Behind Door Number Stupid: Chefs Feed Chickens Gourmet Food

Unfortunately, plans to pre-season birds with aromatic feed isn't going to work.

(Photo: Adrien Green/Getty)

Sep 17, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The Amish farmer quoted in Jeff Gordinier’s story about high-end Manhattan restaurants feeding their designer chickens restaurant scraps to improve flavor has it right. “What? You’re driving two and a half hours to give me vegetable scraps? I have them right here,” he told The New York Times.

But the vegetables at Leon Zimmerman’s Pennsylvania farm are not Thomas Keller’s vegetables, and that will no longer do. So the folks behind the specialty food company D’Artagnan will soon be bringing four-star-scraps-fed chickens, which they call “Green Circle” chickens, to Keller’s Per Se, Gramercy Tavern, David Burke Townhouse and other destination restaurants in New York City.

The idea is to create “an echo chamber of flavor,” Gordinier writes. “The Per Se chickens will eat only Per Se peelings and bread; the diet of the Gramercy Tavern chickens will come only from Gramercy Tavern.” It’s Portlandia poultry for the white-table-cloth set.

Born of nostalgia for that mythical time when chicken tasted like chicken, D’Artagnan’s Arian Daguin wanted to re-create the environment the French farmhouse birds of her youth were raised in: wandering around, free to peck at grass and bugs and the scraps of vegetables and leftover baguette that were scattered outside the kitchen.

The culinary minds of Keller, Berk and Daniel Boloud apparently took things a step further, thinking of the customized diets as a way to pre-season birds, creating a unique poultry flavor profile for their rarefied kitchens.

‘Listen, if the chickens ate ginger and lemon, you would have a gingery, lemony chicken, I think,’ Mr. Burke said. ‘You are what you eat.’ (Alas, advance word has it that they avoid citrus.) Mr. Boulud wants to try garlic.

The birds raised on Zimmerman’s farm, an unidentified “heritage crossbred,” will surely be delicious—but not because of the food scraps. Simply waiting for 60 days to slaughter the chickens rather that the month or so that commercial fryers have to live will—along with what sounds like a cage-free environment—give them more pronounced flavor.

But feeding them cloves of garlic? It’s not going to result in garlic-scented meat. Julie K. Northcutt of the University of Georgia’s Department of Poultry Science writes, “Minor effects on meat flavor are related to bird strain, diet, environmental conditions (litter, ventilation, etc.), scalding temperatures, chilling, product packaging, and storage; however, these effects are too small for consumers to notice.”

And an analysis of alternative poultry feeds’ effects on flavor conducted by Canada’s Food Research Center doesn’t bode well for the garlic chicken that will soon be served at Boulud's flagship Daniel: “Garlic can be fed in broiler rations at the rate of 33 bulblets/kg of wheat and not cause differences in the flavor of broiler meat.” Even eating significantly more garlic wouldn’t result in a chicken breast that would deter a vampire, according to the report: “Their diet could contain up to 100 bulblets/kg of wheat without affecting flavor.”

But the Food Research Center proved there is an additive that these chefs could consider feeding the birds (alongside the corn-and-soy-based pellets on which their diet is based) that will impact flavor: herring meal.

Weirdly fishy chicken served at Manhattan’s best restaurants? Now that sounds like a New York Times trend story.