Popeyes fried chicken founder loved speed boats and Christmas lights

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen
Al Copeland (left), founder of the Popeyes fried chicken chain, arm wrestles with the famous strongman Popeye.

They told Al Copeland the world wasn't ready for bold flavors. But he didn't listen. Being bold and big and flamboyant was how Copeland lived. And he proved to be right, turning his spicy fried chicken recipe into the Popeyes fried chicken chain.

Copeland, who died in 2008, is a legend in New Orleans, where he ranks among the most colorful characters to come from that city overflowing with personalities. The new book "Secrets of a Tastemaker" collects recipes from his restaurants, although not, as a disclaimer on the cover makes clear, from Popeyes. He lost Popeyes in 1992 after he leveraged the company to buy rival Church's.

"Secrets of a Tastemaker" also tells how Copeland kept New Orleans entertained.

He took up speedboat racing, enlisting actors Kurt Russell and Chuck Norris for his team. The annual, over-the-top Christmas light display at his suburban mansion drew so much traffic some of his neighbors sued. And in 1997 when he opened a restaurant on St. Charles Avenue with "Las Vegas-meets-Mardi Gras" decor, horror novelist Anne Rice, who lived nearby, took out a full-page ad in the local paper decrying the "monstrosity" that had less dignity than the "humblest flop house." Copeland responded with a two-page ad.

"Secrets of a Tastemaker" by Chris Rose and Kit Wohl

In 2007, Copeland was diagnosed with a rare skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma. He died a year later in Germany while seeking treatment. Since then, his family has supported research that led to new treatments for the illness.

Southern Kitchen spoke to Al Copeland Jr., who worked alongside his father from the start, about growing up with one of New Orleans' most outrageous personalities.

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What was it like growing up with Al Copeland as a father?

Popeyes was founded when I was 9 years old, so I got a chance to experience all the recipes and all the tastings when he'd come home at night. Never a dull moment, almost to the point that it was a little scary. But you broke through fears, you broke through barriers. He would push you that way.

What drove your father to be flashy, with his collections of race cars, speed boats and his yacht?

He came from nothing. When he got something, not only did he want to show people but he could let anybody sit in his cars. He'd throw you the keys to the car and say, "Take it around the block."

Do you think someone like your father, with his big personality, could be successful in business today? Or has the world changed?

He was a true character of street smarts. You could drop him on an island with nothing, and he'd figure out how to live and how to take over the island.

Buttermilk Biscuits

It is imperative that all of the ingredients, including the dry mix, are well chilled. The result is a tight dough and a loftier finished biscuit. The goal is for the cold ingredients to hit the super hot oven resulting in a rapid billow of the dough, which then remains stable as the biscuits brown. When the vast disparity between the temperature of the dough and the hot oven is not present, the billow either does not happen or it is not stable. The result is flat biscuits. Who wants that?

Makes 10 large biscuits

"Secrets of a Tastemaker" includes the favorite recipes of Al Copeland, founder of the Popeyes fried chicken chain.

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups Swans Down Cake Flour

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup vegetable shortening, frozen

1 1/2 cups chilled buttermilk

4 tablespoons salted butter, 2 tablespoons softened and 2 tablespoons melted

Instructions

Preheat oven to 425°F.

For best results, chill all ingredients except butter prior to mixing. Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda into a bowl. Using a box grater, coarsely grate the frozen shortening directly into the flour and gently fold it in with a spoon.

Make a well in the center of this mixture and pour in the buttermilk. Gently stir the buttermilk into the flour just until the dough comes together. It will still be a little wet and sticky. Cover the bowl and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes, but for no longer than 3 hours.

Brush a large rimmed baking sheet with some of the melted butter, then refrigerate the pan to firm the butter.

Using a large spoon, scoop the dough into 10 mounds on the baking sheet, spacing the mounds at least 1 inch apart. Lightly dollop the softened butter on top of each mound.

Bake the biscuits until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and brush the tops of the biscuits with the remaining melted butter.

Place the biscuits in a basket and cover with a tea towel to keep warm until serving.

Recipe from "Secrets of a Tastemaker" by Chris Rose and Kit Wohl. Used with permission.

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.