How the Roast Chicken Conquered Fine Dining

Whole birds are taking center stage at the nation's restaurants. Here's why:

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Okay, look, I understand. A $78 chicken might not seem like a sign of austerity. But it is. I won’t get into whether this particular chicken, which one of New York’s hottest restaurants, Daniel Humm’s Nomad, serves after larding it with foie gras and black truffles, is overpriced or not. The mere fact of its chickenry is a sign of the times. You don’t need to be a gastronomical savant to see that the humblest and most prosaic of all proteins doesn’t quite fit in with lobster and rack of lamb and other high-priced menu items. Who goes out to good restaurant and orders the chicken?

People living in an age of rising meat prices, that’s who. And you know what? They’re right to do so. Chicken may have historically been a booby prize in restaurants, a sop to milquetoasts, aging parents and dieters who needed something bland to keep them quiet. But chefs have always known that chicken in general, and a whole roast chicken in particular, was a kind of gastronomic endpoint. Done well, there was nothing that could surpass it — it was the culinary equivalent of the speed of light in relativity theory. The only reason the bird never ascended to the showstopper status of its rivals was an economic one: chickens were cheap, and so why would you pay a lot for one in a restaurant?

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Now, though, we know better. And the chickens themselves are significantly better. Unlike the average consumer, restaurants have access to farms, where chickens walk around, kicking dirt and eating bugs the way they are meant to; we as a people have figured out that birds like this are likely to taste better than ones grown in poultry hives. Progress in the art of cooking has taught chefs a lot of tricks that weren’t available until fairly recently. Tony Maws of Craigie on Main in Boston, to take one example, cooks his $74 chicken in an immersion circulator, or sous-vide bath, basically poaching it through before it ever sees a fire. Sean Brock, at Husk in Charleston, S.C., pulls the same trick, finishing the $26 breast in a wood oven. Meanwhile, for $35 Jonathan Sawyer of the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland does a half chicken in a pastry crust, a technique 100 years out of date, applied to an animal it was never meant for.

And that’s all outside of New York. My home city frequently makes claims it can’t support, but there can be no doubt that I live the capital of the Roast Chicken Revolution. Nomad’s $78 roast chicken for two inspired the influential food blog Serious Eats to panegyrics: “This chicken is an indulgence. It’s an experience. But it’s without question the best chicken dish I’ve ever had.”  TV’s Iron Chef America, Marc Forgione, has made an equally spectacular bird, roasted pressed under a brick and served on a platter of sizzling butter, a steal at $51. Just around the corner in Tribeca, another buzzed-about new restaurant has made a roast chicken for two a centerpiece of their menu: Kutsher’s Tribeca, one of the most successful of recent launches, got an enthusiastic one-star review from the New York Times, largely on the strength of it. The Times critic, Pete Wells, declared the prodigiously moist, pretzel- and mushroom-stuffed bird “the most satisfying main course by far.”

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I don’t think this is a passing trend, by the way. Pork belly, banh mi sandwiches and chocolate lava cakes have come and gone, and I have no doubt that in the years to come we’ll all laugh at the herd mentality that promoted them. But the chicken has a central place in our diet — really, in the whole world’s diet — and the fact that it is now getting the spotlight strikes me as an advance in civilization, of the kind likely to be permanent. It’s good for society in other ways, too. A chicken is meant to be shared. It has different parts that different people with distinct tastes can respond to, expressing their preferences without going outside the agreed-upon whole. And if two people want the same part? That’s generally not a problem either since the chicken has two legs, two breasts and two thighs. France’s legendary king Henri IV dreamed of a world where even the poorest peasant had a chicken on Sunday; Herbert Hoover went a step further and promised a chicken in every pot. From General Tso to Colonel Sanders, chicken dishes have been a mainstay of ordinary people in every land and clime. Now it has conquered fine dining. The chicken’s conquest is complete.

PHOTOS: Welcome to the Chicken Swap