With All Its Flaws, It's Perfect
Wednesday, March 18, 2009; Page F01
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.