Duck Deconstructed

07 December 2006
Duck Deconstructed

Duck is never more menu-worthy than when presented in approachable preparations that focus on tasty component parts.

This article first appeared in the 1 October 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I,visit its website here >>

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Familiar recipes that highlight duck as a component rather than solo act make the bird more approachable and keep costs and prep times in check. Duck-laced dishes also can command higher prices and endow menus with upscale flair.

"If you use slow-roasted duck one night, the next day there are so many options for it," says Mitchell Rosenthal, owner and co-executive chef at Town Hall, a regional-American restaurant in San Francisco. "At lunch we do duck enchiladas that sell like crazy. This week we used Cajun-spiced duck meat to make duck-crawfish étouffée."

Kitchens not already preparing the birds in house can purchase whole ducks, legs or breasts in various formats: raw or cooked, seasoned or unseasoned. Drawing on duck cooked on premise or simply heated to serve, casual-dining chains, noncommercial foodservice facilities and independent restaurateurs can find a broad range of segment-appropriate ideas.

At Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena, Calif., Chef-owner Cindy Pawlcyn makes burgers of Asian-marinated ground duck, while at Brennan's of Houston, Executive Chef Randy Evans deep-fries breaded hot cherry peppers stuffed with shredded duck confit. Executive Chef Noah Bekofsky at The Fairmont Chicago hotel menus Hong Kong Barbecue Duck and Lobster "Chow Mein."

"A lot of diners find duck more appealing if it's not the main component," Bekofsky says. "When I had duck breast on the menu, it was maybe 5% of the sales mix, whereas duck-and-lobster chow mein is my best seller, probably 40% of the mix."

Gary Darling, chef and co-founder of New Orleans-based Zea Rotisserie and Grill, says duck stirs buzz among customers who don't expect to find an item with such high-end cachet at a casual-dining chain. The company worked with a vendor to develop its Duck Empanadas appetizer-phyllo dough filled with pulled duck, Jack cheese, onions and black beans-and bakes the product from frozen to save time and labor.

Testing the Waters

With consumers seeking leaner beef, chicken and pork, duck can be a tough sell for diners wary of fat. Some chefs, among them Aramark Corp.'s Director of Culinary Development for Business Services Scott Keats, say they boost interest by educating customers about skinless products and techniques such as slow roasting, which renders much of the fat away from the protein.

The Philadelphia-based contractor will test his theory this holiday season when business-and-industry accounts for the first time offer duck-based menu options using boneless, skinless breast (chefs can choose to prepare the breasts skin-on). Asian Duck Salad features sautéed breasts (marinated in soy sauce, oil, garlic, sugar, green onions, shallots and hot-pepper sauce) sliced over spinach with bean sprouts, tomatoes, toasted almonds and sesame seeds. Customers can add crispy duck cracklings on request.
"There is a mind-set that duck is an upscale protein," Keats says. "Combining it with Asian flavors allows us to get the product out there since consumers are more accepting of it in that context."

Chains, whose customers may be less likely to have tried duck, often couch recipes in Asian terms to ease in diners.

Tampa, Fla.-based fondue chain The Melting Pot includes orange-marinated duck breast among six proteins presented in its Pacific Rim entrée, and has run peppered duck with black currant-ginger sauce as a seasonal feature. Executive Chef Brian Tossell says that while the product costs 10% to 15% more than chicken, there's a place for it on the menu.

"Duck is a niche item. It broadens our selection so we can accommodate various taste levels. And it's a great way for people who haven't tried duck to sample it. Often we get people coming back and telling us that's how they got hooked on duck," he says.

The experiences of other multi-unit operations show that duck items must be carefully chosen so they fit the menu and the guest expectations. Warm Duck Spinach Salad recently lost its menu spot at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang's China Bistro due to lackluster sales, but Cantonese Roasted Duck-stuffed, cured, glazed and roasted in house-remains a popular entrée.

The chain's Director of Culinary Operations Roberto DeAngelis says customers are interested in duck, but believes the salad didn't work for two key reasons: diners' perception that kitchens used "leftover" duck from the entrée, and their preference for the product in the more-familiar roasted format with crispy skin.

Sitting Duck

For restaurants serving traditional duck entrées such as sliced breast or leg confit, less-formal presentations not only capitalize on ingredients on hand, they also can smooth the way for trial of the protein.

Chef-owner Sheri Davis gets the most out of whole ducks she buys for New American restaurant Dish in Atlanta. She uses the breasts for a main course, legs for duck tacos with tomatillo relish, bones in stock and fat for frying.

To make the hot-selling tacos, she slow-cooks legs in duck fat, sweet-chile-garlic sauce, soy sauce and kaffir lime. The meat is pulled, rolled in whole-grain corn tortillas with queso fresco and deep-fried.

"Some people see duck as frou-frou, high-end food, but tacos makes it more comfortable," Davis says. "Also, spending $5 versus $20 for an entrée means people can taste it without a big commitment."

In Boston, Chef Jody Adams' slow-roasted duck is a menu fixture at Rialto in The Charles Hotel, so repurposing the product for pressed sandwiches at the property's Noir bar made perfect sense.

Adams marinates the birds overnight in soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, mustard, onions, garlic and herbs. While some chefs begin roasting at high temperatures to crisp the skin, she maintains low heat throughout to ensure the outside doesn't cook so quickly that the fat doesn't have time render. For panini-style sandwiches, meat is sliced thin and layered with arugula, Gruyère cheese and house-made cranberry chutney. Roasted duck also headlines on seasonal flatbread with figs, Parmesan cheese, spinach and caramelized onions.

Jim Solomon, chef-owner of New England grill-and-barbecue spot The Fireplace in Brookline, Mass., loves the deep flavor and rich, meaty mouthfeel. In addition to pan-seared duck breast and baby arugula salad with duck, he uses leg confit to make crispy duck hash, a favorite at weekend brunches.

The legs are boned; packed in pans with thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, garlic, cumin, coriander and plenty of quartered oranges; and covered with duck fat that, in a cost-control move, is mixed with vegetable oil. To order, the pulled meat is sautéed in duck fat with onions, potatoes, sweet peppers and poblano chiles and topped with poached eggs.

"I go heavier on the orange than I was ever taught," Solomon says. "Adding orange or citrus juice to the duck in the latter stages of cooking gives that freshness and acidity that works to cut the richness, but using quartered oranges in the confit brings a nice, bright sweetness to the meat itself."

Jump Starters

First courses often represent menus' most flexible, inventive choices, making them an ideal playground for operators seeking to incorporate duck in approachable doses.

Duck Fingers with raspberry dipping sauce are a top-selling appetizer at The Mucky Duck, an English pub-restaurant in the resort town of Captiva Island, Fla. Owner Victor Mayeron purchases deep-fried, almond-breaded duck breast frozen from the same vendor that provides the roasted duck Á l'orange menued at dinner.

For duck spring rolls at ONE Little West 12th, a restaurant-lounge hybrid in New York City, Corporate Chef Kert Eggers favors leg over breast meat as a more-flavorful and cost-effective choice. The shredded meat easily absorbs flavor from the onion, carrot and Chinese five-spice powder in which it is roasted and the sweet soy-basil sauce added to the mixture before rolling.

"Duck spring rolls were a no-brainer for our style of shared foods, and they're fabulous," Eggers says. "Duck is so versatile. There are 800 different things you can do with chicken, and you can do the same with duck but take it in other directions with its deeper, gamier, more-meaty flavor."

Duck-leg confit stars in Duck & Waffle, Executive Chef Seis Kamimura's highbrow spin on Southern-style fried chicken and waffles at Boka Kitchen+Bar in Seattle. The novel, fun starter fits neatly into the bar menu for customers looking to graze over drinks.

To make the confit, legs are seasoned with salt, pepper, sugar and aromatics and marinated five hours. The salt mixture is rinsed off and the duck is seared, covered with duck fat and roasted for three hours. For the composed dish, the juicy, savory meat is piled atop mini pistachio waffles and drizzled with dried cherry-red wine reduction.

Discover the Cure

Once used simply to preserve proteins, methods such as smoking and curing now are treasured for the unique flavor profiles they impart to ingredients of all kinds. Pique diners' curiosity-and appetites-with distinctive offerings such as duck sausage, pastrami, prosciutto and bacon. Challenge yourself to make the products in house or take the simple route and source them from vendors.

  • Duck sausage makes a great casual dish for fall, says Mitchell Rosenthal, owner and co-executive chef at Town Hall in San Francisco, where he makes a version using ground duck, pork, pistachios, prunes and dried apricots. At The Fireplace in Brookline, Mass., Chef-owner Jim Solomon purchases duck sausage to grill whole as an Á la carte side for brunch. For events, he serves the grilled sausage sliced with a dab of Dijon-mustard-aioli blend.
  • The duck "bacon" Chef-owner Stephan Pyles buys to add a twist to the Lobster Salad Club at the Dallas restaurant that bears his name actually is thin-sliced breast that is smoked but not cured. The chef also uses the bacon in chowders and apple chutney that tops Creole Sweet-Potato Vichyssoise.
  • At Franklin Café in Boston, duck pastrami accompanied by griddled rye bread, grain mustard and a mix of red onion, cornichon, egg and capers makes a distinctive shared starter. Head Chef Brian Reyelt makes the pastrami in house in a cure of sugar, kosher salt, cumin, coriander seed, black peppercorns and granulated garlic.
  • Duck prosciutto-thin-sliced, cured, dried duck breast-dresses up dishes on high-end menus. Chef-owner Tom Colicchio's Craftbar in New York City layers it in a sandwich with Taleggio cheese and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms; the new Twilight Tapas selection at Norman's on Sunset in Los Angeles includes Housemade Duck Prosciutto with Mozzarella and Melted Tomatoes.
  • To learn more about the beauty of bacon, sausage, ham, pÁ¢tés and terrines, check out Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's "Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing" (W.W. Norton & Co., 2005).

Something to Quack About

Operators looking to dabble in duck find inspiration from menus' most-steadfast performers and their own creative muses.

  • Copeland's of New Orleans, a Metairie, La.-based upscale-casual chain, serves a creative concoction called Shrimp Ducky, strips of duck sautéed with shrimp in burgundy-mushroom sauce over rice or pasta.
  • At modern-American restaurant Zinc in New Haven, Conn., Chef Denise Appel menus Smoked Duck Nachos with fried won-ton skins and chipotle aioli.
  • Executive Chef Toby Adams prepares duck bruschetta using leg confit, roasted plum tomatoes and wild mushrooms, baby spinach, Asiago cheese, balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil atop toasted bread at The Parkway Restaurant in Bethany Beach, Del.
  • Chef Chris K. Walsh's global small-plates menu at Confidential Restaurant & Loft in San Diego features duck-confit sliders with honey-rum glaze, garlic fries and mu shu ketchup.
  • Duck and Pine Nut Dumplings packed with ground duck, pine nuts and fresh herbs are steamed, pan-crisped and served with blanched watercress and julienned carrots at Sequoia in Washington, D.C.
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