Spend a little more, receive mountains more in flavor
Most chicken in America is intensively farmed, in less than ideal conditions, to ensure wide profit margins for the producers, and a lot of the cheaper chicken available lacks much in quality of flavor and texture. However, thanks to the hard work of certain culinary pioneers, and an increased interest in animal rights and quality in food over quantity, attitudes are quickly changing, and the US is fast catching up with their European neighbours regarding our favorite dinner time bird. Today, organically farmed, free-range chicken is more accessible and affordable than ever before, and the average consumer is waking up to the fact that by spending just a little more on their meat, they can unlock the true flavorful potential of this meat, while being a little kinder to the planet and the welfare of the birds have as a culinary mainstay of American cuisine.
Cook Chicken the Keller Way
One such pioneer of American cookery is Thomas Keller, founder of California’s The French Laundry - often lauded as being the finest restaurant in the world, and the Bouchon Bakery chain, where classic French cuisine meets brash, American culinary confidence in a gastronomic marriage made in heaven. Thomas Keller’s chicken recipes have redefined the way many Americans eat, and Thomas Keller chicken dishes range from the meticulous and avant-garde, to the astounding simple and practical. Above all, Thomas Keller chicken dishes are designed to bring out the true, authentic and unadulterated qualities of the meat, without disguising the flavor beneath a wash of sticky, oversweet dressings or marinades such as you’d find in many chicken restaurants across the states. Keller believes and often states that if you get a good bird, which has been fed with natural ingredients and has been allowed to roam and forage as nature intended, the flavor you get from the meat needs little interference. Indeed, his chicken recipes are typified by their directness and their unfussy, uncomplicated nature, which have been successfully replicated in home kitchens around the world thanks to his instructional recipe books and the enthusiasm of his dedicated fanbase. Thomas Keller likes his chicken to taste of chicken, and likes to cook his chicken in the simplest manner, which may fly in the fact of much of what we expect from one of the world’s greatest chefs, but which reflects his training as a young man under the Michelin-starred masters of France. When it comes to chicken recipes, it seems that less is often more.
Perhaps the Thomas Keller chicken dish which is most widely loved, and which is served at many of his flagship restaurants is his simple roast chicken. Roast chicken is one of the ideal domestic dishes, which is served at Sunday lunches across the world, and is a wonderful meal to share with friends and family. However, according to Keller, many people make simple mistakes when preparing roast chicken, mainly due to the fact that they have been misinformed by various food fads over the ages, or due to the fact that people generally mistake quality home and restaurant cooking with complicated techniques, lots of ingredients and highly skilled methods. Thomas Keller’s most famous roast chicken is magnificently simple, calling for only three ingredients - kosher salt, which thanks to its larger flakes is a wonderfully rich and flavorsome substance for seasoning meat, black pepper, which brings a little warmth and an extra dimension of subtle flavour to the bird, and the chicken itself, which should always be of the highest quality you can afford. Do you need any specialist, professional kitchen equipment to make chicken like Thomas Keller? Indeed you do not. Just a normal domestic oven, a roasting rack and some butcher’s twine for trussing the bird will be all you’ll need - no messing around, no expensive nonsense, and world conquering results, every time!
Basic Errors to Avoid
The simplicity doesn’t stop with the ingredients. To make Thomas Keller chicken in the way his chefs do at his world-beating restaurants, you essentially need to do very, very little in the cooking process. What do most of us do when roasting a chicken? We check the bird every few minutes or so, we baste it with butter and meat juices repeatedly, trying to get that perfect moist meat and crispy, golden skin, and we coat it with various herbs and spices. According to Keller, all three of these interventions to the cooking of roast chicken are errors, and stop our dish from reaching its full potential.
Firstly, by regularly opening an oven door, we are reducing the temperature within the oven, and this will interfere with the way the bird roasts, as well as increasing the cooking time due to the fluctuations we can cause in the heat. Basting a chicken can make the skin soggy - by repeatedly pouring or squirting fat onto the chicken skin, we rinse away the salt that has been rubbed into it, and don’t give the skin a chance to crisp up properly. Also, basting can create steam inside the oven, which can also cause a level of sogginess which takes us further and further from perfection. A Thomas Keller chicken is one which is left alone on a roasting rack for an hour or so, until its internal temperature is 165 degrees, and its skin is golden brown, and wonderfully crisp. The other key trick of the trade which Keller recommends when cooking roast chicken (and which so many people forget or neglect to do) is to allow the meat to rest on a tray for at least fifteen minutes before serving. This is true of all roast meats and fried steaks - resting the meat allows the juices to remain within the bird itself. Slicing and carving the chicken before allowing it to properly rest will cause all of those delicious juices to leak from the meat, and thus your chicken will lose a lot of its flavor potential before anybody has had a chance to take a bite!
Of course, you don’t become one of the world’s greatest chefs by only preparing chicken one way. Thomas Keller chicken recipes take in culinary traditions from around the world, and involve a veritable dreamscape of different techniques and methods - from brineing in specially prepared marinades, to stuffing with their own offal, and everything in between. However, his ethics remain the same in each and every restaurant, and in each and every chicken recipe; the natural flavor of the bird is paramount and given the chance to shine. Everything else the chef does is simply to help bring those flavors out, onto the plate, and onto the palate.
This level of classicism combined with innovation is probably best represented by two of Thomas Keller’s more famous restaurants - The French Laundry, a classic French-American fusion fine dining restaurant which was twice proclaimed the best restaurant in the world, and Napa’s Ad Hoc. At The French Laundry, chicken doesn’t feature strongly on the menu, but where it does, it does so in style. On the extensive tasting menu of The French Laundry, we find the dish Four Storey Hill Farm Poularde - a small, female hen that has been fattened on natural foods, before being roasted delicately and simply in an oven. This tender meat is complemented by an array of wonderful vegetables, notably the locally grown Californian asparagus, and small turnips for sweetness. These are overlaid with delicate, peppery nasturtium leaves, which bring plenty to the palate without disturbing the principle flavor of that wonderful poularde. At Ad Hoc, however, we find a completely different approach to the chicken Keller loves and respects. Ad Hoc is a hearty, rustic, family restaurant that serves his own spin on great American diner food and home cooking, and as such, the chicken served here is breaded and fried in spectacular fashion, or barbequed over smoky wood and amber flames, bringing memories of childhood dinners with a masterful touch, and packed full of incredible flavor.