Heritage Birds Are Ruling The Roost

Heritage birds are ruling the roost

"When an animal has a good life, you feel it in the meat," Antoine Westermann of newly opened NYC hot spot Le Coq Rico, says. It may sound like a skit from Portlandia, but a recent spotlight on heritage birds in restaurants across the country proves it's no joke.

Heritage birds are slow-growing, naturally mating, free-range birds whose lineages start prior to the mid-20th century. Though chefs have valued heritage chicken and game birds for years, these days they're building menus around them. And it's not just because they're humanely raised and better for the environment; it's also because birds like Mauer's Mountain Farms' guinea hen, which is served at Le Coq Rico, newcomer Olmstead and Rotisserie Georgette, to name a few, taste better, too (see the recipe for rosemary-brined guinea hen).

Diners who won't order chicken because they think they can make it better at home are in for a wake-up call. They're also about to stop saying "it tastes like chicken" to describe anything familiar or bland.

"A chicken is a chicken, but they all have a different taste," chef Laurent Kalkotour of the just-opened Beasts & Bottles in Brooklyn says.

The beloved truffle chicken potpie at Kalkotour's first restaurant, Atrium, inspired him to open a rotisserie spot where quality birds are the centerpieces. Kalkotour uses the popular French Sasso, also seen on tables at Le Turtle and Blanca, for Beasts & Bottles' truffled chicken; one from Indiana's Crystal Valley farm for a provincial roast; and another from Goffle Road Poultry Farm in Wyckoff, New Jersey, for a hoisin and chile-infused dish.

"It's great to bring just a simple chicken to a different level and make the guests know a chicken can be very, very, very good," the French chef, who grew up frequenting his neighborhood rotisserie, says.

Rotisserie Georgette's owner Georgette Farkas, who also spent part of her childhood in France, knows all about it, seeing as she led the way for the dining world's rotisserie revival. Though her restaurant isn't just about chicken, "the birds are the heart and soul" of the place.

You'll find a variety of poultry there—like a Crescent Duck Farm duck and a Zimmerman farm chicken—but Farkas recommends the guinea hen as a good "starter bird" for getting into the heritage game.

"It has a pronounced flavor that makes it far more interesting than a chicken, yet without being in the least‎ bit gamy like a squab," she says.

Chef Stephanie Abrams describes it as "toothsome, with silky, delicate meat." These birds taste special, just like the Poulet Rouge Fermier from North Carolina's third-generation family-run Joyce Farms.

Peter Pollay, who serves Poulet Rouge at his North Carolina restaurant, Posana, describes this heritage breed as "what you want a chicken to taste like." Chef Bryan Stoffelen of Atlanta's new Bread & Butterfly, who tried 15 different chicken varieties before settling on the Poulet Rouge, calls it "a very exceptional bird."

As Ryan and Stuart Joyce of Joyce Farms explain, "The skin is extremely thin, so it crisps up really well in the oven." The bird's longer life span, as well as that of other heritage bids, gives the fat time "to marble into the meat, so the flavor is just unbelievable," they add. While industrially raised chickens live an average of 40 days, heritage birds might live up to 130 days. At Le Coq Rico, Westermann serves only birds more than 90 days old and makes it a point to explain this practice to his customers.

Of course, exceptional birds also lay exceptional eggs, a bonus not lost on Blackberry Farm, which uses heritage chicken, quail and duck eggs in everything from pasta to deviled eggs and cured egg yolks. The yolks are richer, with an almost orange color, and the whites more viscous because of the higher protein. "The dark-orange yolks make the best pasta," garden manager Jeff Ross says. Because heritage birds live longer, they also lay more eggs than the fast-growing breeds. It's the kind of chicken-or-the-egg dilemma you want to have.

As Kalkotour says, "Every chicken has a little story behind it." And if you find yourself at any of the restaurants making heritage birds hallmarks of their menus, you probably don't have to grill the waiter Portlandia-style to confirm that.