Dining: Tastes like Chicken Should

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

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.”

D’Artagnan, 800.327.8246, www­.dartagnan.com
L’Espalier, 617.262.3023,

www­.lespalier.com
Squab Producers of

California, www­.squab.com
Whist,

310.260.7511, www­.viceroysantamonica.com

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