Dining: Tastes like Chicken Should
The Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant Whist occasionally hosts a bit of dinner theater; call it a fowl play. It begins with the aroma of roasted chicken filling the dining room as a server carries from the kitchen a shallow copper pan containing a whole, golden-brown bird, including its feet, which were blue before the oven blackened them. The server presents the dish to the table, returns it to the kitchen, and reappears shortly with a platter of carved chicken and seasonal vegetables.
The promenade might seem like an absurd amount of fuss over a chicken—which is not listed on the menu, costs $80, serves two, and must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance—but executive chef Warren Schwartz believes that the blue foot merits the grand entrance. “Everybody likes chicken, but this is what chicken can really taste like,” he says. “The flavor is fantastic. Whenever I break one down [carve one], everybody in the kitchen comes to eat it.”
The blue foot is the North American equivalent of the French chicken poulet de Bresse. French law dictates that only chickens from the Bresse region can go by that name—just as only wines from Champagne can be called Champagne. Efforts to foster the chicken in America have failed because Bresse’s farmers will not cooperate, according to Ariane Daguin, the French-born founder of D’Artagnan, a Newark, N.J., purveyor of gourmet meats. She says the relevant officials told her, “They were not interested in having chickens raised outside of Bresse, and they would never make live breeders available to us, ever.” Her covert import attempts also failed. “I tried to bring some eggs over,” she says, “but I made an omelet in my suitcase.”
Peter Thiessen, a Canadian poultry breeder who lives 30 miles outside of Vancouver, B.C., produced the blue foot after years of crossbreeding. He will not disclose specifics but says that he worked with at least six different chickens, including a wild bird, to yield the results he sought. “I looked for flavor,” says Thiessen, who, ironically, is allergic to chicken and relied on French chefs working in Vancouver to evaluate his experiments, “and I looked for blue feet, like the French bird has.”
Thiessen eventually sold his breeder birds to Squab Producers of California, a co-op in Modesto. The transfer of the chickens occurred just weeks before an avian flu outbreak prompted the Canadian government to impose a poultry cull. Thiessen was forced to slaughter 25,000 of his birds. “We became the rescuers and the owners of the flock,” says Squab president Bob Shipley. The blue foot name is not Thiessen’s invention; he called the bird Poulet de Mt. Lehman. Nor is the name Squab’s. “We still officially call the bird California Poulet Bleu on our packaging,” says Shipley, theorizing that Daguin, Alain Ducasse, or another chef coined the blue foot moniker.
Shipley concedes that some diners might dislike the blue foot birds because they are slaughtered later in life (at about 85 days versus 45 days for mass-market chickens) and are allowed to roam freely and gain more muscle than other chickens. “I say it has more texture, but others say it’s tough,” he says. “It has a more intense chicken flavor.”
That intense flavor appeals to chef Frank McClelland of Boston’s L’Espalier, which will return blue foot to its menu in September. McClelland offers a roasted version with an extravagant accompaniment. “We roast 10 to 12 whole blue foots and press them strictly for the jus,” he says, explaining that the chickens, once pressed, cannot be reused in other dishes. McClelland and his staff first sampled blue foot two years ago and were immediately won over. “We were giggling,” he says of the tasting. “We get pumped up about great things, and we were very excited to move forward with it. We sat down and feasted. We devoured it.”