San Francisco restaurant gives heirloom fowl a taste-test
Chez Panisse likes the taste, but postpones adding them to the menu

By Christine Heinrichs, Publicity Director, Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities

Posted March 3, 2005: Four heirloom-breed chickens traveled from Illinois to California to help a restaurant explore the possibilities of including heirloom fowl on the menu.

Ed Hart, Bulletin editor for the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, shipped a Madagascar Game rooster and hen, a Dorking rooster and a LaFleche rooster to Chez Panisse restaurant last summer.

Chez Panisse, established in 1971 by Alice Waters, is one of the most influential restaurants in the country. Critics say that her emphasis on fresh, local ingredients helped change American fine dining by using only meat and produce grown by local organic farmers.

According to its web site description, “Alice and Chez Panisse have become convinced that the best-tasting food is organically grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound, by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. The quest for such ingredients has largely determined the restaurant's cuisine.”

In that quest, public relations director Sue Moore located SPPA and contacted Mr. Hart, who shipped the selection of chickens.

“Everyone was really thrilled when they arrived,” she said. “They were crowing. Everyone came in to look at them.”

After two weeks to settle down, they were processed at the restaurant for a taste test.

Chef Cal Peternell split each one in half, roasting one half and poaching the other. He added only salt and pepper.

“We wanted to see what the meat tasted like, with no competing flavors,” he said.

The restaurant staff who tasted the results found them very different from usual chicken. The French chef especially liked the Games.

“We certainly were impressed by how different they were from the chickens we are used to,” he said. “They had a gamier flavor.”

Because of the differences in size between the large Dorking and the small Games, he wasn’t satisfied with the cooking techniques. The legs needed longer and slower cooking than the breasts.

“It’s hard to cook four different chickens in two ways,” he said.

In the end, Peternell decided not to pursue heirloom breeds at this time because of the difficulties in obtaining a regular commercial supply.

“We haven’t closed the door on it, but we haven’t decided to go ahead with it,” he said. “It was an interesting adventure for us. The Dorking was quite good.”

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