“This isn’t your grandmother’s fried chicken,” Michael Wiley says. “This is chef-driven fried chicken.”
Now, I don’t know your grandmother, and neither does Wiley — the chef and owner of My Soul Hot Chicken on Blair Boulevard in the Whiteaker. But chances are she probably doesn’t butcher the bird herself and soak it in a salt brine for 24 hours before double-dredging it in a flour mixed with a secret blend of 13 herbs and spices.
She probably doesn’t fry her chicken for 25 minutes at low-temperature, giving it a moist texture with a flaky, cracker-like crust. And she probably doesn’t dunk it in a vat of chicken and duck fat and roll it in a blend of potent cayenne pepper and bourbon-smoked paprika.
The process takes a grand total of three days. “There’s nothing fast about the chicken we do here,” Wiley tells me. “It’s about as slow as you can get with fried chicken.”
The latest addition to Eugene’s burgeoning food scene, My Soul Hot Chicken is a vehicle for chef Wiley to flex his culinary chops through one of America’s most beloved comfort foods. Merging Southern tradition with nuanced technique, My Soul offers mouthwatering nosh equally suited for a dine-in and takeout dining experience.
Wiley grew up in central Illinois. Cooking since childhood, he went to culinary school in Chicago and then moved to Nashville. After the 2008 recession, he took a break from the restaurant industry but returned as a head butcher at the renowned Southern fine dining restaurant, Husk. He cooked for a long list of famous patrons, including the late culinary superstar Anthony Bourdain, whose portrait now hangs on the back wall in My Soul’s sparse dining room.
Though Wiley altered his recipe slightly, it was at Husk where he learned the painstaking technique that’s now a hallmark of his chicken at My Soul. He makes “hot chicken,” a Nashville regional variety known for its red color and liberal use of cayenne pepper.
Wiley discovered the spicy specialty during his first few months in Nashville, where he was a regular at the city’s numerous hot chicken shacks. The experience marked a turning point in his culinary career, having found what he now regards as the only suitable way to consume deep-fried bird. The red-fingered, heartburn-inducing exhilaration he felt between bites is precisely what Wiley hopes to bring to his Eugene customers.
“I remember being like, ‘Holy shit, this is fucking hot,’” he says. “It was a religious experience. I was almost hallucinating.”
Wiley suggests I order the wing basket, which consists of a pile of tender wings garnished with pickle chips atop a piece of plain white bread. A side of pork collard greens rounds out my order.
Dripping with sweat, I begin to feel the stirrings of the hallucinatory experience Wiley had described somewhere around my third wing: eyes watering, nose running, gasping for air between greedy chomps of white meat, feeling the hazy line between pleasure and pain slowly fade into oblivion.
Somehow, Wiley has hacked my brain’s dopamine receptors. As if I’m greedily devouring a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the chicken’s spectacular flavor and the intoxicating effects of the heat override my executive function, leaving me unable to stop until the basket is empty. I ordered my wings medium heat, which was enough to get me close to nirvana, though the house-made buttermilk ranch served on the side provides both a tangy compliment and a cool relief.
Wiley’s lived in Eugene since 2014. After a bout of professional burnout forced him away from the restaurant business, he watched as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on Eugene restaurants. Seeing local favorites shut their doors, he felt a sudden re-awakening of his love of cooking for others.
“I missed being in a restaurant,” he says. “I saw all these restaurants failing or closing, and I was like, ‘That’s not good. I need to do something.’”
Of course, things were a little different this time around. With pandemic restrictions creating the constant threat of closure or take-out only, Wiley had to optimize his business model to fit the new world of pandemic dining. Since fried chicken is nicely suited for takeout, Wiley can use his culinary skills to continue providing a gourmet experience to his customers.
“I know if something were to happen, if we were to shut down, we’d be prepared for it,” Wiley says. “People would still be able to get a good meal, even if it’s at home.”
My Soul Hot Chicken is open noon to 9 pm Wednesday through Sunday at 514 Blair Boulevard. For more information, visit @My_Soul_Chicken on Instagram.