KUALA LUMPUR, July 19 — What are the flavours of Southern United States (US)? If you ask Chef T. Jay (the "T” stands for Timothy), the pioneering mind behind Soul Byrd, his answer is likely to include his Southern Fried Chicken Tenders that have been brined before being deep fried.
The spice levels vary from the tingly but mild Country Salt & Pepper, which uses a blend of white pepper, black pepper, Szechuan pepper, Himalayan pink salt and coriander seed, to the flaming Nashville where the chicken, fresh from the fryer, is dipped in hot cayenne pepper chilli oil and coated with their in-house spice mix.
(He’s not sharing the secret recipe though his favourite habaneros is unlikely to be excluded.)
Interestingly though, Chef T. Jay is originally from Chicago, Illinois, rather than the Southern US. Having dropped out of art school, where he was a writing major, this passionate chef has cooked professionally for 34 years.
He shares "Before that, cooking was a means to pay the bills and attend university. Along the way, I have earned degrees in literature, business management, culinary arts and hospitality management.”
As proof that education never ends, Chef T. Jay has studied advanced food safety in recent years — earning certification for HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) levels 1, 2 and 3 along the way — and started learning Python in order to build websites.
The latter has been an advantage when building his business while simultaneously bootstrapping as much as he can: "Like so many small businesses, Soul Byrd was created out of necessity during the early part of the pandemic.”
Why fried chicken though?
Chef T. Jay explains, "Firstly, chicken is a neutral protein, it is something everyone can eat. Fried chicken can also travel well without losing quality. Finally, the concept is scalable and can operate out of a smaller footprint.”
Soul Byrd’s signature Southern Fried Chicken Tenders quickly became their most popular item. Another bestseller is the 24-hour marinated buttermilk fried chicken sandwich. Chef T. Jay credits this to investing as much time as needed to work out every detail of his recipe.
He says, "It is not just fried chicken. It starts with love and attention to detail at every step of the process: What spices have the most impact on the brine? What is the best ratio of flours for it to taste like American fried chicken? What oil do we fry with? How much can people customise their orders?”
Ultimately it took Chef T. Jay months to perfect his recipe for the brine, an essential part to recreate the moist yet flavourful meat so crucial to Southern fried chicken (it’s not only the crunchy batter).
He exclaims, "The end product is something we are proud of. And most people find absolutely delicious!”
However, even with a good plan and years of experience, Soul Byrd struggled in its first year. Chef T. Jay recalls, "We were only open for four days and we went into a full lockdown.”
Fast forward a couple of years and things are looking up. Soul Byrd has spun off a couple of new ventures, one after another: First, the New Orleans kitchen concept Deep South and then the Mexican influenced Flat Earth Tacos.
The former features New Orleans classics such as Jambalaya (Cajun shrimp, sausage and chicken served on rice or pasta) and Gumbo (a Creole stew of shrimp, sausage and smoked duck served on rice).
There is even a Cuban element with the Pulled Beef Sandwich topped with cabbage slaw served on a toasted brioche roll.
Chef T. Jay explains, "Deep South could have easily been an extension of the Soul Byrd menu. But a few new menu items wasn’t going to save the struggling business.”
Instead he was inspired by a video on YouTube about "a Chinese restaurant in New York running 14 restaurants out of one kitchen. It made sense. People’s eating habits have changed with food delivery services. It’s not uncommon for a family to order dinner from multiple restaurants.”
Chef T. Jay immediately expanded his New Orleans kitchen idea into a brand called Faye Dou-dou. He shares, "I thought it would be better to test several small brands out on-line. Better marketability, reachability and visibility was the plan.”
Before Faye Dou-dou was launched, the group was approached by Tiffin at the Yard to launch a store. Chef T. Jay, "The New Orleans menu has been a success. We changed the name to Deep South to avoid confusion with a large bakery brand.”
The Soul Byrd brand remains mutable. At the end of June, Deep South moved out of Tiffin at the Yard; a week later, Chef T. Jay opened a new outlet at APW Bangsar called Flat Earth Tacos.
On the menu are Mexican staples including tacos such as the picadillo (minced beef, tomatoes, olives and raisins), carne asada (grilled strip loin) and yucatan (achiote rubbed fish in banana leaves); tostadas with grilled prawns, chipotle and pumpkin; and chicken taquitos (deep-fried rolled tacos).
Fret not, the famous Soul Byrd chicken tenders are on the menu at Flat Earth Tacos too. Like a phoenix, the original brand survives, in all its incarnations.
It’s been a marathon, rather than a sprint, as the adage goes. This is a metaphor Chef T. Jay heartily agrees with, sharing his motto: "Create a business model that can easily change direction at a moment’s notice. Build and create secondary product lines or services that can weather you through another lockdown.”
Beyond a fiery taste of Southern US cuisine, what Chef T. Jay has delivered with his brand pivoting — from Soul Byrd to Deep South and now Flat Earth Tacos — is a never-say-die attitude so crucial to making it in an increasingly challenging F&B (food and beverage) industry.
Or as he puts it succinctly: "Resilience, creativity, adaptability!”
Soul Byrd / Deep SouthIG: instagram.com/soulbyrd.my/