Top Bird: Examining Poultry’s Enduring Popularity

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Given the tradition of eating poultry — dating back to an obscure Asian pheasant with a taste for domesticity called the Red Jungle Fowl — is 4,000 years old, it’s extraordinary that poultry dishes are still top bird on so many foodservice menus. If a restaurant serves meat, it serves poultry — full stop. More extraordinary still is the amount of innovation that continues to flap its wings around this longtime menu staple.

When Toronto-based culinary consultant Mark Wilson reviewed the menu he’s developing for a client, he was surprised by the poultry content. On the shareables and appetizer section, a full 25 per cent of the menu items include chicken; on the entrée section, it’s even more.

Such is a standard scene for Canadian foodservice today, where the category — its longevity notwithstanding — is on a growth curve. More than a billion servings travel through Canadian commercial-foodservice channels annually, according to Robert Carter, executive director, Foodservice Canada with Toronto-based NPD Group.

Chicago-based Technomic, meanwhile, reports a decrease in poultry-dish menu incidence across all meal parts (down 7.4 per cent in entrées, 8.6 per cent in appetizers and 3.8 per cent in sides). Still, there’s no denying the constancy of poultry on a restaurant’s menu — a function of a few things, says Geoff Wilson, principal with foodservice business-strategy consultants fsStrategy Inc. in Toronto.

For one, poultry is perceived as healthy. “I won’t say it’s a fact, but that’s the perception among consumers,” Wilson says.” It’s a perception from which the chicken dishes on Jeff Walsh’s menu have benefited. At the Red Lantern in Toronto, where he is head chef, guests regularly eschew French fries and red meat and order grilled chicken atop their salads with dried berries, nuts, avocado and fresh fruit in a bid for a good-for-you meal. For another, poultry is easy to prepare. “It’s more forgiving than red meat,” says Wilson. “If the customer wants her steak medium rare, it better be medium rare or she’ll send it back. With chicken, you’ve got a lot more flexibility. Someone without a lot of skill can still produce a decent chicken product.”

Poultry’s reputation, says Carter, can be traced to the innovation going through the quick-service segment, where chicken ties in nicely with the value-menu offerings. “It’s a product [to which] you can easily add strong flavour.” Corporate chefs at chains such as Wendy’s and McDonald’s have taken the lead on this front with previously unimagined chicken-sandwich variations.

For example, Wendy’s has a full half dozen chicken-sandwich options, including the Homestyle Asiago Ranch Chicken Club. KFC has the Double Down, the Twister and the Hot & Spicy Zinger. And, McDonald’s has richly augmented its 38-year-old McChicken with 15 additional chicken sandwiches and wraps.

There’s no question, too, that poultry manufacturers have done their bit to innovate — and with ways to use a bird’s entire carcass. “Chicken wings, today, might be yesterday’s news, but you couldn’t sell anyone a chicken wing 20 years ago,” says Carter.

That innovation is partly imperative, says Wilson, as manufacturers struggle to compete with American suppliers who don’t pay as much for the product courtesy of supply management. “It costs more in Canada, so we need to be more creative in terms of portion size, cuts and so on to make sure we provide good value. American restaurants don’t tend to have the same challenge.”

Still, says Wilson, poultry remains more affordable than many other proteins, including red meat, lamb and seafood. “That’s a big thing for operators looking at food costs, especially because of increased labour costs.”

PLAYING CHICKEN
There’s no question that, in the poultry kingdom, chicken reigns supreme. Whenever fsStrategy has tracked the frequency of chicken’s occurrence on menus for full-service chains — and its last comparison was a year ago — it’s been number-1.

That, says Walsh, is because chicken is also amazingly versatile, offering itself as a protein to be exploited in marriages with a range of flavours. “Chicken is a blank palette.” His works of art are among the favourite orders at his restaurant. The chicken pot pie ($16.95) features slow-roasted chicken with lemon in the cavity and rubbed with garlic, salt and pepper that’s been pulled apart, mixed with vegetables and a white-wine brandy-cream sauce and put into a pastry. The chicken pita ($13.95), which comes with tzatziki, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and onion, is another best-seller.

Rob Gentile, chef director for King Street Food Company in Toronto, says the key to chicken success is to source birds with intention. “You need to know where your food’s coming from.” He obtains all of his poultry from a variety of small producers. “You want a bird to grow naturally and on its own terms. That’s the trick to flavourful chicken.” At Gentile’s Bar Buca, Pollo Pazzo ($14) is a favourite. Here, chicken legs are brined overnight and then soaked in milk before having the double-flour treatment. They’re deep-fried and slapped between a bun along with Bomba sauce (habanero and Anaheim chili with a sauté of onion, mushroom, eggplant and sweet red peppers) and Meyer-lemon zabaglione. At his new venture, Swing Golf Lounge, Wilson’s doing his bit for the flavour trend on his still-in-development menu with a Southwest-Spiced Chicken Quesadilla that’s all about unique spices. The simply prepared chicken will be dressed up with pico de gallo. Flavour-bathed chicken will also figure prominently in the restaurant’s curry of the day. Poultry trends right now are pushing flavour, he says. “People want lighter items on the menu. So lighter preparation, but more flavour.”

Technomic’s Menu Monitor, powered by Ignite, names Applewood (up 11.5 per cent over the past year), mint (up 6.7 per cent) and maple (up 5.8 per cent) as the fastest-growing poultry flavours.

DUCK, DUCK, GOOSE
“Duck and turkey are getting time in the limelight now,” says Carter. While this “alternative poultry” amounts to a “much, much smaller category, we’re hearing a lot more conversations around it.”

At Buca, quail, squab, ducks and geese have long shared digs with the ubiquitous chicken. Geese are a particular favourite in Italian cuisine, and Gentile buys eight or 10 of the birds a week from an exclusive supplier — Clover Roads Organic Farm, in Hagersville, Ont. — every fall. He cures the Emden-goose breast and offers Petto D’oca (with cinnamon, clove and orange) as a choice on the Salumi di Buca sampler ($6). He also braises the legs, uses the meat for ravioli filling and incorporates the goose in occasional main-course dishes throughout the winter. Sometimes, he cooks the skin down, renders the fat, grinds it all up with leg meat and stuffs it in a goose leg in a unique take on zampone — a goose cottechino.

Chefs’ recent interest in duck meat doesn’t surprise Patti Thompson, VP of Sales and Marketing at King Cole Ducks, a farm-to-fork duck producer in Stouffville, Ont. While duck has long been a staple of high-end restaurants, particularly Asian establishments, the biggest interest of late, she says, has been in making it into fun food that surprises on breakfast tables and food trucks. The company pitches its new one-ounce duck skewers — Duck Spiedini — to enticingly demonstrate a product with which people aren’t so familiar. Elsewhere, chefs are adding duck to traditional dishes such as eggs benedict and Caesar salad.

“I’ve always been excited about poultry,” says Gentile, echoing a popular sentiment among Canadian restaurateurs. “I love eating birds. They’re one of the most delicious things I can imagine.”

Written by Laura Pratt

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