a local culinary school, anchored by Prudhomme and featuring legends like John Folse and Leah Chase.
“Prudhomme, a sharecropper’s son from rural Opelousas, Louisiana, was an avowed Popeyes fan, taking a LIFE magazine journalist there on a 1983 tour of his personal culinary journey.”
It’s no wonder, then, that chefs see something of a kindred spirit in the 35-year-old chain. For a generation of flavor-craving, populist chefs raised on fast food marketing, Popeyes has been lurking in the background all their lives. For those in the South it was inescapable—as John T. Edge told Garden & Gun, “Let’s face it: Everybody in the South cheats. And when they cheat, they cheat with Popeyes.” In other parts of the country it was an exotic treat, a trophy to hunt down on road trips. Either way, its hand-crafted cachet and distinct sense of place set it apart from bland joints like McDonald’s, whose Midwestern roots were hardly interesting even before the chain began systematically sloughing off its history in order to stay relevant.
The irony is that even as Popeyes feels a bit like old news for the food elite, the chain’s fortunes are hitting their highest mark ever. After misguided expansion attempts (at one point Popeyes’ parent company owned Church’s chicken, Cinnabon, and Seattle’s Best Coffee), bankruptcy, and a decade-plus slump through the Cheesecake Factory ’90s, Popeyes has seen year-on-year growth for the last eight years, something of a miracle in the fickle world of fast food.
Part of that growth is thanks to the wave of Trump-tainted American exceptionalism on which fried chicken has been riding for the past several years—the same mania that lifted hamburgers to haute-cuisine glory. As Lee Schrager, founder of the NYC and South Beach Wine & Food Festivals and author of Fried and True—for which he wheedled his way into Popeyes headquarters for a rare test-kitchen demo—said, fried chicken is “the ultimate comfort food.” (He then challenged Dufresne to recreate the chain’s chicken and biscuits for the book, should you be interested in such things.) And while there’s no question that 2015 was the year of the chicken sandwich, it’s a mere sidebar to the fried-chicken explosion, which began around 2009, when Chang introduced a large-format chicken dinner at Momofuku Noodle Bar, and hasn’t let up since.
That’s also the same time that, as part of a long-planned rebranding effort, Popeyes changed its name to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, a poetic echo of Prudhomme’s iconic Cajun spot. That rebrand was a rare move for the notably cautious company, which has remained true to its concept since the start. “There’s a certain amount of respect in that,” says Acheson. “Some of these companies are just so utterly greedy. They go after market share that they’re not good at…McDonald’s has a new menu item every week, they’re just throwing crap at a wall hoping something sticks and their shareholdings’ value is showing that.” When Popeyes has extended the menu, it has partnered with other iconic Louisiana names: Zatarain’s spice blend for a 2012 fried shrimp variation, Tabasco for a line of chicken tenders.
“Nationwide, it’s still somewhat a celebration of place in New Orleans, which is a beautiful thing,” Acheson says.