Chefs now accept that poultry is a staple on their menus- the challenge lies in finding inventive new ways to keep the orders coming into the kitchen.
At least 50 percent of the orders that now leave Chef Bun Lim’s kitchen at the private Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Ind., involve chicken in some form: sandwiches, entrees, appetizers, salads, pastas. Diners are ordering it grilled, fried, Asian-style and Mediterranean.
SUMMING IT UP
• Poultry has become one of the most popular and profitable items on a chef’s menu.
Until Lim introduced a chicken-oriented “Wok Wednesday” special, in fact, the club typically served 20 to 30 dinners in total on that midweek night. But now, he serves between 80 and 100 stir-fry chicken specialties, ranging from Chinese to Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese.
“We have beef, we have shrimp, but chicken goes over best,” says Donald Hunter, Sycamore Hills’ General Manager. “It’s a strong leader for us right now.”
The “why” isn’t hard to grasp. Chicken is a simple protein with a neutral flavor, so a majority of Americans are comfortable with it, points out Bart Messing, Executive Chef at Woodfield Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla.
“Especially in a country club, where members consider this an extension of their homes,” Messing adds. “There are some members who eat at least half their meals here, as this is a safe choice for families.”
The health benefits of chicken also help to explain why club culinarians across the country, including Bruce Allen, Executive Chef at The Golf Club at South River in Edgewater, Md., are seeing the same kind of results. “In this economic climate, innovation is really stepping away from crazy, cutting-edge architectural foods and taking a new look at ways to make the familiar exciting,” Allen notes.
Behind the scenes, chefs are savoring the cost benefits, because chicken is the most inexpensive protein on the market today. “Any time you can find a high-selling entrée at a low cost, that’s what successful restaurants strive for,” Allen says. “Paying $15 or $20 a pound in cost for your signature item—be it a steak, a lobster tail or some other high-cost protein—isn’t very smart business.”
Jazzing Up the Ordinary
Diners who order off Gilbert Rivera’s menu at the City Club of Fort Worth in Texas may say they prefer a grilled chicken breast with herb butter, but this chef knows not to take them at their word. He starts the meat in the oven, then finishes it off on the grill to keep it juicy and appealing. Clearly, this dish is on the no-fuss side of the scale.
Allen likes to add a grilled peach and Vidalia onion salsa to his organic airline chicken breasts. Messing’s menu includes hot chicken salads, traditional pot pies—served as either an appetizer, or with another chicken entrée for a duo—and chicken Marseille lasagna. “Again, those are miniature items that take a basic flavor and pack it differently. It’s very well-received,” he says. About the only course he hasn’t found a way to incorporate chicken into—yet—are his desserts.
Chef Bun Lim’s On a Roll
Chef Bun Lim’s On a Roll
Bun Lim has yet to find a drawback to chicken as an ingredient, with its versatile flavor lending itself to anything, starting with appetizers. The Sycamore Hills menu is now filled with fare like Thai chicken spring rolls, or the shrimp and chicken dumpling with mango dipping sauce, or the spicy chicken sandwich with slice mango and peach aioli on foccacia bread.
Lim even features chicken in what he calls a “banana split salad”: mesclun, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, pineapple and peanuts tossed in a peanut vinaigrette and pineapple vinaigrette, topped with an herb-marinated grilled chicken breast. He also dishes up a Greek chicken panini, chicken capellini, and even a pistachio-crusted chicken breast stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella cheeses.
Dressing Up Finger Foods
At the City Club of Fort Worth, Rivera’s biggest challenge lies in finding ways to work with chicken as a finger food, outside of the traditional tenders or patties for the kids menu. He’s tempted the younger crowd with chicken sloppy Joes and turkey tacos, but the attempts have fallen short of nuggets’ appeal with this audience.
Meanwhile, Woodfield’s Messing offers grilled chicken strips with a side of teriyaki sauce, as an alternative for the more adventurous grade-school diners. But he, too, doesn’t fight the inevitable when it comes to a child’s love for nuggets and french fries. “It’s part of this generation; my own kids like these dishes,” he says.
So instead, he concentrates on finding grown-up ways to use chicken in finger foods for the parents, starting with hors d’oeuvres such as chicken BLTs and sesame chicken satays. In 2009, he added miniature spicy chicken lettuce wraps to the mix, a perfect compliment for his coconut-breaded fried chicken nuggets dipped in orange horseradish sauce.
Lim makes traditional nuggets more attractive to adults by creating an unusual item he likens to jelly rolls. He rolls the chicken around a stuffing, wraps it in foil to keep the shape, then puts it in the oven for about 15 minutes. He serves the slices on a skewer. The entire layered presentation adds a sophisticated aura, while substituting baking for frying increases the health appeal.
|“In this economic climate, innovation is stepping away from crazy, cutting-edge architectural foods and taking a new look at ways to make the familiar exciting,” says Bruce Allen, Executive Chef, The Golf Club at South River.|
The Other White Meats
Chicken and turkey are interchangeable in Messing’s kitchen—he recently grabbed a recipe from the local newspaper and switched out the turkey breast for chicken, and no one was the wiser. On the other hand, poultry options like duck and quail tend to hold more of a regional sway. For instance, while duck is very popular at Woodfield CC, it only sells at Sycamore Hills when Lim includes it for a planned party or a gourmet theme in the restaurant.
“We are close to duck farms here, so we can get a fresh, quality product that isn’t as gamey as wild duck,” Hunter reports. “But chicken sells much better on our regular menu.” Lim often pulls off his “jelly roll” trick with duck, too, combining it with prosciutto ham, as well as a more traditional presentation with a shiitake mushroom, garlic and Marsala wine covering. Meanwhile, Allen garners rave reviews for his duck confit with chocolate cabernet sauce.
Quail occasionally appears on Messing’s menu, but sales lag other entrée choices. “Once you get out of the zone for traditional comfort foods in a country club setting, we don’t tend to sell a whole lot of it,” he notes. The good news: They won’t sabotage chicken sales when the poultries appear side by side. Instead, Messing has noticed duck in particular impacting his beef sales, since it, too, is served with red wine.
“I don’t even think of it as poultry,” he says. “Chicken holds a big advantage, and finding creative new presentations is smart business for both sides.”