Chicken, the longtime stalwart of home cooks everywhere. You trudge to the store after a long day at work and buy your chicken in its plastic package, toting it home separately in a plastic bag of its own so its juices don’t salmonella your celery, and by 6 p.m. you’re ready to roast, barbecue, butcher or fry. Maybe you’re a food progressive, and it’s a locally-sourced chicken from a high-end butcher or CSA, both hormone-free and organic, trooped home in your recycled tote. Chicken isn’t exactly the stuff of your nightly salivary dreams, but hey, it’s dinner, at least, right?
Antoine Westermann just doesn’t see it that way. The Michelin-starred, Alsace-raised chef at Le Coq Rico, the recently-opened New York sister restaurant to the Paris original, doesn’t see the humble chicken as any less than royal. His chickens are high-end, heritage-pedigreed, local, and delicious beyond compare. These are chickens for the special occasion that is eating well every day, and this bird isn’t even the same animal, seemingly, as your friend Tyson in the plastic package from the local Associated (though Tyson has proclaimed that it will “strive” to make its chicken antibiotic-free by 2017).
The way we raise chickens in America is a dirty and cruel business. Cutting off beaks to prevent chickens from pecking one another and penning them into tiny spaces diminishes the culture of gastronomy and our own humanity. Westermann’s chickens are bred in open farmland for longer periods of time, usually 90 to 120 days (typical chickens get about 40 days). The chef is working with famed chef Ariane Daguin, owner of D’Artagnan, which purveys all the fine French foods you’d expect from such a name, including foie gras, pate and organic poultry.
French chefs, of course, have set the standard for reworking ducks, geese and their innards; taste well-made confit de canard or foie gras once and you’ll probably never look at a duck or its liver the same way. Westermann has taken that French culinary expertise and applied it to a variety of fowl, from the beloved duck to the maligned rooster, the euphemized squab to the unknown guinea.
Foremost on the menu is the Brune Landaise, a breed transplanted from southwest France to be raised in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster county by Mennonite farmers. Classic French dishes like coq au vin, poule au pot and an Alsatian casserole dish called baeckeoffe (traditionally made with mutton, beef and pork, but updated at Le Coq Rico with, of course, chicken) are staples on the menu. For brunch, the egg comes before the chicken, whether en meurette, de vierge, or truffled within an inch of its tiny life, with truffle soldiers.
Westermann sees birds as uniquely fascinating and individualized in their breeds. “Poultry is a universe in itself — the different birds, the different terroir,” Westermann says.
The rotisserie chicken doesn’t have a high-end reputation around the world, and you certainly wouldn’t expect any other chicken emporium to look like this. Pop into any Nando’s in London and you might grab a quick dinner or a rotisserie chicken to go from its rather grimly-decorated, diner-like interior. Le Coq Rico, on the other hand, asks you to linger in its sleeky-decorated space, and is a testament to the French belief in the proper aesthetic to match beautiful food.
As you enter, there is a slender bar that is merely a waiting stop or a tipple of wine before the main event, though the bartender is a professional somm, it seems; further in, everyone in the main dining room can view your approach — dress well, because Le Coq Rico is a scene where you are meant to be seen as beautiful as the food. For the real foodies, cross to the left and proceed to the land where the aroma is the strongest — there, allow the expert maitre d’ to seat you by the open kitchen, where birds roast on the rotisserie and you watch calm, precise chefs in their butter-melting, skillet-shaking expertise. It’s a thrill to be seated here, and you won’t lose an inch on service.
Paste spoke with Chef Westermann about his philosophy behind Le Coq Rico and his hopes for the new outpost of his French empire.
Paste: The concept and ingredient combinations are fascinating. It’s reminiscent of the Japanese dish of oyakodon — chicken mother and child egg. Both are foods that are common, beloved, and easy to cook terribly. Why did you pick these two ingredients for your bistros?
Antoine Westermann: Poultry is an universe in itself — the different birds, the different terroir. It is also the meat I prefer — you can eat everything on a bird; there is no waste. If I do remember well, in traditional yakitori places you also eat everything on the bird: heart, liver, neck. I like when there is no waste; it is respectful for the animal. I love eggs, and it is what small farming traditionally does, using everything of the poultry yard environment. It is the same idea as at Le Coq Rico.
Paste: The birds are the highlight here, obviously, and they are beautifully aged
and so tender, with unique flavors. If you could pick only one to eat at your last meal, which one would it be, and why?
AW: The Plymouth Rock, a very flavorful and juicy bird; he is very adaptable to any environment which has an influence on his taste and so I can taste differently. It’s a strong and very friendly bird.
Paste: Tell us about the original Le Coq Rico in Paris. What year did it open, and what was the impetus?
AW: It was born in 2012, but I had the idea of a bistro around poultry many years. It took time to find the right place; I always need to fall in love with the space and the neighborhood. It started in 2010 and it took more than a year to open.
Paste: What’s different at the New York Le Coq Rico?
AW: The terroir is Catskill, Lancaster Country, Hudson Valley. The birds are New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock, Cornish. There is only one French-American bird, originally from the southwest of France but bred in Lancaster County by small farmers.
The style of cuisine is mine, but I’m influenced by what surrounds me. Here my poultry burger has pineapple chutney and caramelized pineapple on on the brunch menu, there is a chicken and chips on the bar bites menu, the popcorn is cooked in homemade duck fat and nutmeg spice. Many new dishes will grow in my mind with time.
Paste: You traveled extensively across the Hudson Valley and Pennsylvania to
find the best poultry and understand American poultry farming. What was the most important thing you learned about American Northeast regional poultry farming?
AW: There are very open minded farmers, doing a wonderful job, involved in welfare, open to building a long-term relationship. They are not only raising poultry; they have also heritage pork or other animals like at Sara Bude’s Majestic Farm. Sometimes they add vegetables, and some like Jennifer Grossman are studying new options with me like providing me guinea fowl eggs.
Paste: Do you feel we have a responsibility to raise our animals humanely?
AW: We deeply need to become more respectful for animal raising in general. Chefs in the U.S. do wonderful work by working even more each year from farm to table. Slow food involvement is increasing. Companies like Heritage Food and Grow NYC provide wonderful farm products, and America does a wonderful job on that subject. I like as guidance the Animal Welfare chicken standards.
Paste: You thought of every element with this space, from art by Doug Fitch to sound design by Ben Grunler of the Opera of Monaco, to architecture by Pascal Desprez. Are elevated aesthetics absolutely essential to you?
AW: I’m focused on cuisine, the experience is in the plate, and for me it has to be simple and evident. I do not want to create surprises; it for me is just about emotions. For me, each Coq Rico is different in its terroir and birds, and has its own identity. That’s why my New York Le Coq Rico visually expressed itself with Doug Fitch. An appropriate musical atmosphere is essential, but not in the middle — it is like architecture, it is part of it.
For my first step in America, for the architecture I chose the architect who did all my restaurants in Paris, and who knows me and my cuisine very well. I would had loved a new experience with an American architect, but I had the feeling that Pascal Desprez could perfectly translate at this point who I am. We are very close friends — he was my witness at my marriage!
Paste: The open kitchen is fun and enlivening (and a little torturous) for diners, because you’re seeing and smelling the potent birds on the rotisserie and onions being cooked. How important was the open kitchen concept to you?
AW: It is very important to me. I like this open kitchen environment — it is as much important for the customers than for the staff to be in touch all together. The chefs understand better what the costumers want, and the service is closer to the kitchen environment. It is all about communication and transparency.
Paste: When you provide takeout, you provide recipes and suggestions on how to use leftover meat. This seems so contrarian to the French tradition of not boxing leftovers. What inspired this?
AW: I do this in Paris at Le Coq Rico since 2012 as I do not like to waste food. You are right that it is not a tradition in France, but since 2016, it became popular.
Paste: What does success at your restaurant look like for you?
AW: Success for me is to see customers enjoying their food, and making a new reservation before leaving the restaurant. I love seeing people happy at their table, finishing completely their plates.
Today for me it is also about transmission, meaning that I like sharing my experience with my executive chefs. It is about complicity, and when the magic happens, it is a present of life.
Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. She can finally butcher a chicken without making her kitchen look like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.