The bird is back: Why chicken is ruling the roost in Melbourne's top restaurants

Paul Chai
Charcoal chicken at Henrietta's Chicken Shop & Bar in Melbourne.
Charcoal chicken at Henrietta's Chicken Shop & Bar in Melbourne. Photo: Wayne Taylor

There was a time when Melbourne primarily liked its chicken flattened, breaded and smothered in tomato sauce and parmesan. And while the love of a good parma still runs deep, you might find the bird at your table these days is increasingly free-range, ethically farmed and a rare (or heritage) breed.

"There are two big chicken guys [Inghams and Steggles] and they dominate the market with one breed of chicken," says chef Paul Wilson, who is set to open an as-yet-unnamed rotisserie chicken joint in Prahran Market. "That breed is the Cobb, a lovely chicken but it's like the cane toad of chickens, it eats the same food and it grows quickly and mates quickly and essentially all chicken tastes like that in Australia."

Originally from the UK, Wilson points out that his former home has far greater diversity when it comes to chicken breeds – with up to 100 listed by the The Poultry Club of Great Britain – and around 50 to 60 in regular use in restaurants and by retailers up and down the British Isles.

Fellow European import, and fan of the rotisserie, French chef Philippe Mouchel is also part of the push for diversification in the Australian poultry market. Mouchel, who is about to open a rotisserie-centric restaurant in the old Brooks of Melbourne CBD site, says the time has come for Australia to embrace the idea of "terroir chicken", where each region is known for a different breed of bird.

"If you go to a rotisserie in Paris, or France, they will be able to give you five to 10 different types of chicken and when you eat them you can taste the difference, the different meat, the different flavours," say Mouchel.

Chicken it seems is the new beef, at least in terms of a respect for provenance, and it's not just the top end of town that is driving the trend. Russell Mickle, from Milawa Free Range Poultry, says he is finding strong demand from cafes, in particular, small passionate providers, as well as retailers.

"Younger chefs have been brought up with a strong belief in sustainability," he says.

It is a message that is slowly getting through. Chicken is one of our most popular proteins with 90 per cent of the population eating chicken meat at least once a week. But with supermarkets going to war over the humble cooked chook, dropping prices as low as $6, the price of an ethically raised animal will always be a stumbling block.

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"My challenge is asking the consumer to trade up," admits Wilson. "These [ethical] chickens cost $12 to $15 a kilo. You look at the supermarkets and they are at war over chickens, but if they are selling you a chicken for $6, it must cost $1, what type of chicken are they feeding people?"

The type of chicken that lives in a shed at a constant temperature of 22C in 50 per cent humidity, says Bruce Burton from Milking Yard Farm, which aims to raise the stakes in providing birds that live much as they would in nature. The Milking Yard runs Sommerlad chickens, a large, tasty bird similar to the much-lauded Bresse chicken from France. Burton started out with the standard Ross and Cobb varieties but found he lost 80 per cent of the flock that were simply unable to cope with real free-range conditions.

Enter the Sommerlad chicken, a heritage-style breed developed by Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad in Tenterfield, NSW. The breed has been designed to cope with free-range conditions, feed and to mimic the richer flavour of gamier chickens.

"The taste is quite dramatic," says Burton. "The thing about the Cobb and Ross birds is they are bred to be a lean dietary staple, it is healthy protein you can eat every day and goes with everything. But the taste of meat particularly is in the fat, so the more fat you get into the muscle, like in wagyu, the more flavour you get. They are a meaty, fatty bird."

Wilson agrees, and says the addition of the Sommerlad to the monoculture of poultry farming is a win for foodies. "Sommerlad is the best chicken I have tried in Australia," says Wilson. "It is an amazing flavour, almost like a turkey and the flesh is dense, and rich and thick and when you poach it gently the broth is just gelatinous and amazing. You reap what you sow with chicken."

At Henrietta's Chicken Shop, Stuart Brookshaw and Ruth Giffney have taken the simple concept of the Aussie roast chicken – charcoal barbecued with salads and chips – and added the twist of provenance a move they see as the future of such operations.

"I thought chicken has always had a bit of a bad name for quite a long time and that amazing fact that 90 per cent of all chickens eaten in Australia are two breeds, it's such a homogenised industry," says Brookshaw. "I think it is a real movement. It is a little perfect storm at the moment."

So much so that restaurants are being wait-listed for birds from the likes of Milking Yard Farm, Milawa and Shady Oak in the Yarra Valley, while big suppliers like Bannockburn cannot get enough birds to export. Chefs are snapping these tasty chickens up, cooking them simply and the winners are not just the chooks, but diners too.