Cost-effective chicken breasts strut onto menus and shed their staid image, helping push poultry's popularity to an all-time high.
This article first appeared in the 1 April 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 www.foodservice411.com.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Pumpkin crêpes sold reasonably well as a seasonal starter last fall at Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro in Albuquerque, N.M., but when Chef-partner Chris Pope swapped pumpkin for poultry, sales jumped threefold.
"We change our menu every six to eight weeks, and it's hard to create less-expensive appetizers. I wanted to do something different, and people always look for chicken," says Pope, who smokes the birds and combines pulled meat with three types of cheese, egg yolk, parsley and sage to tuck into crêpes topped with Gorgonzola and red-chile sauce.
U.S. chicken consumption has jumped 27% over the past decade to a projected 89.2 pounds per capita in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. For foodservice operators, its ability to drive down food costs and increase sales isn't the only reason the appeal grows.
Boneless chicken breasts in particular are an easy sell for chefs and guests. Diners are drawn to the healthful profile and visual appeal, while operators appreciate the cost, versatility, consistent portion size and uniform cooking. The tender cut can be purchased fresh, frozen, preportioned, marinated, cut in strips as well as fully cooked, making it an easy fit into almost any operational model.
Chefs learned long ago that there are lots of ways to capitalize on chicken breasts besides tossing them on the grill and serving whole. Whether strips in a salad, chunks in a soup or slices in a sandwich, tasty ideas abound as these top-selling ideas illustrate.
Grilled Chicken Salad
At Epic Bistro in Kalamazoo, Mich., the familiar salad of pears, port wine and blue cheese is made more substantive when Chef Matthew Finnerty adds chicken breast to a seasonally inspired small-plate offering. Breast pieces and quartered pears are grilled and served with lardons of bacon and a syrup of reduced port wine. Garlic crostini accompany the dish.
"We're not trying to force something on guests that they won't be comfortable with," Finnerty says. "Chicken is very approachable. It also does a good job driving food costs on that dish."
Chicken Lettuce Wraps
In keeping with the concept's Spanish-Asian theme, BirÁ³ accents iceberg-lettuce cups with sliced hearts of palm, roasted peppers and Spanish olives, finishing the dish with his signature SpanAsian Seasoning, a 15-ingredient blend that includes mild and hot paprika, celery salt, garlic powder and ground ancho chiles. For the bulk of the filling he turns to chicken breasts, sourcing free-range product when possible. They are put through a meat grinder and then pulsed briefly in a food processor.
"If you use whole breasts and slice them, you'd have to marinate them first. When chicken is shredded, it's so fine that you have more surface area to soak up flavors around it," he says, noting that ground, the chicken also cooks quickly and eats more easily than strips or slices.
For a Sautéed Chicken Napoleon appetizer at Jackson's Bistro, Bar and Sushi in Tampa, Fla., Executive Chef Louis Custidero selects chicken breasts over other cuts for their low fat content and favored status with customers. To save on cost, the restaurant purchases whole fresh birds and breaks them down in house.
"Not everybody likes red meat or even fish," Custidero says. "Chicken is definitely an option you need to have on the menu."
His recipe begins with boneless breast halves that are butterflied, seasoned and dredged in flour. The chicken is browned until three-quarters cooked and then layered with thin-sliced vegetables such as zucchini, summer squash and eggplant. Topped with sliced Gruyère cheese and finished in an 800F broiler, the Napoleons are accented with roasted-red-pepper cream sauce.
At the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton, Associate Director of Dining Services Kathy Butler says chicken products such as tenders and boneless breasts offer many advantages that keep them in demand across campus. Not only are the cuts amenable to the display-cooking stations students favor, they also create good plate coverage, making guests feel they're getting hearty meals.
Pork is a common choice for slow-cooked cassoulets, but chicken breast tenders are an easy, economical substitute at the university's Maple Street Café, a 275-seat, all-you-care-to-eat facility.
Thawed tenders (purchased frozen in 10-pound blocks) are cut into bite-sized pieces, browned and added with cooked sausage and water to a mixture of sautéed onions, green peppers, garlic, canned tomatoes and seasonings. The mixture is simmered with cooked navy beans and white wine.
Ultimate Pollo Bowl
For concepts centered on chicken such as Irvine, Calif.-based El Pollo Loco, boneless breasts are a premium product from the standpoints of price and consumer perception, says Jon Miller, director of research and development. The quality protein enhances the quick-service chain's Ultimate Pollo Bowl, layered with pinto beans, rice, Cheddar and Jack cheeses, guacamole, sour cream, cilantro, onion and pico de gallo and served with tortillas on the side.
Some quick-service chains buy pre-marinated, frozen chicken, but El Pollo Loco does enough volume to bring in fresh, premarinated breasts that are grilled in restaurants throughout the day. To further elevate quality, the company is shifting to in-house marination using the same signature formula of citrus juices, spices and garlic that its supplier uses to flavor the bone-in chicken.
"One of the disadvantages of premarinated product is that the marinade can leak out, which hurts yield and in turn hurts food costs," Miller says.
Wood-Smoked Chicken Salad
Often more widely accepted than meat or seafood, chicken can become the common denominator of consumer tastes for large parties and events. That's why Executive Chef Todd Annis' wood-smoked chicken salad in won ton coronets sells so well for Atlanta-based Bold American Catering, which provides foodservice from its own facility as well as a wide array of local venues.
"Chicken is very versatile, but the biggest challenge is making it as exciting as it can be and coming up with new approaches," says Annis, who orders both whole and portioned products fresh depending on the week's demand.
The chicken salad starts with boneless, skinless breasts seasoned with salt and pepper. Instead of introducing flavor with rubs or marinades, Annis smokes the meat lightly over hickory chips and finishes it in the oven. The cooked breasts are sliced lengthwise, finely diced and mixed with celery, onion, garlic and avocado in house-made herb vinaigrette.
To create the cone-shaped won tons, lightly oiled wrappers are cut into triangles, rolled around pastry tips and baked. Once filled, the snacks are served from customized trays.
Rosemary Chicken Calzone
Chicken breasts' lean nature often calls for extra measures to maintain moisture on the grill. Marinating is a common solution. At Purple Café and Wine Bar locations in Kirkland and Woodinville, Wash., Executive Chef Robb Kirby opts instead to brine the meat in salt, sugar and water for use in dishes such as Rosemary Chicken Calzones.
Kirby, who frequently includes chicken on his menu, says boneless breasts' easy handling, cleaning and portioning make the cut a go-to product at the American bistro-style restaurant. After 30 minutes in the brine, they are grilled, chopped, cooled and stored in covered containers.
The calzones are built to order from house-made pizza dough brushed with pizza sauce and layered with chicken, goat cheese, fresh rosemary and sliced kalamata olives. They are folded in half and sealed, brushed with egg wash and baked in a 600F pizza oven.
Designations such as all-natural and organic are increasingly common menu descriptors, used to convey quality as well as to give guests more information about their food choices. But do operators and diners really know what they mean?
All-natural: The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) broad definition says minimally processed products containing no artificial ingredients or added color may be labeled as natural.
Recently introduced Chicken Naturals (r.) from Atlanta-based Arby's are made with chicken breasts not altered or injected with added water, salt or phosphates.
All-natural chicken used at Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread Co. is raised without chemical food additives or refined ingredients, in low-stress environments on antibiotic-free, vegetarian diets.
At Denver-based Chipotle, all-natural chicken is raised in humane fashion (as determined by third-party standards from animal-protection groups) on antibiotic-free, vegetarian diets.
Free-range: Producers can give products this designation by providing documentation to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service proving the animals have lived more than 50% of their lives in open environments. Free-range chickens make up less than 1% of chickens produced in the United States each year.
Organic: Organic poultry comes from animals given no antibiotics (growth hormones are not used in the raising of chickens) and fed 100% organic feed containing no mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products. Genetically modified organisms and irradiation also are prohibited. All organically raised animals also must have access to the outdoors.
Amish chicken: A marketing term that often signifies free-range chicken or those that have been raised without chemicals. They can, however, be raised by Amish farmers or in a heavily Amish region and sold to a large producer.
Jidori: Often described as chicken's answer to Kobe beef, this designation is a Japanese term meaning "indigenous chicken" that commonly is used to describe premium, free-range chicken.
Safe and Sound
Concern about foodborne illness runs high in responsible kitchens, and safe handling, storage and cooking are a must whether chicken is purchased fresh or frozen, whole or portioned.
Store chicken products on bottom shelves in refrigerators, coolers and walk-ins.
Always use dedicated knives, cutting boards and other utensils when working with raw product.
If space allows, maintain a separate poultry station for breaking down and handling raw product.
Have cleaning agents within reach at every station to sanitize after each use.
Color code cutting boards to signal which to use with meat, poultry or seafood.
When using frozen product, remove it from the freezer in enough time to thaw safely in refrigerator.
Ensure that frozen chicken is sufficiently thawed before handling so cuts such as tenders will break apart easily and staff won't be cut by sharp edges.
Properly date and label all products stored in refrigerators and freezers.
When receiving chicken, inspect it for signs of quality degradation or temperature abuse, looking for off-color, odors and purge of liquids.
For extra protection, place a layer of plastic wrap over prep area and then lay down cutting boards.