When I first started cooking at the meat station I couldn’t believe that we had chicken on the menu. “Chicken? We have chicken on the menu? This is a 3-star Parisian restaurant and we’re serving chicken?” I finally asked my boss why a restaurant voted 8th best in the world would stoop so low as to serve chicken and why at such an outrageous price of fifty euros a pop.
“Tu as déjà goutée?” (Have you tasted it?).
“Non, je n’aime pas le poulet.” (No, I’m not a chicken fan.)
“Fais la papillote maitenant.” (Make the chicken cooked in a pocket now.)
“Non, je ne peus pas, j’ai beaucoup trop de chose a faire.” (No, I can’t, I have too many other things to do…)
“Oui, chef.” (Yes, chef.)
So I made the stupid chicken and grumped the whole way through it. Meanwhile my boss stood cross-armed inspecting every last detail from the way I butchered the bird to the cooking of it. To be scrutinized by a brooding French chef, is to understand fear. French chefs are not known for coddling their subordinates.
With a mixture of adrenaline and angst pumping through my veins, I hacked the neck off with my cleaver and defiantly chucked it into the trash can, cut off the wing tips, removed the wishbone, and portioned the darned thing quicker than a bat out of hell. He studied my chicken carcass carefully to make sure that I had taken off the breast correctly and removed the legs along with the special back divets that once King Louis IV coveted as his favorite part. I passed the test.
After my portioning was deemed acceptable, then came the toughest part: la cuisson (the cooking). I put the breast into a pocket of aluminum paper that I carefully folded like an origami letter. Inside the pocket I added a stalk of lemongrass, some legumes, and a few spoonfuls of homemade chicken stalk. I placed the origami papillote in an aluminum dish filled with water on the burner to boil and popped it into an extremely hot oven.
As we waited for the chicken to cook, I continued with other chores while my chef continued to stand cross-armed watching my every move and pointing out my every mistake. This was embarrassing, because frankly, I don’t like to be wrong. Anybody that knows me well knows that I really hate to be wrong. But even more frustrating is that I am wrong probably 80% of the time that I insist I’m right. My chicken debate was no different.
Finally my chef announced: “Essayes!” (Try!) I pulled the chicken breast out of the aluminum and looked at it. Admittedly, it was pretty and glistening a pale ivory innocence. I shuddered a little at having to eat the rubbery skin that wasn’t crispy the way I like it. But, I have learned the hard way, when cooking in a French kitchen with big French chefs, you don’t think you just do as you’re told. “Oui chef” I replied.
And then there was silence as I chewed and swallowed…
“Oh! C’est bon ça” (Oh! It’s good!). I quickly inhaled the remains of the most tender breast I have ever eaten. Yes, my French chef against my will, taught me another thing about food: chicken is good. Sometimes I’m such a Bay Area snob that I think the French are totally outdated when it comes to food, but then again, that could fall into the 80% wrong category.
To end our chicken debate, I humbly thanked my chef for allowing me to eat the fifty euro chicken breast because this is never ever allowed in the kitchen. He replied in his funny sounding English mimicking my California valley-girl accent, “Whatever”. Obviously an expression he’s learned through my responses to his sometimes-querulous orders.
By now, I have plucked, gutted, de-boned, filleted, cooked whole (once for the Michelin guide director), stuffed, sous-vided more chicken than most people will ever eat in a lifetime. In fact, I am sure that if challenged, I could do any of the above blind folded. And from all this chicken handling I can say that in France, chicken is turkey. Well, not literally, but it is served just as ceremonial during the holidays as it is for a weeknight dinner. I know many Americans will probably scoff at the notion of serving a chicken for a special feast but here in France even Le Guide Michelin applauds a properly cooked poulet.
Have you ever eaten Poulet de Bresse? It tastes like it looks – deliciously proud. It arrives daily to the restaurant with head still attached: coxcomb bright red with a whitish brown collar of feathers clean and soft. Around it’s downy neck it boldly boasts a certified necklace, which clearly states the birds’ credentials including place of origin and social security number. Sometimes the chef hangs these medals around my neck, which causes everyone in the kitchen to fall about laughing for reasons I still don’t understand. The birds are juicy, range fed, delicious, and fattened up with some corn and milk during its final weeks. Wait a minute – the necklace – is he saying I’m fat? Oh la la la la.
Poulet de Bresse is also the only poulet in France to have it’s own Appelation Origine Controlée (A.O.C.). This means there are strict laws governing how and where these birds are raised. After thirty-five days exactly, the birds are range fed in a grassy area. This diet is supplemented with cereals and skimmed milk for a specific time. Each chicken must have ten square meters of space and one flock cannot exceed five hundred birds. The last phase of production is completed in ventilated wooden cages that are in a quiet and low-lit location in order to keep the chickens happy and calm. The chickens are caged for at least 8 days and up to 8 weeks. No wonder they’re so expensive!
We also have something else in France that most American supermarkets and restaurants don’t have (yet). We have variety in the type of chicken we purchase. I’m not talking about the breed, although there is that too, but the age and sex of the chicken. For instance farmers raise chapons (castrated roosters) & poulardes (hens) to sell to the restaurants and markets during the winter holidays. These chickens are raised from November to December. We put these birds on the menu in December when Paris is cold and customers come in wanting to eat some holiday novelty. Because they are only raised for a short period of time each year every French man and woman knows to order them quickly.
Once we run out of these special birds at the restaurant, we run out. No more are ordered and they can only be served to a table of four or more because we cook them whole and serve them whole to be carved tableside by one of the highly trained servers. In fact when the Michelin Guide came into eat (there were five of them), we cooked up a large chapon. The trick in cooking them whole is to make sure the skin evenly browns and remains un-cracked or torn. This is harder than it might appear. Especially when you’re also cooking for sixty other tables with multiple course meals and there are only two ovens.
I will never forget cooking these whole birds throughout December and watching waiters and chefs bicker over any extra tasty bits as the carcasses returned from the floor. It was like watching a sea of pigeons descending on the last grain on earth. There I was, observing the feeding frenzy night after night in total disbelief. “It’s a frickin’ castrated rooster, how can it taste that good?” Once again, I ate my words.
My chef, annoyed that the servers were eating all the good parts that clearly only cooks deserved, put a stop to the mobbing and declared that all chickens would be returned pronto to the meat station after carving. After this declaration the carcasses were returned to us immediately. Only the head chefs and myself would eat the remains – how’s that for pecking order! So I learned that these birds are delicious and different in taste. They are more mature in flavor then the young chickens and yet still juicy. The albufera sauce blended with foie gras that we made special to accompany the birds didn’t hurt the flavor any either. Needless to say, it was impossible for me to resist dunking my tidbits in.
I know there are many people out there (including myself and my friend George) that think chickens are dirty birds. From experience with my Grandma’s chicken coup I can say they are mean nasty little devils that deserve to be spit roasted. I’ve never thought twice about butchering chickens.
However, the chickens here in France seem to have some kind of elegance that our American one’s do not. I could be overly romanticizing but it’s hard not to when you live in a city of unparalleled fashion. Prada for Poulet! Seriously, some restaurants actually serve the chicken necklace alongside the dish to prove its authenticity. You’d think it was a Cartier gold chain or something.
Well, I suppose for the French, it practically is. At least they have their priorities straight: range fed chickens brought up in humane conditions taste better and are worth paying for. And also: age and gender don’t matter (it’s the mileage baby, it’s the mileage). These last two statements, I think, would go in the 20% right category.