Louisiana is known for offering dishes with generous and bold flavors. The same can be said for the founder of the fried chicken empire Popeyes, who put spicy chicken, red beans and dirty rice on the national map and whose story is told in a new book, “Secrets of a Tastemaker: Al Copeland, The Cookbook.”
Copeland’s son, Al Copeland Jr., said he and authors Chris Rose and Kit Wohl attempted to capture “the real life and times of Al Copeland” in the book released last month.
The elder Copeland, who died in 2008, made his mark in business with his restaurants, but was also known for his philanthropic efforts – including “Secret Santa” missions to thousands of children on the New York subway. Orléans and the extravagant Christmas lights at home. For a time he even had a successful career in offshore powerboat racing.
“Some people thought he was flashy and flamboyant, and he was,” his son said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But what they didn’t know was that whatever was his was yours – whether it was a Lamborghini or just welcoming you into his home. He was truly a man who loved to see people happy.
Copeland built — and ultimately lost — the Popeyes fried chicken empire. His first restaurant opened 50 years ago, in 1972, in the New Orleans suburb of Arabi. The “Love That Chicken” jingle, still used in advertisements today, debuted in 1980.
The book chronicles Copeland’s daring in the kitchen and includes recipes — but not those associated with Popeyes, her son said. Readers can get a glimpse, he said, of the kind of food Al Copeland uses at Copeland’s, the casual dining chain he started in 1983.
The book includes dishes served at the Copeland family table, including corn and crab bisque, crawfish bread, ricochet catfish, crawfish eggplant au gratin and CP3 pork tenderloin, name of Chris Paul, then star guard of the New Orleans Hornets.
“What runs throughout the book…is the story of the American dream,” Copeland Jr. said. “This book is about a guy who didn’t have much, not much education and lived in a world that wouldn’t give him much of a chance.”
By 1989, there were 700 Popeyes franchises in the United States and abroad, and Copeland leveraged those assets to purchase the Church’s Fried Chicken chain. The move gave him control of over 2,000 chicken restaurants. But the success was short-lived: Just over two years later, the combined company had amassed more than $400 million in debt, and in 1991 Copeland filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy for Al Copeland Enterprises.
In May 1992, the bankruptcy court granted Copeland’s creditors full control of his chicken empire under a new name, America’s Favorite Chicken Company. Copeland retained ownership of the Popeyes recipes and the manufacturing company that made the seasonings, according to the book.
“Although he did not operate Popeyes, the business could not function – or even exist – without him,” reads the book. “This decision reinforced Al’s long-held belief that he should always have a back door, an alternate blueprint for change.”
In 2017, Restaurant Brands International Inc. acquired Popeyes.
Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, said Copeland was known for being bold, in her thoughts and in her business.
“He has done almost more than any other chef to bring the most authentic flavors in the city to people around the world,” she said. “I consider him an ambassador for New Orleans…because wherever there’s a Popeyes, you’re lucky to get a piece of New Orleans.”
The launch of the book in September marked the 50th anniversary of Popeyes. Copeland Jr. said the fried chicken franchise was founded when he was 9 years old, so he was “lucky to live the whole ride, from poor times to exciting times.”
“This project brings back a lifetime of memories and it’s a way to carry on my father’s legacy,” he said.