Austin Food & Wine: A game of chicken

 
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.26.14
 
Chicken is a canary in the coal mine. If a restaurant can’t roast a proper chicken, get out now, because bad things are about to happen.
 
Chicken is the Mr. Potato Head of proteins. Swap out the ears, the lips and the hat and you’ve got a whole new thing. Chicken is the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu. And for a cook, chicken is the barkeep’s bane: vodka. You use it because you have to.
 
Chicken is the thing with feathers; we hope for something more.
 
Chicken is a metaphor machine. And for one day, that machine will power the Austin Food & Wine Festival, when Mississippi chef John Currence (at left, signing books at the festival Saturday) leads a demo in the Alder Tent at 1 p.m. Sunday called “What Are You, Chicken?” Bring your own metaphors.
 
Could chicken take on another metaphor? With beef, pork and shrimp prices spiking, is chicken the protein avenger? Cool your jets. “Some of these spikes are momentary, like they always are,” Currence said as he left the Veracruz All Natural taco truck in East Austin on Wednesday.
 
Even the silver lining of chicken’s steady supply takes a darker turn. “The majority of chicken out there is just garbage,” Currence said. “It’s awful, factory-farmed disgustingness.” And more humane, responsible suppliers can only respond so quickly to the shortage of other proteins.
 
The restaurants in Currence’s Oxford, Miss., City Grocery Group announce their small-farm Southern sources on the menus. And they do a lot with those birds. For example:
 
 City Grocery: Buttermilk fried chicken salad with pimiento cheese quenelles and a Hill Country chicken stew.
 Bouré: Roasted chicken with tasso ham and roasted garlic gravy and an occasional chicken carbonara.
 Snackbar: Roasted half-chicken with edamame puree, roasted carrots and lemon pistou. Also fried chicken livers and a Tuesday special of sweet-tea brined fried chicken.
 Big Bad Breakfast: “The Last Gentleman” is Coca-Cola brined fried chicken with potato salad and cole slaw.
 
It didn’t happen by accident. “You give a young guy free rein with the menu, and he’s going to come back more often than not with lobster and lamb and foie gras,” Currence said. “What I tell them is, ‘Challenge yourselves. Anybody can take a rack of lamb and look like Daniel Boulud. But if you can blow someone’s hair back with chicken ... then you’re really doing something. ‘ “
 
For Sunday’s “What Are You, Chicken?” demo, Currence’s goals are simple. “I want to demystify the butchering of chicken. It’s really very easy stuff,” he said, comparing it to teaching someone to carve a turkey. “We’re going to do a simple roasted chicken, truss chicken, butcher chicken ... a version of an Italian chicken dish from a restaurant in New Orleans called chicken a la grande.”
 
Chicken is one of those dishes to which the less adventurous eater gravitates, and with a good chicken, restaurants can offer that customer the same respect as the culinary thrillseeker. “When you go back and examine the canon, all of the grand cuisines have these incredible chicken dishes,” Currence said. “Coq au vin is one of the finest things you can ever eat. Chicken Marsala, piccata, chicken andouille gumbo. When they’re done right? Just resplendent.”
 
Does that mean chicken will show up in Currence’s entry in Saturday’s Rock Your Taco roundelay? No, for that he’ll send in the Mississippi Redneck Taco: adobo-braised lamb necks. “Don’t think for a minute I won’t be plying people with tequila for their affections,” he said. “I want to win this thing.”
 
 
(ABOVE: Josh Watkins, executive chef at the Carillon restaurant, roasts chicken with herbed butter under the skin.)
 
Chicken metaphors: The Austin edition
 
The cooks-and-chicken-and-vodka thing? That went too far for Josh Watkins, the executive chef at the Carillon in Austin. “I would completely disagree with that,” he said, not buying my cooked-up notion for a minute. “I understand the whole vodka/bartender thing. But to cook chicken properly is an art. And to roast a chicken is an art by itself.”
 
Watkins understands the art. When I reviewed the Carillon in 2009, he made a hall-of-fame roasted chicken with herbed butter, green bean casserole and mashed potatoes. “That dish came from something I just like to make at home,” Watkins said. “Chicken, green beans and potatoes. It’s a Middle America thing to eat, and I just wanted to refine it a little bit.”
 
For his take on the artform, Watkins stuffed a rosemary-Meyer lemon compound butter under the skin, roasted it whole and carved it off the bone. “Adding that extra layer of fat will baste it as it cooks, and that was kind of our secret. And then we would crisp the skin afterwards.”
 
It’s not on the Carillon’s menu right now, a menu which goes from four to seven courses for $40-$60 and leans on star proteins like prawns, scallops and top cuts of beef and pork. But roasting a chicken is something a home cook can do, Watkins said. Blend butter with rosemary, lemon zest and salt, pack it under the skin of a whole chicken and roast at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
 
For Watkins’ Chef Showcase appearance in the Grand Tasting tent from 11:15-12:45 Saturday, he’ll practice another art — refined barbecue — with a Thai pork sparerib with pickled cabbage, fish-sauce barbecue sauce and basil-mint-cilantro salad. But with this guy, there’s always more.

“We’re not just going to smoke ribs,” he said. “It’s a three-day process. We cure them for 24 hours, then we grill them just briefly, and then we braise them for another 24 hours at 170 degrees in a white mirepoix summer braise. And then from there, we’ll cool and portion them, and then once we’re at the festival, we’re going to pick them up by deep-frying them.” Try that at home.
 
Metaphor alert: Chicken means something special to Jennifer Costello and Chris Hurley (at left), the chefs and owners of the Bonneville at 202 W. Cesar Chavez St. “To us, that’s the benchmark, the 40-yard dash of the culinary world,” Hurley said. “If you can’t cook a chicken, then stay away form the immersion circulator and the foie gras.”
 
The Bonneville’s “Chicken Under a Brick” strikes the kind of precise balance between crisp skin and tender meat that inspires entirely imprecise emotions, because chicken evokes warmth, comfort and memories of how much our grandmothers loved us. At the Bonneville, the memories are reinforced with something new: the ruddy sweetness of ginger and wine gastrique and the half-crisp, half-loamy taste of grilled romaine and roasted potatoes. It’s one of Austin’s best restaurant dishes.
 
(Costello and Hurley will be featured in the Chef Showcase on Saturday from 11:15-12:45 at the Grand Tasting tent.)
 
More than this, chicken brought the couple together, sort of. They met while working at a Cambridge, Mass., restaurant called the Blue Room, renowned for its roast chicken. And still, Costello can’t help but judge a place by its yardbird. “Before we venture down any ‘interesting’ paths, we’ll test somebody’s chicken to see where they’re at,” she said.
 
 “Thomas Keller and Jacques Pepin say that for their last meal, they hope someone will cook them a perfectly roasted chicken,” Hurley said. “We feel the same way.”
 
(AT TOP: The Bonneville’s “Chicken Under a Brick.” Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking.)
 
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