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R&IEditorial Archives2000 — December 1 — Food

Champion Chicken
Ethnic influences transform this appealing bird into an international emissary.

Call chicken “little” no more. While the ubiquitous bird may have been eclipsed lately by duck, quail and other, less common birds, chicken is remaking itself with global flair.

Chicken is in flight with the growing popularity of ethnic flavors. It is donning the flavors of the moment, from Latin American and Spanish to Vietnamese and Moroccan, cutting a global swath of possibilities. With so much spice and preparation potential, chicken can roost just as comfortably in quick service as it can in family or fine dining.

“Chicken is a universally known product and people love it,” says Max Monks, owner of Habanero, a 65-seat fast casual Latin American concept in Cincinnati. “If you offer it 15 different ways, people will try it 15 ways. Though they may not all be that familiar with the flavors or the preparation, chances are customers will try it because they know chicken. It’s understood and it’s safe.” Chefs also attribute chicken’s universal appeal to its low cost and perceived healthfulness. Chicken also is kitchen friendly, taking kindly to any preparation, whether roasting, frying, poaching or grilling. But it’s most compelling attribute is its neutrality.

“We can do basically anything we want with it,” says Ralph J. Coughenour, director of culinary services at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “Chicken will take on the flavors you cook it with.”


Coughenour, whose audience includes more than 7,000 students on the meal plan, knows that a product with such wide acceptance improves his chances of satisfying the masses. In fact, since the university launched its Marketplace dining concept last year, boneless chicken use has increased 55%.

Chicken has a home in just every part of Marketplace, from the flattop grill and international station to the areas that focus on home-cooked favorites and the rotisserie. Chutney and fruit salsas often accompany grilled chicken breast. Chicken from the rotisserie, for example, may be flavored with Moroccan spices (curry, cinnamon, cumin, coriander and tomato purée) or Asian (garlic, ginger, sake and soy).

Despite the robust flavors, the most popular form of chicken is deep-fried chicken strips with honey mustard and sweet-and-sour dipping sauces, Coughenour says. On a day that the bird is offered, the university’s kitchens will go through more than 1,000 pounds of chicken.


At Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, Chef-owner Sue Torres is giving traditional Mexican fare a progressive touch. Naturally, chicken lands on the menu. “People have it everyday at home so you think customers would find it boring and not order it in a restaurant,” she says. “But when you make it interesting with a lot of flavor, people want it. The key is to provide a lot of flavor.”

With a pantry of mouth-popping spices and herbs, giving chicken an interesting flavor profile is not difficult. Torres pairs chicken with grape-mulato sauce and serves it with yuca mash. The sauce consists of red grapes reduced with port wine accented with a dried mulato chile, which offers a prunelike chocolate flavor and medium heat.


Chicken proves to be an essential component when a restaurant, such as Sonoma in Covington, Ky., bills itself as California Mediterranean. Executive chef-owner Ezra A. Castle offers roasted Tunisian chicken rolled in Moroccan spices served with couscous and harissa. He also offers chicken on pizza with roasted poblano chiles. His Versailles pizza is topped with chicken, almonds, roasted pepper and Brie. One of the most popular items has been balsamic-roasted chicken, black and intensely flavorful from the vinegar’s glaze.

Monks, the former executive chef of Restaurants Unlimited’s Palomino Euro-Bistro restaurants, understands how well chicken can convey the flavors of a particular cuisine. At Habanero, the Calypso burrito with pineapple salsa, pinto beans and green tomatoes as well as the tangerine-ginger-marinated chicken served with sweet plantain rice and pinto beans represent Cuba. Apricot-glazed chicken with fire-roasted tomato chipotle salsa hints of Jamaica and the islands.

“You can change chicken just by going with the flavors of another country,” says Monks. It’s really amazing how many ways you can dress it up.”


Joseph Poon, owner and chef of his eponymous Asian fusion restaurant in Philadelphia, sees the virtue of chicken not just for low price but versatility of the parts. The breast can be used in his black butterfly chicken with mango, ginger and lime sauce and the dark meat for bourbon chicken. The carcass can be used to make chicken stock while the fat is flavorful in a roux.

While breast meat has dominated menus, many chefs are recognizing the virtue of the leg and thigh. Because these sections have more fat than the breast, the meat is amenable to braising and slow roasting. “Americans are becoming more accepting of dark meat because they are used to the other kinds of poultry that have more flavor, like duck. Dark meat is juicier, too,” Poon says.


While chicken is finding a wider repertoire, its appeal for the simple shouldn’t be underscored. Some of New York’s top restaurants—from Daniel to Gramercy Tavern—take pride in offering a perfectly roasted chicken paired with upscale ingredients like truffles and foie gras or paired with seasonal heirloom vegetables. Typically, the allure is in the chicken itself—often promoted on menus as organic from a particular farm.

At DC Coast in Washington, D.C., Executive Chef Jeff Tunks specializes in modern American fare influenced by coastal regions. While such a concept would connote seafood, chicken has a place on the menu. He gives it flair by offering a free-range chicken simply prepared with the flavors of Morocco. Free-range chicken breast is roasted and napped with a sauce of preserved lemon and green olives alongside couscous.

“Chicken is getting a new life with all the interest in ethnic flavors,” says Monks. “If you don’t know Sri Lankan food, that’s OK. It’s got chicken? You’ll try it.”

  • Moroccan Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemons

Chicken Appeal

Many chefs see chicken as a canvas, a blank slate with endless possibilities. It flourishes in just about every cuisine, from South American to Scandinavian. And the protein appreciates the convenience of quick service as much as it does the elegance of white tablecloth. Some examples:

Roasted chicken breast, goat cheese and black bean tamale, spinach and red pepper citrus sauce
Pasion, Philadelphia

Grilled organic chicken and wild rice with pecans, mango, and smoked shrimp sauce
Bomboa, Boston

Grilled marinated chicken thighs with sherry vinegar, and black pepper sauce
Stars Bar & Dining, Seattle

Crispy young organic chicken, New Mexico green chile sauce, savory black bean and mango salsa
Masa, Boston

Roasted curry chicken, basmati yogurt rice, arctic berry and apple broth
Aquavit, New York City

Grilled marinated chicken breast with wasabi mash, hot and sour mushroom sauce
Tsunami, East Hampton, N.Y.

Chicken dumplings (minced chicken, mushrooms, green onion) served with sesame ginger dipping sauce
Zao Noodle Bar, San Francisco


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