It really is just a manner of speaking: I have no intent to end anything about this masterpiece of civilisation, the roast chicken. But after a meal at the infamous Chez l'Ami Louis, rue du Vert Bois, in the 3rd arrondissement, I felt like summarising my thoughts about roast chicken, the most famous dish of that restaurant. First things first – how is L'Ami Louis' roast chicken? It's pretty good. Like everything you eat there, the starting point is truly exceptional ingredients: in that case, the chicken is a Coucou de Rennes, a very ancient breed that is farmed quite a long time before being readied for your palate. The Coucou is a big bird, with a taste that has nothing to do with your regular roast chicken, even the good Label Rouge and other quality chicken you can find at your neighborhood French butcher. It is used by Alain Passard at l'Arpège. Likewise, snails, asparagus, lamb, beef chop, fruits are all of exceptional quality at l'Ami Louis. They are all prepared simply, precisely, justly, but without grace or magic.
|De L'Ami Louis|
All in all, for those who think that good food is about top ingredients and techniques, l'Ami Louis may be one of the best restaurants in the World. Although I should add « in large quantities » after « ingredients » in this last sentence: portions at l'Ami Louis are ogre-sized. Now if you factor in the quantity of food on top of the quality (and few reviewers are willing to do that), the notion that l'Ami Louis is expensive is ludicrous. Basically, the cost of ingredients at l'Ami Louis seem to be little less than half the price on the menu. This is very reasonable by any means. There's a lot of food, so you can share – the same people who object to a 70€ roast chicken strangely seem fine with paying 25€ for one quarter of that same chicken. But maybe I'm wrong. Naaah, just kidding.
|De L'Ami Louis|
Now let's get back to the issue at hand. There are two main issues when cooking a chicken. The more important one is that breast and thighs don't have the same cooking time, just like the tip of the asparagus and the stock. This is why, most of the time, white meat in a chicken is dry and tastless, sometimes even cardboard-y. And this is also why it is so often drowned in sauces, juices and other tricks to offset the sad condition of the overcooked bird breast. Of course poor quality chicken is an aggravating factor, but there's no going around that fundamental dilemma: when white meat is perfectly cooked, dark meat is still pink.
|De L'Ami Louis|
The first response to this tragedy is to blame a recipe that is absurd in and of itself. Just cook the breast and the thighs separately, and then both can be cooked perfectly (if you poach them, the thighs take app. 10 more minutes to be cooked, depending on how thick they are and how they are carved). A less radical approach is to serve the chicken in two servings. Mind you, just like they do at l'Ami Louis. While you eat your white meat tender, juicy and shiny (hopefully), the dark meat slowly finishes to cook in the oven or on the stove.
|De L'Ami Louis|
And yet some (I confess I was once one of them) want to have a whole, perfectly cooked, roast chicken. They resort to tricks such as barding the breast, stuffing it under the skin, or trussing the chicken the old way in order to make the breast thicker (I call it the Wonderbra method). All these techniques have the same goal, namely to delay the cooking of the white meat. But they're only stopgaps, and they work better with slow-cooking methods, because the white meat, which is still overcooked, is less attacked (e.g. Poaching, but also rotisserie, which I'll discuss more below)..
But in the end the only perfect solution is to master the use of the heat. You have to actually cook the the thighs more than you do the breast. Of course that is not going to happen if you just leave your chicken alone in a convection oven, no matter how much your pray for it. It does however works pretty well in a traditional oven using the technique known as 1, 2, 3: first you cook the chicken on one leg, then on the other leg, and only in the end do you put it shortly on its back the traditional way, with the breast directly exposed to the heat. I personally prefer to flip the bird more often (say 10 min on one leg, 10 on the other, 10 on the first, 10 on the second, then 15 minutes rest wrapped in tin foil out of the oven, and finally 7 min on the back).
There's also basting (I don't know that it's very useful but it makes one look like a pro) and seasoning (three times: before cooking, before resting, before serving). One alternative is the labour-intensive Passard method, grilling the whole chicken directly on the grill and flipping it very often, the breast facing the heat very little. Another way is to start cooking the chicken by steaming or poaching it and only finishing with the assymetrical roasting or grilling.
I said there were two issues. The second one, less fundamental for me, is to have a crispy, golden skin. Now of course heat makes the skin crispy. But, contrariwise to a common and naive belief, it's not the high heat that ensures a crispy skin. Instead it is the quality of the heat (it must be dry) and the duration of the process. The idea that you need high heat to get a nice roast chicken is absurd. In a very hot oven, you're much more likely to get a burnt skin and a dry flesh. The inside may even be still raw when the outside is totally burnt.
Now let me discourage what few readers I have left at this point with a little bit of thermodynamics. There are three types of heat transfer: convection, which is when hot air moves and this transfers heat; conduction, which is when something becomes warm by touching something else that is warm; and radiation, which is when a hot body emits rays that are not warm themselves but will heat whatever surface they touch. A convection oven is one where the air is moved by a fan. Conduction is how the inside of the chicken is cooked (because the surface gets warm and the heat conducts inside). It's also typically how you sear something in a pan or poach it. Radiation is what happens with a BBQ – if you pass your hand above the ambers, it's not very warm, but if you leave it there, it burns because the radiations are heating the surface of your skin.
Now radiation is essential in a rotisserie or a BBQ, and this is why you want ambers, not flames. The radiation heats the chicken skin but the heat only goes inside slowly, by conduction from the heat created in the skin by the radiation. Because a BBQ a rotisserie is open, the hot air actually escapes and the temperature around the bird is limited, so the flesh does not get overcooked (tender inside), and the humidity escapes from the skin (crisp). Because of the rotation of the bird, the heat on any given part of the skin, while high, is temporary, so that the skin does not burn. Now who's your daddy, Hervé This?
Even in a closed oven, it is important to not have too much heat in the skin, and therefore to keep the temperature not too high and to be sure that the oven radiates enough – just like with the barbecue, just insert your hand in the oven and see how long it takes to get very warm at the surface. How long you pre-heated the oven is also important in ensuring that there is enough radiation. Another way is to have a very hot oven but to have many many resting periods out of the oven – five minutes in, five minutes out, five minutes in... It works very well with a rack of lamb for instance. This way you can use very high heat and yet still have a crispy outside and a tender inside.