Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, thanks to an invite from Blue Moon Brewing. Virtually every celebrity chef you’ve ever heard of was there in some capacity, and when I wasn’t walking around shoving food in my face, one of the cooking seminars I managed to attend was “Chicken, The Obi-Wan Waxman Way,” with Top Chef Masters competitor Jonathan Waxman (current owner of Barbuto in New York, among others).
Some people want to learn the exotic, fancy stuff. I just want to be able to cook a chicken so good that the breast meat is worth eating on its own, where I don’t take it off the bone to use in ravioli or chicken salad or enchiladas. I’m pretty good at a lot of things in the kitchen, but even after 10-plus attempts and plenty of readings on the subject, a non-bland chicken breast has thus far eluded me. I’ve cooked them plenty of times and the dark meat is always delicious, but, for the most part, they come out inferior to just buying a whole roasted chicken from Whole Foods or Costco (which are usually cheaper than the raw ones too, weirdly).
So I was ready when Waxman took the kitchen-stage (underneath a big tent, in front of a hundred or so people seated in folding chairs), joined by Hunter Lewis from Food and Wine, to talk about his childhood on a chicken farm in Sebastopol, in Northern California’s Sonoma County.
“Chickens are disagreeable creatures,” he began. “Which is part of why I don’t mind eating them.” Here are the rest of my notes on the seminar.
Waxman’s First Rule: “Get a good chicken.”
Waxman doesn’t really elaborate on this point, except to say that labels like “vegetarian fed, cage-free, pasture-raised, antibiotic free, non-GMO” etc. won’t guarantee you’re getting a “good chicken.” You kind of just have to try a few out and taste them. How to tell whether the chicken is bad or if you’ve just cooked it poorly, he doesn’t say.
I imagine the trial and error method is easier when you’re cooking a few hundred a day than it is for a home chef. However, as someone from the seafood council once told me about grading fish, which seems to apply equally here: just use your eyes (and nose, though if the meat smells strongly it’s a bad sign). We’re hardwired for this. If the meat still looks vibrant and tasty, you’re probably on the right track.
Waxman’s Second Rule: “Wash the chicken in the hottest water you can.”
Waxman says he’s anti the chickens shrink-wrapped in plastic, but whatever kind of chicken you get, wash it “as hot as you can stand.” Bottom line, you don’t want the chicken to be cold when you start cooking.
Waxman’s Interlude: Spatchcock? Yes, spatchcock.
Waxman doesn’t deliver this one as a “rule,” per se, but he does spatchcock the chicken he’s working with. That involves flipping the chicken onto the breast side and using kitchen shears to cut along either side of the backbone (“get as close to the backbone as possible”), removing the backbone (save it for stock, freeze it if you need), then flipping it back over and pressing down firmly on the breast like you’re giving it CPR to break the breastbone.
Waxman mentions one of his butchers who can prep “400 orders in 20 minutes.” That does seem like a lot.