Super chicks

Some of the most renowned chefs are elevating one of the humblest birds—the chicken—to new heights. We’re not talking fancy sauces, rare spices or hi-tech techniques; instead, these pros are turning to the simplest, most down-home cooking methods—frying and roasting. Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se, Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park and NoMad and Andrew Carmellini of The Dutch and Lafayette all have customers swooning over their signature roast or fried chicken.

Sourcing thoughtfully raised, all-natural chickens is a given for these signatures, but one purveyor has gone so far as to feed flocks on table scraps collected from those chefs’ own kitchens. Green Circle chickens are raised in Pennsylvania by Ariane Daguin, founder of D’Artagnan, a purveyor of premium meat and poultry, and sold back to high-end restaurants. Daguin feels the table scrap diet will improve the flavor and texture of the birds.

Whether this pans out in the roasting pan is uncertain. What is certain is that chefs and customers expect more from their chickens these days. These operators deliver.

Chicken Three Ways
676 Restaurant & Bar, Chicago
“It’s a testament to a chef’s strength to make a unique, memorable chicken dish …to take something that people wouldn’t necessarily order and make it special,” says Joshua Hasho, chef at this relaunched restaurant in the Omni Chicago Hotel. He was also looking for an item that struck a chord with patrons’ childhoods. The result is Chicken Three Ways—one of Hasho’s best-sellers.

He starts with a smaller 2- to 2 1/2-pound chicken “because birds are most flavorful at this size,” and works closely with Miller Farm in North Orland, Ind. to source an antibiotic-free product consistent in size and quality. “They raise the chickens indoors in large pens with natural lighting, feeding them corn, soybeans and the farm’s own vitamins,” Hasho explains.

To cook the chicken, the chef first removes the airline breast portion and brines it for eight hours in garlic, lemon, honey and thyme. Then it’s air-dried and cooked sous vide to keep the breast moist, and seared to a crisp turn. Meanwhile, the drumstick is soaked in buttermilk, then coated with a tempura batter and dredged in cornflake crumbs—both gluten-free. The final component is a housemade chicken sausage ground from the giblets, thigh and neck meat; diced pumpkin and sage round out the flavor profile. The dish goes for $24.

“Lemon and thyme are my favorite seasonings to pair with chicken,” says Hasho. “You can manipulate these two ingredients and just let the farmer’s hard work shine through. You don’t want to screw with that.”

Rotisserie Chicken
Modern Rotisserie, Newton, Mass.
As part of the early culinary team at Boston Chicken, Marjorie Druker knows a thing or two about rotisserie cooking. When she opened Modern Rotisserie this year, she took that experience and tweaked it, creating her signature roast chicken.

“I reformulated the method and recipe to make it more magical,” says Druker. She first brines the chickens for 24 hours in a “secret recipe” based on apple-cider vinegar. Before the bird is placed on the rotisserie it gets a second dip in the brine. “At Boston Chicken we also dipped twice,” explains Druker. But here’s where she deviates from the formula. “While the chicken cooks, we baste it continuously with the drippings—just as you would a Thanksgiving turkey,” she adds. “We also sprinkle on a ‘shake’ I created from a blend of spices.” After 2 1/2 hours, a succulent, flavorful chicken emerges.

Technique and seasonings aside, “the top talent is the chicken itself,” claims Druker. She sources Murray’s chickens from Lancaster County Pennsylvania, where a collaborative of farms raises the birds. At $14.95, this makes for a more expensive roast chicken than some other takeout rotisserie birds, but “it tastes different from the first bite,” Druker says. 

Chicken Sandwich
Roadside Eats, Hollywood, Calif.
Sandwiches rule at this Southern-inspired fast-casual spot and chicken fills two of the most popular ones. “Chicken is always successful,” says Executive Chef and co-owner Dave Northrup. “It’s versatile and easy for people to understand. My goal with Roadside Eats was to swing back to simplicity; simple proteins and simple preps in a fast-casual setting.”

Since both Northrup and his chef have lived in the South, they knew they wanted to do a fried-chicken sandwich. “After fooling around with a lot of different batters and breadings, we created our own pecan flour,” he says. To intensify the pecan taste, the boneless chicken breast is brushed with a pecan-flavored egg wash before it’s dipped in the flour; a mustard-maple glaze completes the prep. 

Barbecue is another Southern flavor profile that’s a natural fit for chicken. For Roadside Eats’ rendition, Northrup brines the breast in salt and apple cider vinegar for 12 hours, then rubs it with garlic, cumin, coriander, onion powder and brown sugar.  Next, it’s smoked over applewood for three hours. Once cooked, the chicken is chopped and finished with the house BBQ sauce—a vinegary-sweet blend. Both chicken sandwiches sell for $7.50.

“These are the foods of my youth; the tastes that bring me back to my roots,” Northrup says.

Poultry price forecast 

Operators rely on chicken to keep center-of-the-plate food costs in check. But chicken’s image as a “bargain” protein has been tarnished lately due to prolonged drought, high feed costs and increased food service demand. John Davie, president of Dining Alliance and Consolidated Concepts purchasing groups, shares the latest on chicken prices.

  • Whole chickens are 40 cents per pound higher than in 2012, about 30% more wholesale
  • Feed prices are starting to drop and chicken supply is increasing as producers are growing more birds
  • The price for whole birds should soften by the end of 2013
  • McDonald’s is expected to buy 250 million wings this fall, keeping wing prices high through the Super Bowl
  • Chicken sandwiches are popular in the chains, pushing up demand for boneless breast meat. Breast prices will probably not come down until mid-2014

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