A little over two weeks ago, Prince’s Hot Chicken received the prestigious America’s Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation. My colleague and I sat down with the queen of cayenne herself, André Prince Jeffries, to inquire about the award and her trip to New York for the ceremony. I won’t delve into the oft-told story of hot chicken, save to say that it’s Nashville’s one truly indigenous food and inarguably the tastiest dish ever devised for purposes of revenge. If you need a refresher course, start with this excellent short film by the Southern Foodways Alliance and Joe York. Here are a few highlights and factoids gleaned from of our interview with André, which was, of course, a pretty flimsy excuse to devour some soul nourishing, painfully delicious hot chicken.
On the overall experience of winning a James Beard Award: “Exhilarating! ‘Course it hasn’t hit me yet and my bank account doesn’t know it. But exhilarating.”
Prince’s is not going anywhere: André brought a crew of 11 including her daughters, niece and grandchildren to New York for the ceremony. Andre’s niece, Kim Prince, who helps André with media inquiries and technology, accidentally caused a mild uproar when she posted the following on the Prince’s Facebook page about their upcoming trip: “Is NYC ready for HOT CHICKEN's Royal Family? The Princes of Music City are on the way!” Immediately, a few panicked Nashvillians begged the Princes not to relocate. Meanwhile, excited Nashville ex-pats and hot chicken enthusiasts in and around New York urged the Princes to “Bring it on!” Even at the airport, strangers recognized André, and seeing her family in tow, gave them the third degree to make sure they planned on coming back.
Arriving in style: André and her party kept photographers at the Beard Awards waiting, but it was not a diva-like attempt to show up fashionably late. It was their cab driver’s first day on the job, and he had no clue how to find Broadway (rougher days may be ahead for this fellow). After the cabbie repeatedly asked THEM for directions, the Princes eventually got out and walked a good ways to the event.
Receiving the royal treatment: At the awards ceremony André was treated much like a celebrity as Marcus Samuelsson, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and more rolled out the red carpet for her – check out the great photo on the right of the latter two and André (from Prince's Hot Chicken's Facebook page.)
Celebrities and notable food personalities that have darkened the doorway of Prince’s in recent years: Thomas Keller (of The French Laundry), Guy Fieri (who brings his family in on a semi-regular basis), Adam Richman (of Man vs. Food fame), Top Chef’s Carla Hall, and Tom Parker Bowles (son of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall).
Sean Brock, of Husk in Charleston (and now Nashville), is a big fan of Prince’s as well. At this year’s Charleston Food + Wine Festival, he prepared every item on the menu for André. “I was like a wagon wheel going out of there,” recalls André.
Jerry Seinfeld stopped in after a recent TPAC performance and hung out at Prince’s for over an hour, talking with everyone in the restaurant. He went with the mild (not too shocking), but he did try a bite of his associate’s hot, to which he remarked, “That’s suicide.” In a bizarre coincidence more fitting of his epoynymous scripted sitcom, Seinfeld ran into a former chaffeur of his from many years ago in LA — only at Prince's.
“It’s not negotiable right now.” The phone at Prince’s still rings off the hook with people making all kinds of offers for the secret family recipe — they even receive requests from overseas. This is the all-purpose answer given to quiet the many voices.
Milk and ice cream: For those afflicted with a seemingly unquenchable hot chicken-torched tongue, the Princes suggest milk, buttermilk and ice cream. Many guests swear by lemonade.
Chicken vision: Moments after sitting down with us, André accurately identified the spice levels of our hot chicken merely by looking at it. (Two differing heat levels were represented on our plates.)
Late-night at Prince’s: André typically works the night shift at Prince’s, including the breakneck 4 am Friday and Saturday night shifts. Describing the always lively and sometimes raucous environment, her daughter Simone, a veteran of the kitchen at Prince’s, says “It’s like being in Night Court.”
Hazardous materials: It’s a rookie mistake to touch or wipe your eyes after coming into contact with hot chicken, but imagine how difficult it is for the employees. Simone told us that keeping the cayenne off their skin is a struggle, and it involves wearing gloves at all times and sometimes even a breathing mask. As glamorous as a night at the James Beard Awards, interviews in Garden & Gun and other publications, and speaking engagements at food festivals may seem, it’s still hard (and sometimes painful) work for everyone involved in keeping the restaurant afloat. But it’s a labor of love, and André mentioned multiple times that she’s most proud of having kept it in the family all these years.