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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.


February 6, 2006


How far will a man travel for a good piece of fried chicken?

The answer: 383.75 miles.

While attending a party in Atlanta last year, I was approached by numerous people on several separate occasions over the course of the evening. All asked one question: Have you been to Watershed? Some added …and have you eaten their fried chicken?

I had not been to the restaurant Watershed, although I was a fan of Chef Scott Peacock and his collaborative cookbook project with Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking. The fact that all of these people were separately talking about one thing, Watershed and its fried chicken, roused my curiosity.

I told my traveling companions that after the cooking demo on the following evening, we would travel East on Ponce De Leon Avenue into neighboring Decatur, Georgia, and eat this fried chicken that everyone was raving over.

After arriving at Watershed we learned two things: 1.) The famed chicken is only served on Tuesday nights. 2.) We better get there early because it sells out quickly.

It was Wednesday, we were 24 hours late, and though we enjoyed an excellent meal of contemporary Southern cuisine in a very modish atmosphere, we weren’t able to order the fried chicken everyone had been talking about.

The meal that evening was outstanding. I remember a butter bean hummus that was served with a warm homemade pita. Someone in our group— maybe me— ate trout, another ordered an organic pork chop with greens and the most upscale macaroni and cheese I had ever tasted, and another ate chicken— but not fried chicken.

For eleven months I have lusted after the fried chicken at Watershed. I have talked to countless friends on numerous occasions of the three-day process used to prepare the chicken. I have planned road trips and tried to organize business meetings in the Atlanta area, all for naught.

Last week I was in Atlanta on a Tuesday. The day had finally come. I called Watershed and asked the receptionist for the earliest reservation available. She gave me a table for three at 6:45 pm. “Will there be any chicken left at 6:45?” I asked.

“Probably,” she said. I crossed my fingers.

We arrived at 5:30 pm and asked to be seated early. After 383.75 miles, I didn’t want to risk missing out on the chicken, again. She saw the desperation in my eyes and complied.

We all ordered the fried chicken which is served with mashed potatoes, garlic green beans, and two buttermilk biscuits. As I looked around the restaurant everyone was eating fried chicken. The full menu is available on Tuesday nights, but no one seems to care. They, like us, came for fried chicken.

Every Sunday the chefs at Watershed begin preparing for Tuesday’s fried chicken night by marinating 50 birds in a saltwater brine. On Monday, the chicken is transferred from the brine into a buttermilk marinade where it sits for the next 24 hours. On Tuesday, after three days of brine and buttermilk foreplay, all of the cook tops are lined with cast iron skillets filled with lard, a little bit of butter, and a touch of bacon grease.

A half of a bird is served. Only 100 orders are prepared, when they’re gone, one must wait until the following Tuesday.

As we were waiting for the chicken to arrive, I asked my dining companions, “Can you remember the best mashed potatoes you have ever eaten?”

“I can,” I said. They were eaten on March 2nd, 2005 on my first visit to Watershed.

One would think that a mashed potato is a mashed potato is a mashed potato. Not so. Think about it. Have you ever eaten mashed potatoes that were so good that you remember exactly where and when you ate them?

The chicken arrived. Eleven months had passed since I first heard of the famous three-day fried chicken process at Watershed. The build up had been significant. The pre-billing was considerable. Expectations were high. So many times these situations are ripe for a major let down. Not so with the Watershed chicken.

Each piece was perfect. The meat was plump and juicy, the crust was light and crisp, just like my grandmother used to make.

Isn’t that the gold standard for everyone’s fried chicken— will it be as good as my grandmother’s?

I am not prepared to say that the Watershed chicken was better than my grandmothers, but it was at least as good. And seeing that she passed away 15 years ago, this is the closest I will ever get.

Was it worth traveling 383.75 miles? Absolutely.

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