Chicken Remains a Culinary Standby for Chefs


Chris Jones and Josh Goyert are counting on Canadians’ ongoing love affair with roast chicken to launch their new Ruby café in Victoria.

The menu at the small, casual spot, inside the Hotel Zed, is centred on chicken. And that chicken is literally revolving in the kitchen all day, brined, rubbed and roasted to perfection in a rotisserie oven. “My original concept was
a breakfast café, but the owner wanted something open in the evening,” says Jones of the all-day menu of chicken and eggs. “We wanted to enhance that retro feel, so the rotisserie chicken idea was born.”

And it seems to be working. From the outset, diners have been lining up at The Ruby for their roast-chicken fix. “We’re already doing 120 to 140 birds a week,” said Jones, 10 days after the restaurant’s opening in March. “We just have a small electric rotisserie — we will have to expand.”

They’re pumping out half- and quarter-chicken dinners ($18 and $12.50) with inventive sides such as ratatouille, carrot and raisin salad or Parmesan celery slaw. The juicy rotisserie chicken reappears in the chicken sandwich on a Portuguese bun with chimichurri sauce ($12), the warm chicken dip with house-made gravy ($13), the Power-hour Kale and Roast Chicken Salad ($14), and atop rotisserie chicken tacos on fresh locally made corn tortillas ($10). Nothing goes to waste — there’s even a rotisserie chicken and barley soup ($7).

The birds are brined for nine hours with sugar, salt and spices, then cooked in a rotisserie oven. The partners launched The Ruby with fresh local chicken, sourced from producers in the Fraser Valley and hope to add 100-per-cent free-range, 12-week birds to the menu. It’s a bold move in a market that’s been flat, even shrinking.

The good news is chicken is the most popular protein for Canadian consumers, with 866-million servings doled out annually in commercial foodservice. The Ottawa-based Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC) reports Canadians are eating more chicken overall — preliminary numbers for 2014 show an increase of 3.5 per cent to 31.2 kg per capita over 2013.

But, chicken is losing ground on restaurant tables, especially in the full-service category where other prime poultry, from duck to game birds such as quail, is picking up the slack. According to the NPD Group, overall consumption of chicken declined in foodservice in 2015, down by 23-million servings compared to the previous year. The decline is driven primarily by centre-of-the-plate chicken/poultry entrées, down 36-million servings from 2014, says Erick Bauer, national public relations manager – Canada, NPD. The bright spot in the sector is quick-service restaurants, he says, with chicken sandwich servings actually up by 13-million servings in 2015.

That’s the case at Vancouver-based A&W, where its antibiotic-free chicken (and similar hormone-free beef program) is winning new customers. Today’s consumers want to know where and how their food is produced, explains Susan Senecal, chief marketing officer at A&W, and the company is responding to consumer demand. Senecal says the chain’s in-house research shows 75 per cent of Canadians prefer to consume chicken produced without the use of antibiotics. “Over one-million more Canadians have chosen to enjoy the great taste of the A&W Chubby Chicken Burger” since the new poultry program launched in October 2014, Senecal adds.

A&W sources antibiotic-free chicken from between nine and 15 different farms across the country, and, while the meat costs 15-per-cent more than conventional chicken, the company didn’t increase the price on the menu. The antibiotic-free product is used in all its chicken dishes, from burgers to wraps.

Still, the CFC reports that many consumer concerns about chicken are unfounded. No growth hormones or steroids are used in chicken production in Canada, and all meat birds are “free-run” (usually confined in barns, not cages). Only certified-organic chickens must have access to outdoor pasture for at least six hours per day, weather permitting, according to regulations from the Vernon, B.C.-based Certified Organic Association of B.C.

And antibiotic use is heavily regulated, says the CFC in its extensive web-based Q&A section. In May, the producer group implemented a policy to eliminate the preventive use of Category I antibiotics, which is of critical importance to human health.

While the demand for quality poultry is growing — whether organic, local or simply premium air-chilled birds — the basic three-pound commercial fryer remains the chicken of choice. Only six per cent of Canadians report buying organic chicken “all of, or most of the time,” according to the Abbotsford, B.C.-based Chicken Marketing Board.

At Toronto’s St. Andrew Poultry, Jerry Jesin’s family has been selling chicken for more than 50 years. Jesin, who took over the business from his father in 2012, recently renovated the poultry-processing facility and retail shop, adding an extensive line of home-meal replacements and ready-to-cook chicken products to the St. Andrew line. “What we offer is service,” says Jesin, who notes that 80 per cent of the business is delivering fresh chicken to wholesale customers, including small grocers and more than 200 restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area. “When I was a child, we had chicken every day, but back then it was just chicken. Now there are so many labels on chicken, but mostly it’s just marketing.”

St. Andrew Poultry sells conventional, antibiotic-free and organic chicken from Ontario and Quebec farms. “We try to educate our customers, so they spend their money wisely,” Jesin says, adding all chicken is hormone-free, grain-fed and “free range is just nonsense.” He explains: “It just means the chicken must have the opportunity to go out — there may be something to it in summer, but not one chicken will choose to go outside in winter.”

The shop, in Toronto’s multicultural Kensington Market area, has various restaurant customers, and every cook has different requirements. “Chefs ask for different cuts and different sizes,” Jesin says. “Caterers want fryers for the six-ounce breast, while others ask for bigger roasters. The Indian and Thai chefs want chopped breast, and there’s a big market for thigh meat for shawarma. Barbecue restaurants are driving demand for fryers, and we sell a lot of scallopini for sandwiches,” he says.

With chef Bernadette Calpito, former executive chef of Kultura, heading up the shop’s new “Foodie Bar,” there are various take-out chicken options, too, including crispy fried chicken and fries ($5.99), chicken shawarma ($5.75), barbecue quarter-chicken dinners ($6.99), whole rotisserie birds, chicken pot pies and maple sriracha chicken wings, all served fresh. There’s even a “mini spit” of seasoned and prepared shawarma ($25) to take home and bake in the oven.

Chicken might not be as popular at white-tablecloth restaurants, but you’ll still find top chefs using chicken in creative ways. At Secret Location in Vancouver, the extremely local ingredient-driven executive chef Jefferson Alvarez buys a few chickens a month from a friend who raises them humanely — and he uses every part. On a recent 10-course tasting menu ($150), Alvarez offered a chip of translucent, crisped chicken skin — standing in a square bowl of white gravel — as an addictive morsel of chicken goodness.

At Vancouver’s newly re-opened La Brasserie, its beer-brined rotisserie chicken is served with red cabbage, garlic confit jus and frites ($23). Calgary’s River Café features local Bowden Farm chicken breast with celeriac, caramelized apple, pickled celery, porcini and spruce mostarda ($42). Meanwhile, at North 48 in Victoria, Sam Chalmers, chef and co-owner, serves savoury cheddar waffles topped with one, two or three pieces of crispy buttermilk fried-chicken breast ($18, $22, $26) on his popular dinner menu, a nod to the southern American soul food.

Fried chicken is also chef/co-owner Adrian Forte’s focus at The Dirty Bird, a small Toronto take-out devoted exclusively to “northern” fried chicken and waffle dishes, with butters and sauces flavoured with Canadian maple syrup.

The Stockyards Smokehouse & Larder is a busy Toronto barbecue resto specializing in southern cooking, too — from smoky pulled-pork sandwiches to ribs. But it’s the juicy fried-chicken dinners, with coleslaw and fries ($15), brined and marinated in buttermilk for 48 hours, then fried with a light, crunchy panko batter, that’s legendary here. Its crispy chicken is also offered atop Belgian waffles with sweet chili molasses glaze (two pieces, $13; four pieces, $16) for breakfast and dinner, and there’s a pit-smoked chicken from the wood-fired smoker (whole, $15; half, $19) on the take-out menu.

Chicken remains a staple for ethnic eateries, from Indian butter chicken and Jamaican jerk chicken to Peruvian Pollo a la Brasa (quarter chicken dinner, $12.90), the specialty at Calgary’s Inti Modern Peruvian. On the quick-service side, spicy South African-style grilled chicken is available at 29 Nando’s Chicken locations across Canada, marinated with Portuguese piri piri peppers (half, $10.35; whole, $17.75). Crispy, double-fried Korean-style chicken, tossed in a sweet-and-spicy glaze, is gaining popularity, too, at take-out spots such as Calgary’s Olive Chicken (five pieces, $12), Zabu Chicken in Vancouver (whole, $19.95) and Montreal’s DaWa (nine pieces, $14.99).

At independent casual spots across the nation, chefs are roasting whole birds on wood-fired and electric rotisseries, whether it’s the local rotisserie chicken sandwich with wild lingonberry and black pepper aioli ($12) or quarter chicken dinner ($21) at cosy Boxwood in Calgary or chef Yannick Bigourdan’s rotisserie chicken restaurant planned for the new food market in Toronto’s Union Station.

Everyone loves chicken — The Ruby is just the latest spot with something to cluck about.

Written By: Cinda Chavich

Volume 48, Number 5

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