Pierre-Philippe Saussy had seen and done it all: worked in France and Belgium, New York and Los Angeles. Trained under legends like David Bouley and Roger Vergé. Even risen to the head of some of the world’s most famous kitchens. But last year, he suddenly realized he was done. “I’d been in fine dining my whole life, and I always thought that was what my career would always be,” Saussy recalls. “But after 20 years, I realized I wanted to try something different. So I went into the friedchicken business.”
The move from foie gras and filet mignon to fried birds and brioche buns may seem like a fall, but for Saussy, born in Puerto Rico, it was a leap toward something far more gratifying than a Michelin star: happiness. “Every few years,” he says, “I’d move back for a year or six months and then move on to another city. I finally decided that I just wanted to stay for good.”
He returned home two years ago and immediately connected with a local hotel to create a high-profile restaurant. But the project stalled and an entirely different allure took hold: In the Santurce district, an abandoned lot was being converted into Lote 23, an assemblage of sleek wood-paneled food stalls run by some of the island’s most promising young talents. In the midst of an economic crisis, brickand-mortar restaurants were failing left and right; this was the next big thing. In March 2017, Saussy opened Hen House, with a small menu featuring just one entrée—a fried-chicken sandwich—and a handful of sides.
“It’s really difficult to take two ingredients and make them taste amazing,” Saussy says. “Every element of this sandwich has technique behind it.” In fact, the idea started not with chicken breasts or buns, but with cucumbers from a local farm. On a whim, Saussy made a killer dill pickle and then visited another local farm to source the perfect lettuce to go with it. Until Hurricane Maria, all of his chickens—which he fries in a homemade buttermilk batter that adds just the right amount of salt and kick—came from Puerto Rican poultry barns. “The ones we’re getting from the U.S. right now just can’t compare,” he says, “but we’re starting to see the local birds come back.”
Also coming back is the brickand-mortar restaurant: Saussy has plans to open a permanent location of his acclaimed chicken shack in San Juan’s Condado neighborhood early next year. It will feature a broader menu with even more deceptively simple dishes. And, he says, it will be yet another sign of Puerto Rico’s bigger comeback. “People are starting to see that there is definitely a future here. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something going on here. And it’s something good.”
“PEOPLE ARE STARTING TO SEE THAT THERE IS DEFINITELY A FUTURE HERE.”