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Hello, birdie: Roasted chicken a menu throwaway no more

The half-chicken Longman   Eagle is cooked sous vide then pan-roasted. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

The half-chicken at Longman & Eagle is cooked sous vide, then pan-roasted. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:54AM

Used to be, a chef was judged by his prowess with eggs. The hundred pleats in a toque, after all, are said to represent the number of different ways the chef wearing the tall hat could cook them.

These days, it’s chicken, or more specifically, the roasted chicken, that has become the benchmark, giving new meaning to the saying which came first, the chicken or the egg?

“Five years ago, I wouldn’t have ordered chicken,” says Ryan LaRoche, chef at NoMI Kitchen in the Park Hyatt. “Now I judge restaurants on it. If you can cook a great roasted chicken, it says a lot about your cooking abilities.”

When Longman & Eagle’s Jared Wentworth eats out, he often orders chicken. “If you can cook chicken well, you can probably cook other things well, too,” he says.

So how did this unassuming bird go from being the dish most often ordered by Grandma and the most unadventurous diners at the table to a menu star? Part of the change is because of the availability of better quality chickens.

“I give credit to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country chickens that have taken over,” says Bite Cafe’s new chef Brendan Neville, who saw the roasted chicken trend in New York, where he most recently worked at Cafe Luxembourg. At Bite Cafe, 1039 N. Western, Neville opts for Amish chickens for their flavor profile and ability to hold moisture.

LaRoche is such a fan of the chickens he gets from TJ’s Free Range Poultry Farm in Piper City, about 80 miles south of Chicago, that he lists their provenance on the menu.

“Now because we are getting such good quality chickens and not those genetically modified monster breasts, that has led people to taking a second look,” he says.

Unlike his American counterparts, French-born chef Martial Noguier of Bistronomic grew up with wonderful-tasting chicken.

“Every Sunday there always was a roasted chicken in my house,” he says. But he says, it wasn’t until seven years ago that he saw the arrival of great chickens in this country, too.

Noguier translates his lifelong poulet passion at his Gold Coast restaurant into a roasted organic Amish chicken with a mushroom ragout, one of his top-sellers.

The Publican’s Brian Huston credits a better-educated public with the rise in chicken’s popularity at restaurants. “Since people are going out more and watching food shows they’ve realized there are better ways to do chicken than just grilling a boneless, skinless breast,” he says.

At the Fulton Market restaurant, the half and whole farm chicken seasoned with oregano, garlic, lemon, olive oil and Espelette pepper — a pepper from the Basque country that offers quick, sweet heat — is one of their most popular menu items, says Huston, who calls it “a dates-at-Avec kind of dish” (a reference to that restaurant’s menu mainstay).

By boning out the wishbone and a bit of the breast and thigh bones, the chickens lay flat and can cook in 35 minutes. Seasoning the birds and marinating them for a full day before cooking makes a big difference in their flavor, adds Huston. (Look for seasoned raw whole and half chickens at the Publican’s soon-to-open butcher shop acrossfrom the restaurant.)

Wentworth is a big fan of using sous vide to cook his organic free-range chicken ahead of time. Then, when the half-chicken dish is ordered, it’s just a matter of pan-roasting it with butter to order. Wentworth changes up the accompaniments according to season.

“We can offer the flavor of chicken cooked on the bone, but it only takes two minutes to cook,” he says. “I’ve yet to find a better way to cook birds.”

LaRoche likes a low-and-slow cooking technique, too. “The slower you cook it, the less juice will come out and the more evenly it’ll be cooked,” he says.

If you don’t have fancy equipment at your fingertips, there is still plenty you can do to improve your chicken at home. Randy Zweiban of Province recommends brining (it works well for leaner cuts of pork, too).

“It helps a lot in keeping the moisture in as well as you are able to add a bit of spice profile to what you are brining,” says Zweiban.

Another alternative is dry-aging.

“Pat the bird dry with paper towels and then let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator for a couple of hours,” says LaRoche.

Learning how to truss a chicken is important, says Wentworth, adding that the process takes only 10 seconds.

“You take a string twice as long as the bird, go around the wings and tie under and over the legs. That way the legs stay tight up against the breast bone and it cooks evenly,” he says.

When it comes to cooking, Noguier recommends his “10, 10, 10, 10 method,” which involves cooking the chicken for 10 minutes on each side.

Whatever you do, don’t overcook it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends an internal temperature of 165 degrees; pull it out at 155, and it’ll continue to cook to that desired temperature, Noguier says.

Says Wentworth, “If you buy a naturally raised chicken from a reputable source, if it’s got some pink by the bones, it’s fine.”

Don’t have a thermometer? LaRoche says take a skewer and insert it into the breast and then hold it against the space between your bottom lip and chin, “nature’s thermometer,” he says. “If it’s real hot, it’s ready. If it’s warm, you’re getting close.”

As with red meat, allowing the chicken to rest after it comes out of the oven is vital, says Neville, who recommends at least 10 to 15 minutes for a whole bird.

Sometimes, it’s the little things that count.

“Think ahead and take a couple of extra steps, like putting a bit of butter under the skin with some herbs,” Zweiban says, “and you’ll end up with something that is really beautiful and old-school restaurant quality.”

Lisa Shames is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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