With All Its Flaws, It's Perfect

By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Thomas Keller knows exactly how to make the perfect roast chicken. But he chooses not to.

Experimentation with new techniques is a constant in the chef's work, but the approach does not apply to his favorite dish.

"To me, roast chicken is so loaded with reference points and memories," he said when I met him at Per Se, his New York City restaurant. "It is the flavor of every phase of my life, from childhood to now. It is comfort food, and I don't want it to change."

For the past few years, Keller has been working with sous-vide cooking, in which food is vacuum-packed and then heated in a water bath at precise temperatures. A piece of lamb can be cooked at exactly 133 degrees or, for very different results, at 129 or 139 degrees. This method has many advantages, as outlined in Keller's thorough, demanding cookbook "Under Pressure" (Artisan Books, 2008).

The logical approach would be to use sous vide when roasting chicken, too: to cook the bird for an hour and a half, until it had the perfect interior temperature, and then finish it off in the oven. "It would be perfectly juicy and tender," Keller says. "But that is not what I want. I don't care how evenly the breast is cooked, or whether the leg is a little dry at the end."

Unlike many of Keller's detailed, involved recipes, his roast-chicken technique is so simple that he can recite it in its entirety without stopping to draw breath: Clean the chicken, season it inside and out, rub it with butter, truss it and roast it at 425 degrees. It is as simple as that. Or is it?

Keller's reasons for not subjecting chicken to a more precise way of cooking are mainly personal. For him, as for so many others, roast chicken is a dish that, like Proust's madeleine, has personal and cultural importance more than objective culinary value. To some, hearing Keller admit that he prefers his chicken roasted the old-fashioned way might be equal to catching a sushi chef searing his fish on both sides. It can be viewed as heresy, or as a reminder that one of the world's leading chefs is a human being, too, and that he will sometimes let his guard down and allow food to just be food.

From my conversation with Keller and my own experiments, I think there might be something more. What if this way of cooking is not a deliberate lack of perfection but instead just another type of perfection?

Although his recipe is straightforward, Keller doesn't take the low road. It comes as no surprise that this chef, who serves foie gras with a choice of 10 types of salt, recommends paying attention to the sourcing of the chicken. Keller suggests establishing a personal relationship with the purveyor or farmer, something that in certain urban or suburban areas can be even more difficult than buying sous-vide equipment.

Then there's the cooking itself. Much of modern science-inspired cooking is geared toward a standardized way of measuring perfection, and a uniformly cooked piece is usually the aim. If the optimal internal temperature of a piece of meat is 168 degrees, then as much of the meat as possible should hold 168 degrees. That is the sous-vide approach. But, as Keller admits, sous vide has its limitations. "When you taste duck, beef, veal and lamb that have been prepared using sous vide, they are all good," he says. But they also all have the same texture, "and that is root for some concern."

A piece of beef or fish may be lovely when it is at its most tender and succulent, but that standard simply might not apply to chicken.

My experiments in cooking chicken at low temperatures have been interesting. But most people to whom I served a very juicy chicken found it, in the words of one friend, "very disturbing." Perhaps we just like our chicken to be a little overcooked, with the contrasts between dryish parts and succulence as part of the experience. It is what we are used to, but more important, it never gets boring because the mouth feel is different in every bite.

Roasting at a high temperature instigates certain browning processes that bring out flavors. It is difficult to get the same kind of browning effect with a super-juicy bird, in which much moisture is still evaporating through the pores in the skin.

The criticism of traditional roasting is that it almost inevitably leaves some or most of the meat overcooked. With a big, meat-rich bird such as turkey, it is essential to prevent overcooking, lest you are left with a large piece of dry meat. But with a smaller bird, such as the 2- to 3-pound chicken that Keller uses, that is not as important. Overcooking the meat somewhat can even have advantageous effects. The meat might be drier, but it also breaks down. Connective tissue becomes gelatin, which gives a juicy impression when we eat it, and where the meat formerly was pretty impenetrable there are now thousands of small openings, a spongy capillary system that sops up cooking juices and flavor in a way that less-cooked meat would not.

Eschewing one type of perfection -- the modern definition -- is not necessarily to give up on perfection, just to allow for another, more traditional one.

When Proust writes about how the taste, smell and experience of eating the small madeleines brought back memories of his childhood, he describes a feeling we have all had. But Proust, a sickly child from a wealthy family, surrounded by servants, was not exactly a man of action. Unlike Keller, he did not have the added benefit of being able to participate in the cooking, of experiencing how a flavor or smell might relate not only to being handed a piece of food by a servant, waiter or parent but also to his own actions.

Which brings me to the last and perhaps most significant factor Keller mentioned in our discussion about the simplicity and intricacies of roast chicken: the importance of the cooking process itself. Not just the recipe, not just the ingredients or the equipment, not just the skill of the cook, but something deeper.

The gradual development of the recipe and the deepening of our appreciation of a dish depend on repetition. Once you have made a dish your own, you can start to adjust it, find how it works in your kitchen with the ingredients you can get. Gradually, you can change a major element, such as time or temperature, and shift the result in one direction or the other, making a chicken brown more intensely or ensuring that it does not brown too much. You become aware of your role as a cook. You don't merely execute the dish by following steps one, two and three; you dance your way to a final result, more and more nimbly aware of where to put your foot, and when. It is not about awareness of the physical processes that take place on a molecular level but about understanding on a practical level.

"Good cooks do it all the time," Keller said. "That is the secret.

"I think the reason I became a good cook is because I love the repetition," he added. "If you make a dish once and then evaluate, then you might think that the recipe or the dish is not good, whereas the problem might be that it just takes some getting used to."

Now that makes perfect sense.

Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born" and co-host of the new public television series "Perfect Day," can be reached at http://www.andreasviestad.com or food@washpost.com. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.

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