From fancy rotisseries to upscale restaurants – a bird’s-eye view of the roast chicken revival
Ben Greeno has clocked in at the Michelin-starred restaurant Sat Bains in the UK, at Noma in Denmark and at Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney. So when the accomplished British chef, who oversees The Paddington, recently unveiled a humble chicken takeaway in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, many observers clucked with delight. Greeno is loading up the rotisserie at The Chicken Shop in Paddington with Bannockburn chooks, and is also offering pristine salads. The message is clear: chicken is chic.
Lately, we’ve encountered an array of fabulous fowls – spicy Nashville fried, crunchy Korean-style and Japanese karaage among them – but the classic rotisserie version is deflecting attention away from them. It’s not hard to discern why. An exquisitely cooked chicken, whether spit-turned or oven-roasted, represents a satisfying, health-giving and budget-friendly meal.
A wave of chefs and restaurateurs is tapping into the appetite for better birds, opening casual venues like Greeno and the Merivale group, or offering next-level iterations of the traditional dish on their menus. And through provenance, breed or brine, each is restoring what has become commonplace to a centrepiece.
“I think chefs are looking to use their knowledge to elevate the basic formula,” says Scott Pickett, chef-owner of Melbourne restaurants Estelle by Scott Pickett, Estelle Bistro and Saint Crispin. At his latest project, Pickett’s Deli & Rotisserie at Queen Victoria Market, Pickett installed rotisseries so that he could sell high-end roast chicken.
For him, that means a process that starts with brining local chooks in a sugar and salt solution for 24 hours.
“Once they’re out of the brine we give them a rinse and stuff the cavity with lemon, garlic, thyme, bay leaf and parsley,” he says. “Then we truss them, and let them air dry for a day or two. That way when you roast it you get a wonderful, crispy skin.”
Pickett has a “secret” dry rub too (take that Colonel Sanders) but whether it’s packed into a foil bag, shared whole at the counter with hand-cut chips, or stuffed into a roll with tarragon and gravy, the tender white meat is a long way from the standard fare.
For Greeno, it’s important that The Chicken Shop is a repository of outstanding specimens. “We’ve only got four metres of space,” he says. “We’re not going to be offering dim sum salad.” Nonetheless, they do have shoestring fries and sandwiches to go.
Greeno uses a custom-made French Rotisol rotisserie – the Chanel of spits. Pickett swears by rotisseries from French manufacturer Cuisines Design. “Each rotisserie is built as a unique piece of art,” says distributor Jacques Morin at Phoeniks in Melbourne.
As the industry likes to crow, chicken remains Australia’s preferred meat. Chicken excels at industrialisation, says food historian Michael Symons in his book One Continuous Picnic: A Gastronomic History Of Australia. Symons notes that the first local branch of KFC opened in 1968. Red Rooster soon followed, and then charcoal chicken shops multiplied. In the last 40 years, our consumption of poultry has quadrupled. We now each eat, on average, 46.2kg of chicken a year, while takeaway sales are at $2.9 billion.
It is certainly tastier than ever. Sophisticated roast chook has been turning up on an increasing number of menus at fine-dining restaurants, too, especially in Melbourne.
Consider Philippe Mouchel’s Bannockburn rotisserie chicken at Philippe, the miso butter glazed birds at Belleville, and Stuart Brookshaw and Ruth Giffney’s injection-brined, free-range chooks at Henrietta’s Chicken Shop & Bar.
Haute hens are also tempting diners in Sydney.At No.1 Bent Street, Mike McEnearney roasts them in a woodfired oven.At Ester in Chippendale, Mat Lindsay channels chicken-shop-chic in an occasional lunch special: pulled meat and chicken crackling sandwiched between hot bread and served in a bowl of gravy. Meanwhile, the butterflied, marinated birds served with Lebanese bread, pickles and luxurious toum (garlic sauce) at El Jannah in Granville have a cult following.
In Brisbane, Damian Griffiths, the mogul behind chains Mister Fitz and Doughnut Time, is currently preparing to open a rotisserie-chicken restaurant in the Queensland capital.
Bird-lovers cite the whole-roasted Barossa chicken at Pearl Cafe in Woolloongabba, served with leeks and lemon myrtle, the garlic and paprika chicken at La Rotisserie in Newstead, and the chilli chook at Robyn’s Charcoal Chicken in Greenslopes.
Steeped in nostalgia, crisp, golden chicken is arguably never going out of fashion. But for now, whether it’s high or low, free-range or organic, served with crinkle-cut chips or chargrilled corn, all these new-look chooks are definitely coming home to roost.