As the reading on a thermometer inched toward ninety degrees on a recent Tuesday, Charles Gabriel, clad in a starched white chef’s coat that appeared to breathe about as well as a person with emphysema, was doing what he always does: pan-frying chicken at his restaurant, Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken, on 133st Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, in Manhattan. The pan in question was custom-made at a North Carolina steel factory and measured two and a half feet across, big-enough-to-wash-a-toddler big. It straddled four blazing burners that were turned up so high that the flames shot out and around. A small deep fryer sat on a shelf behind him, unused, and the vegetal smell of stewed collard greens hung heavy in the air. Gabriel mothered the twenty sizzling pieces of chicken, flipping a few here and nudging a few there, then turned down the flame and dabbed his glistening forehead with a torn paper towel.
“My mother, she didn’t teach me to deep-fry,” he said, giving his tongs a spark-producing thwack against the pan’s edge. “She did it in a frying pan, so that’s what I do.” To people in the know—neighborhood regulars; the chefs Marcus Samuelsson, of Red Rooster, and Elizabeth Karmel, of Hill Country; the actors Whoopi Goldberg and Wesley Snipes; that Connecticut guy who drives down once a year to pick up three hundred pieces just for himself—Gabriel’s humble storefront is home to some of the best fried chicken and Southern sides in the city. There is no sous-vide machine, no battery of line cooks, no farm-raised birds, no special oil. There’s just Gabriel, a few people who help out, his pans, the recipe that he took from his mother, and his devotion to a technique that, by all scientific measures, is** **sketchy. “When you have chicken in a deep fryer, you cook the flavor out of it,” he said, flipping the pieces again. “This here? It can breathe.”
Well, as much as dead chicken submerged in bubbling, hellfire-hot soybean oil can breathe. But perhaps his fans are responding to more than just the chicken itself, which, with its crispy, light crust, is damn good. With the closure of many soul-food mainstays in Harlem, Gabriel is now running one of the last old-school chicken joints in the city, a humble fifteen-seat eatery with a heat lamp and a fuzzy television in the corner playing talk shows.
“Sylvia’s, Copeland’s, Wilson’s, M&G, Better Crust”—he ticked off the names of the institutions that were part of Harlem’s soul-food heyday, most of which are now gone. “They passed, and nobody picked it up.” And then there’s Charles’. Seven days a week, fifty-one weeks a year (he takes off one week each summer to go on a cruise), Gabriel opens up the store, butchers the birds, fries them, shops at the market, cooks some more, cleans up, and locks up. It’s a no-frills operation that gets him to work at 11 a.m. and to bed more than seventeen hours later. Gabriel estimates that he sells six hundred pieces each weekday and fifteen hundred on weekends. At twenty pieces per pan, we’re talking up to seventy-five pans a day.
Though Gabriel’s chicken has been immortalized in the pages of Lee Schrager’s new book, “Fried & True,” and though Gabriel himself has made appearances on TV and in newspaper articles over the years, the man’s behavior has remained mostly unchanged. One suspects it will remain that way. He is now sixty-eight and has been pan-frying chicken since he was a child outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he, his eleven brothers, and his eight sisters grew up on a farm. They raised vegetables and yard birds that were “much better, much fresher than what I can get here,” he said. Gabriel moved up North as a teen-ager, helping his brothers at their fish-and-chips shop by the Museum of Natural History. He then spent twenty-two years as a cook at Harlem’s legendary Copeland’s restaurant before starting to sell fried chicken on the street outside of his house. He soon upgraded to a food truck, then to a storefront on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
In the twenty years since he opened the doors, he’s had a front-row seat to the neighborhood’s evolution, and not everything is going the way that he’d like. “I see people come in and pay four dollars for two pieces of chicken, because that’s all they can afford,” he said, easing himself into his beat-up 1998 Chevy van for a trip to the market. A boxed set of David Sedaris CDs sat on the dashboard, and crumpled Burger King bags lined the floor. Gabriel has plans to turn the storefront next door, which he currently leases to another restaurant, into a more affordable version of his existing shop. “I’d like them to have a full meal, to take that chicken and cut it up and put it over rice and vegetables for five dollars. That way, they can really eat.”
Gabriel used to own three storefronts on the block; after a teen-ager ran her car into one, he was forced to downsize. “I don’t have any storage space, so every day I go to the market, buy what I need, then cook it,” he said, as his car shuddered over the 145th Street Bridge to the Bronx and sports radio blared fuzzily through the speakers. “Then, the next day, I’m back again!” In the face of what is undoubtedly a grueling, unforgiving schedule, Gabriel simply emitted a happy, high-pitched laugh, grinned, and parked the car at his first stop, a meat market at 134th Street and Brook Avenue—think wholesale, not artisanal.
“Hey, Charlie, baby,” the cashier, Ruthie Varela, said, as he walked in. They’ve been working together, day in and day out, doling out the same greetings, for two decades. Gabriel paid in cash for fifteen birds, each of which he’ll cut into nine pieces (“I get a center breast out of it,” he explained, speaking poultry magic). Then he heaved them into the trunk and headed over to buy eggs at the nearby FoodFest Depot, where the employees greeted him by name and went to gather his order.
At the register, he bumped into Pat Peek, a friend from the neighborhood, and her grandson, Chad. Peek’s seafood restaurant had opened up in the same space where she’d run a bar for years—after a fatal shooting, she’d been forced to recast the space. “Hey, Charlie, what do you think of this cheese?” Two half wheels of cheddar sat in her cart. “You want the shredded kind,” he said immediately. “It’s cheaper, it’s already cut—it’s just better.” Peek seemed unsure. “Look, I’ll get it for you.” Gabriel shuffled into the walk-in refrigerator and returned with a few bags. Peek surveyed the shredded cheese with uncertainty, then asked, “Charlie, you sure about this?”
“Trust me,” Gabriel said. “I’ve been doing this a long time.”
More than six decades, if you factor in helping out his mom and siblings on the farm. A lot has changed. His two biological children (he and his wife have adopted two more and are currently fostering another three) have grown up and moved to North Carolina. (He says he’d never follow them, because he has “a lot of memories” from his youth.) Harlem has gentrified. Beloved mentors have died. Fans have come from far beyond the neighborhood’s edge. There might be another food truck in his future, perhaps that five-dollar-a-plate joint that he mentioned. But his chicken, those pans, they’ve remained a constant through it all.
“I’ve been retired for, what, five years now?” he asked, rhetorically, as he stepped out into the blazing Bronx heat. “Yep! I’m retired. I am. But I can’t give up the kitchen. It’s what keeps me going.”