The sandwich was a joke. It was just meant to be a special — Robert Stehling wasn't even supposed to be serving fried chicken anyway, but he'd long ago broken that rule he set for himself at his Charleston restaurant Hominy Grill.
Back in 1996 when he launched the restaurant as its chef and owner, Stehling thought he'd have to offer fried chicken because he was doing Southern food, but it felt burdensome and maybe even clichéd. Even worse, he worried it "was going to open me up to comparisons to Church's and KFC and the gas stations that had chicken. I felt insecure about it all and didn't want to be in that position." But he eventually gave in. Fried chicken was on the Hominy Grill menu and it was on to stay.
"I felt insecure about it all and didn't want to be in that position."
He honed the operations at Hominy Grill to better facilitate doing high volume fried chicken, and was playing with specials along the way. Inspiration struck him at the auto mechanic shop, where Stehling would spend his days off working on his old car. The owner's son would often visit Hardee's in the morning to get a chicken biscuit. But the biscuit wasn't enough. "He'd sweet talk the girls behind the counter to put gravy on top of the biscuit. They were laughing about it, telling him it was 'nasty' like, 'Oh, you nasty.'"
"It hit," Stehling recalls, laughing. "It just sounded great to me." He said he'd put it on the menu as "the Big Nasty biscuit," and that he did. The sandwich starts with the biscuit, then comes fried chicken breast, some cheese, and becomes truly "nasty" with the addition of a gravy made with sausage prepared in Stehling's kitchen. Stehling grins while talking about it. "It was kind of a joke, I was making fun of him. Then people started ordering it, and it took off."
There's no doubting that. On a busy day, Stehling can sell upwards of 150 sandwiches. His fried chicken biscuit garnered enough attention that national chain McAlister's Deli sent a cease-and-desist letter in 2013, forcing him to change the name from the Big Nasty Biscuit to the Charleston Nasty Biscuit. "That's how it goes," he says. "In a way I was flattered that I was big enough to get a lawyer after me about it. I wasn't too upset. Who would've thought?"
Below, the elements of Hominy Grill's Charleston Nasty Biscuit:
1. The Biscuit
Stehling says his biscuit recipe — notable for its use of three distinct fats — is "the result of indecision." "The lard helps it brown, the shortening keeps it flaky, and the butter really adds a lot of flavor," he explains. "I could never decide what I wanted most out of it, so I stuck with all three in there."
His crew makes a lot of biscuits, probably close to 400 a day he estimates. To help with the workflow, his pastry team batches out "biscuit mix" at their off-site prep kitchen (just a block away). Aside from the three fats, the recipe is pretty standard with salt, sugar, cake flour, and baking powder comprising the dry ingredients.
Stehling eyeballs the milk. "It's all about wetness. You don't want it too dry, and you also want to get right the first time so you're not going back and forth. It needs to be almost tacky, almost sticking to your hands."
Stehling then flours the dough and his work surface, and folds the mixture four or five times. The folding "makes it a dough" and also guarantees the layers that a biscuit ought to have. He rolls the dough to about an inch thick, then uses a standard biscuit cutter to portion it out.
He keeps the biscuits shoulder-to-shoulder on the tray, close but not quite touching: "You want them growing up, not out; they need each other close by." The biscuits go into a 450-degree oven for about 15 minutes, and Stehling rotates the tray to account for hot spots in the oven.
Using the standard oven instead of the prep kitchen's convection oven has its pluses and minuses. He had been using the convection oven, but some repairs in the kitchen forced the team to start doing them in the regular oven. "They came out so much better," he recalls. "I didn't have the heart to tell the pastry people that they had to use the slower oven. But then they observed on their own how much better the biscuits were, so they committed themselves to doing it in the regular oven, even though it takes more worry." This, in a nutshell, is Stehling's ideal management scenario. "I give them a lot of credit for making that decision on their own."
2. The Gravy
When it's time to make the gravy, Stehling breaks out the big guns. At his prep kitchen, he renders down housemade sausage — ground pork shoulder combined seasoned with salt, black pepper, red pepper, dried sage, and dried thyme — in a skillet so large it covers four burners. The recipe, he explains, is "based on a classic Southern pan gravy." But he veers away from tradition early and often. "Traditionally you'd throw sausage in a pan, render it down, throw in some flour, add some milk, and that would be it. We add some chopped onion and bell pepper, because we're a restaurant, we have a hard time leaving well enough alone," he chuckles.
That's not the only adjustment. Instead of using milk as the main liquid, Stehling adds flour and chicken stock to the pan. The chicken stock adds flavor and in the quantities he's working with (sometimes 10 gallons at a time), it's also a bit easier to work with. He finishes it off with heavy cream, and then uses a three foot long potato masher as his whisk. The resulting gravy is sturdy, and can take being kept on the line, ready for the ladle.
3. The Chicken
To make fried chicken that could handle being in a gravy-smothered biscuit, Stehling had to steer away from the ways he had typically prepared fried chicken in the restaurant: in the skillet and then, as of the past eight years or so, in pressure fryers. It's all about the coating; pressure-fried chicken is just too brittle and crunchy, the coating flaking into the gravy.
For the Charleston Nasty Biscuit, he starts with six-ounce boneless, skinless Joyce Farms chicken breasts. He gives them a quick dip in an egg and buttermilk wash and then coats them in flour, seasoned with "secret spices" that include "red pepper, black pepper, a little bit of celery seed, a little bit of dried thyme, a little bit of mustard seed," plus "something similar to a seafood boil [mix], and kind of use that to get the flavor into it." It's not just a blend of spices, the flour itself is also a mixture: 70 percent all purpose flour and 30 percent rice flour. The rice flour gives the finished coating a lighter texture, notes Stehling. Similar to how a Korean fried chicken recipe will frequently use corn starch, the rice flour here is dryer than typical AP flour and spreads the flour mixture a bit thinner for an all-around even coating. "You want to coat to cover, to get down into the cracks and crevices," he explains, while also cautioning against over doing it. Stehling smiles often while talking about the components of the Charleston Nasty, but when it comes to the chicken process he is dead serious.
From there the pieces go into the fryer basket and are submerged into corn oil, which Stehling likes for its neutral flavor and its stability at high temperatures. "It doesn't have a whole lot of shelf life, but we end up changing it everyday since we do so much volume." Stehling uses a double fry method. Fry one lasts about five and a half minutes, a par-fry. Fry two takes only a couple minutes, and happens to order. "The double fry has been key," he says, "it helps with service, and just makes it better."
4. The Assembly
"It can get really high," Stehling warns, "you have to be careful how you build it." Step one of that process, is breaking the biscuits apart by hand.
"Sometimes we pick a little bit of biscuit out of the middle," he flashes a grin, "not enough that anybody misses it. Sometimes it might need a little bit more of a cavity for the chicken." Sometimes the chicken breasts curl a bit in the fryer. If that happens, Stehling advises his cooks to keep it curling towards the plate to keep the sandwich from teetering like a rocking horse.
Next comes an important, if frequently hidden, ingredient: shredded sharp Cabot cheddar. Because the cheese is shredded, and because Stehling makes sure not to clump the cheese with his hand, the cheddar melts when it comes in contact with the ladle of gravy. He likes the kick it adds.
"So you have, essentially, a sausage mornay sauce at that point," he laughs. "That ties the whole thing together and gives it a really rich mouthfeel." After all these years, the Charleston Nasty Biscuit is still funny to Stehling.