The Simple Beauty of the Roast Chicken

I came to cooking professionally late in life. I was in my 40’s when I traded my suit and tie for a shirt with my name on it. I saw so much amazing talent all around me and I wanted to emulate them. I took meticulous notes when watching documentaries and TV shows about the greatest chefs in the US, Europe and Asia. I read the latest cookbooks and kept up with magazines (both consumer and trade). I wanted to stretch from my home cooking and try the high wire act of haute cuisine. I did some respectable dishes and enjoyed much of what I created, but I also had some flops and disappointments. Some dishes were clever and others too clever by a turn. I bought tweezers. I used them. I bought plating spoons that worked like fountain pens.

When I traveled, I sought out the gastro-temples where diners ate among grisaille decor and waiters who spoke in refined, hushed tones. I ate plenty of fine food but felt a little empty. In the second year of my restaurant, La Finestra, I started to back away from the fancy and embrace simplicity. When my Maître d’ brought me a copy of the September 2015 issue of Harper’s, and showed me an article called A Goose in a Dress, it hit me like a bolt. The article was a bit harsh in its treatment of Per Se and others, but the theme shone through a foam and tweezer fog.

I asked myself, “What is my favorite dish to cook for others?”

The answer took less than a second – Roast Chicken. The simple process of seasoning, trussing, roasting, resting 2016-02-27 17.11.34and carving a roast chicken is so satisfying to me that it’s difficult to express in mere words. I really need you to eat one of my roast chickens to get the message across, but I’ll give my words a chance to make you understand. First, chicken is so present in our day and age that it’s difficult to make it even seem remotely exciting. There are numerous 8-year-olds who subsist entirely on breaded chicken breast, cut into “fingers.” Chicken is the default, safe-food for banquets and receptions. Nearly every fast food joint has some form of poultry on their featured menu and the boneless-skinless chicken breast is the “I give up” of family meal time. Chicken is mocked by diners as the thing that has so little taste that “everything tastes like chicken.” Those who frequent lots of banquets often refer to the “Rubber Chicken Circuit” to convey annoyance at the bland nature of the presentations and the food. But I love a whole roasted chicken and when done properly it can change the way you look at the “yard-bird.”

When a whole chicken is roasted well, juices flow when you pierce the skin, nothing on the bird is dry and the sweet/savory flavor of the flesh is incredibly satisfying.

So, how does one reach this poultry Nirvana? Simply.

First select a young chicken from a good producer. Major brand chickens are fine, but the taste difference between them and a pasture-raised bird is night and day. You can find these rare birds at farmers’ markets and high-end grocers and they earn their extra cost in flavor.

Equipment wise, you’ll need a roasting pan with a rack, kitchen twine, tongs and a good, sharp knife.

Take the bird and dry it thoroughly with a paper towel and let it rest on a rack while you get the seasonings prepared.

Allow a half stick of butter to come to room temp and mix it with some salt, pepper, roasted garlic and one herb. Which herb? Whatever you have around…rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, marjoram, they all work fine.

Take that compound butter and gently insert it under the skin of the chicken breast and legs. You’ll most likely tear the first few you try, but it gets easier with practice. Use your hands to manipulate the butter under the skin so it covers as much of the surface area of the meat as you can.

Now you truss the chicken. I tie the legs together and wrap the twine under the bird and around the wings and back to the legs, but you can look up videos that explain this in much greater detail. If you don’t have any twine, you can improvise. I’ve used paper clips, bag ties and any other combinations to get the bird all tucked in. You’re just trying to get the bird into a neat package so that the wings and legs don’t overcook while you get the rest of the meat to the proper temperature.

Liberally season the whole bird with salt and pepper. You can also add some garlic, paprika or chili flakes if you’re feeling bold.

Place the chicken on the rack in the roasting pan and cook at 370 degrees for about an hour and a half, depending on the size of the bird. To make sure your chicken is done, use an instant read thermometer and take a temp deep in the breast meat. When it reads 160, remove it from the oven and allow it to rest. The temp of the meat will increase to 165 while it’s resting. I usually rest the chicken, breast-side-down in the same rack it was cooked in, but that’s up to you. Resting is perhaps the most important part of this process. Cut it too early and you’ll see all the juices from the chicken rush out and flood your cutting board. Allowing the meat to rest for at least 15 minutes will allow the liquids, that have been forced to the center of the meat by the heat, to slowly move back out to the surface.

Carve the bird into standard pieces, but save the “oysters” for you and whoever is helping you in the kitchen. If you don’t know about the oysters, you’ve been missing out on something special. You’ll find them on the back of the bird. You’ll know them when you see them. They are your reward for doing your guests the favor of making chicken exciting again.Version 3