These days it seems no subject consumes more food-dedicated print space and pixels than fried chicken. It’s a current obsession. And I get it: The buttermilk-tender, snap-crisp drumsticks at Belle’s make my eyes roll back just thinking about them. But the rise of Americana has obscured a humbler tradition deeply rooted in our collective Australian memory – the charcoal-chicken shop.
That’s not to say it has disappeared. I wander down to Chicken on Lygon weekly for a perfectly good free-range Lilydale. Hellenic Republic has long served obscenely delicious rotisserie chicken smattered with lemon and oregano. Until recently the common charcoal-chicken shop has, mostly, gone unrecognised. This is despite the fact most other varieties of fast food have been given a high-end makeover.
Chef Nick Stanton remembers his hometown chook shop fondly. “I grew up in Tweed Heads, on the border of NSW and Queensland. Mum and Dad would pick us up from school and we’d go to the shopping centre and stop by the charcoal-chicken shop,” he says. “I’ve got memories of the smell of the charcoal chicken, the rotisserie going and the simple menu.”
He had this memory in mind when he and his partners decided to offer charcoal chicken at Leonard’s House of Love. “We grew up around that whole charcoal-chicken thing, where you go in with your family,” he says. “The flavour you can get out of charcoal chicken is unbelievable. I found it’s something that still exists, but it’s a little bit forgotten about.”
Forgoing the traditional brining step, Stanton rubs the bird with smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and salt, then leaves it overnight so the skin will dry a little. In the morning he lights the ironbark charcoal and combusts it until it’s glowing orange and fringed with pale-grey ash. Then he places the chicken on the lowest rung of the rotisserie and cooks it over high heat until the skin caramelises. Then it moves up the ladder, where it cooks more slowly until, after about two hours, the charcoal chicken’s ready. “One of the most important parts of charcoal chicken is the skin, getting the caramelisation and getting that flavour,” he says. “When it comes to the meat, it has to be plump and juicy.”
At the new Henrietta’s Chicken Shop and Bar in the CBD, Stuart Brookshaw prefers to cook over Mallee Root, sustainably sourced from the Grampians. The birds here injection brined, then rubbed in lemon myrtle and native pepper. And I can testify: they’re good.
Brookshaw hit upon the chicken shop idea while he was working at Albert St Food and Wine. “I was looking at everyone doing these cool burger joints, and the Americanisation of Melbourne, and didn’t quite get it,” he says.
Whenever his business partner, Daniel Morgan, visited from the UK they’d head to Tasty Rooster in Coburg. “You don’t get that in London,” Brookshaw says. “I’m very sentimental about it.”
To his mind the old-fashioned chicken shop is due not only for an Australian revival, but for overseas export. “I spent a lot of time in wine export, and working with the Meat & Livestock Association. It was always beef, beef, beef, beef,” he says. “But in Asia all they eat is chicken. All they want is quality, sustainable, Aussie produce.”
Brookshaw and his partners are planning for an international expansion, trading off Australia’s reputation for safe, high-quality and tasty produce. That reputation can cut both ways, however, particularly when a great majority of Australian chicken is intensively farmed, at least at present.
But with the current interest in chicken that emphasis on quality is likely to provide more ethical options. Brookshaw is currently working with both Bannockburn and Milawa. Both have accredited free-range chicken – they work with rare-breed farmers to source genuinely top-end birds. Stanton also emphasises the quality of his produce. “No one should ever cook bad-quality produce – it should never be used,” he says.
Whatever highfalutin' rationale you apply to your chicken shop its lasting appeal is pretty simple. Stanton explains it beautifully: “Charcoal chickens are something you’re stoked to be eating,” he says. “Your family can afford it, and you can bring an awesome meal to the table. It’s not reinventing the wheel.”
Where to go for quality roast chicken in Melbourne:
Leonard’s House of Love
3 Wilson Street, South Yarra
0428 066 778
Chicken on Lygon
61 Lygon Street, Brunswick
(03) 9078 5541