Not long ago, I had an epiphany that arrived with wings. It began with a meal at La Hacienda, a Mexican restaurant at the Fairmont Princess, in Scottsdale, Arizona, where my waiter was not forthcoming with a suggestion for chicken.
Chicken was certainly well represented on La Hacienda’s menu, which is a collaboration between the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Forest Hamrick, who grew up within a few miles of the Mexican border, and Mexico City native Richard Sandoval, whose interpretation of modern Mexican fare (now expanded to a more encompassing Latin fare) has carried his group of more than 25 restaurants as far afield as Qatar and Dubai.
There were chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves. And chicken enchiladas divorciadas, so named because of the necessary division between the green and red sauces. And a pan roasted chicken breast version of mole poblano, a Mexican standard he hesitates to call purely traditional only because he doesn’t know how widespread is the practice, employed by Sandoval’s grandmother, from whom he got his recipe, of thickening the mole sauce with crushed animal crackers.
But after the waiter praised my wife and mother-in-law for ordering the lobster tacos and crab enchiladas, the waiter seemed to struggle, even if ever so slightly, with appending “excellent choice,” to my selection, the mole poblano.
It has always been that way, in Istanbul, in Sydney, in a Greek restaurant in New York City. No matter what the culture, I can’t recall a waiter ever recommending chicken from a menu whose aim was to present some version of that culture’s haute cuisine.
“That’s because nobody ever goes to a restaurant to order chicken,” Hamrick told me when they talked after the meal. “It’s on the menu for when the less adventurous people look at everything else and say, ‘I’ll just have the chicken.”
Sandoval, who I met several weeks later at another of his restaurants, Pampano, in New York, agreed. “People always perceive chicken as the inexpensive, safe choice,” he said.
Yet even if chicken is for the less adventurous eater, which I might take issue with, considering myself as risk-taking at table as anyone, having not so long ago made my way, without grimace, through a handful of squirming white grubs I’d uncovered with a whack of my machete in a South American rainforest, La Hacienda’s mole poblano was as good as any I’d had. The accompanying plantains and cilantro rice were a modernizing touch, and the dish’s best-known ingredient, chocolate, was there in just enough measure to have a sweetening effect on the many other, spicy, flavors, but not so evident that you could use it as selling point for a finicky five year old or someone with the culinary inhibitions of one.
And that’s when my epiphany, my moment of insight, came to me.
While featured dishes may tempt a chef to act as if he (or she) is angling for his own television show, chicken allows you to discover how they cook when they are being themselves. You learn something about what’s in their soul, and in the soul of the culture their cuisine represents.
From Hamrick, for instance, you might discover that his soul, when it comes to poultry, is somewhere other than where you might expect it to be. As befits a close to the earth, close to the bone culture that has traditionally found it necessary to use every part of everything that might conceivably go into the oven or pot (cow tongue might come immediately to mind), his favorite part of the chicken is the tail.
“People, including my wife, who is Mexican, think I’m crazy, but after you roast chickens the tails are still left on them, and they’ve got that little bit of cartilage, and fat, that you can deep fry like you would pork, and make tacos out of them. And they are awesome.”
I promised he would try some on his next visit.
And from Sandoval? You might learn that the perceived shortcomings of chicken are what he thinks make it work so well with Mexican dishes.
“Usually the protein is the star,” he says. “But with Mexican cuisine you are adding so many spices, herbs, flavors, depth, you want a protein that’s not going to steal the spotlight, but be a good supporting actor.”
It is why, he says, that mole poblano, with its thick, reddish-brown sauce of chiles and other spicy ingredients, traditionally served over chicken or turkey, is most often considered Mexico’s national dish.
“It is a dish,” he says, “in which the mole is the star, and the protein is more of a bit player.”
As for my epiphany, it gave me a plan. I have decided to pursue that often maligned bird through the cuisines of all counties and countries. My goal will be to look at regions, restaurants, and chefs based on how well, or interestingly, or unusually, they prepare chicken. It is a quest on which I vow never again to feel that I must apologize for placing my order, never again be concerned with the disdain of a waiter when I proclaim, “I’ll just have the chicken.”
It is a plan, Bob thinks, that will really fly.