While it seems fried chicken has never been more popular in Sydney, a number of venues are opting to revive the after-school, or Sunday-lunch, tradition of roast chook. They specialise in the kind your local used to sell, that left a salty smear of rotisserie grease on your chin, and herby stuffing all over your uniform. Sure, the trimmings have been updated (no sign of translucent 50c bags overflowing with gravy-soaked hot chips just yet), but the nostalgic comfort-food appeal remains.
“For me, it’s comforting because of the memories it evokes,” says Ben Greeno, executive chef at Merivale’s re-opened The Paddington.
“It always reminds me of my childhood, holidays in France, beaches and trips to the markets.”
Greeno, whose CV includes Copenhagen’s Noma, turned heads when he made the leap from fine dining to casual eatery, swapping Momofuku Seibo for the rotisserie at Justin Hemmes’s latest eastern-suburbs digs. This isn’t your average fast-food-joint rotisserie; custom-made in France, it cooks choice cuts from local butchers Vic’s Meats and Haverick.
Merivale has solid credentials for pleasing the masses, but this time around, it wasn’t about bucking the buttermilk-basted, triple-fried trend. Rather, it was about a return to the classics.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s on trend; everyone has always loved a good roast chicken,” Greeno says.
While the British chef cites a €100 roast chicken at Le coq in Paris as one of his fondest chook experiences, The Paddington’s version – plated with seasonal sides and fries – will only set you back $24 for half, or $39 for the whole bird. Next door, a tiny four-metre-squared space dedicated to takeaway chicken is in the works. It will feature smaller versions of the pub’s rotisseries, and a punchy menu that revolves around chicken.
Greeno isn’t the only Michelin chef with a penchant for the humble roast chook; it’s one of few dishes that strikes a nerve with chefs around the world, bringing the most haute of cooks back to basics.
Catalan food royalty Ferran Adrià’s version is covered in lemon rind, salt and oil before being stuffed with cloves of garlic and zested lemon. Heston Blumenthal makes his extra tender by soaking it in lemon-salt brine the previous day before covering it in butter, and baking for up to five hours.
At Sydney’s Pei Modern, Mark Best and Joachim Borenius are putting their own spin on this classic.
“After years of fine dining being the in thing, family-style dining and cuisine is back,” says Borenius, Pei Modern’s head chef. “It’s all about simplicity, comfort and connection that comes with communal dining.
“People feel more at ease when they can relax around a table with loved ones and enjoy good food.”
They source their naturally raised and pastured birds from family-run Hillside Pastured Farm on the NSW mid-north coast. The chickens are then wood-roasted over fire for extra crispy skin, and that real roast flavour. The inspiration came from a trip Borenius and Best made together in 2014 to Bourgogne, a wine-making hotspot in central France. It’s a fitting setting for such stimulus, given that it’s the French who claim arguably some of the best poulet in the world: the famous Bresse. Just the thought of those little birds, brined and basted in French butter (or duck-goose fat depending on where you are), wine and a handful of herbs is enough to make you book a flight.
“We went to the local farmers’ markets and purchased the most amazing produce, including fresh chicken, then went back to the estate and cooked it up in the wood-fire oven. I’ll always remember that trip and that meal.”
Here are some places to get your traditional roast chicken fix:
Four Seasons Hotel Sydney, 199 George Street, Sydney
(02) 9250 3160
Clem’s Chicken Shop
210 King Street, Newtown