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Why Are Australian Chefs Bringing Back Charcoal Chicken?

We ask them how and why they're doing it, and why they're doing it now.
By Lewis Fischer
July 22, 2016
By Lewis Fischer
July 22, 2016

Chicken has become one of most talked about topics in the culinary world this year. But unlike other passing fads (Nutella, we're looking at you), the discussion has been in many ways warranted. Because there's been a lot happening with chicken in Australia. There was the free-range egg scandal that saw significant changes to the way free-range chicken products are classified in Australia, and a new interest about where the chicken we eat comes from. Meanwhile, pundits have called out chicken — particularly rotisserie and charcoal chicken — as one of the biggest emerging food trends of 2016.

Philippe Mouchel was perhaps the first chef to import and use a French rotisserie in Melbourne in the early '90s. Under the guidance of the three-hatted Paul Bocuse, famous for his contributions to the nouvelle cuisine movement, Mouchel moved from France to Japan and then Australia to open the Paul Bocuse restaurant. It was here that Normandy-born Mouchel first made his mark on the Melbourne fine dining scene.

Having now just launched his new restaurant, Philippe, Mouchel has brought his much-loved rotisserie back to Melbourne. And along with it, the rotisserie chicken that shot to stardom at PM24, his previous short-lived collaboration with George Calombaris.

So why has rotisserie chicken — traditionally relegated to suburban chicken shops (and always served with chips) — made a resurgence in Australia's fine dining scene? And why now? We have a chat to Sydney and Melbourne's top chook-cooking chefs to find out.



Having grown up in a relatively self-sufficient family, a Sunday roast of chicken, duck, rabbit or goose — whichever it was that made it first from their garden to the table — was a way of life for Mouchel. "When I moved to Lyon, working for Mr Bocuse, we had a fireplace, and we used to cook the chicken that way as well," says Mouchel. "It is something you cannot forget, I think. And this is what I like to cook."

"If you go to the market in France, everyone has their own rotisserie chickens," says Mouchel. "Everything about the process is natural, the potatoes and vegetables served with the chicken cook underneath it in its natural juices. "It is something that is very close to my heart and that I love. It is a fantastic way to eat I think because it really keeps in all the flavour."

But it's also unique, Mouchel explains. Each region within France has their own special chicken from that area. "It's very easy to sell chicken," says Mouchel. "You can say, this is a chicken from Normandy, or this is a chicken from Bresse. Different chickens, different breeds, different prices and different tastes as well."

For the ex-Momofuku chef who re-launched Sydney's The Paddington late last year, Ben Greeno, the French tradition took a similar hold over his imagination. "I spent a lot of time in France as a kid on holidays and stuff, and you'd always see those big rotisseries," says Greeno. It was these early memories of the French way of cooking and an opportunity to cook chicken a different way in Sydney that saw him install three gas-powered rotisseries in The Paddington's kitchen.


Ben Greeno's chicken at The Paddington, Sydney.


Rotisseries these days are much more widespread than when Mouchel first landed in Australia, but even today very few restaurants use them all the way through the cooking process. But for Greeno and his new team, this was part of the challenge. "We decided we'd do it from nothing, from the raw product all the way through."

This is why The Paddington, in Sydney's inner east, is one of many venues ruffling feathers. After undergoing a major renovation by hospo monolith Merivale, Greeno took over as executive chef and made chicken the star of the menu. It's his free-range Bannockburn birds that are drawing a crowd at The Paddington.

Henrietta's Chicken Shop in Melbourne have taken a more Australian approach to the chicken shop. But with a former sommelier in Stuart Brookshaw at the helm, there's more than enough restaurant experience at the table. His emphasis, like Mouchel and Greeno, is on local and sustainable ingredients. Which extends from his choice of either Bannockburn or Milawa chooks, all the way through to his use of mallee root coals and native lemon myrtle seasoning.

But that's where the similarities stop; Brookshaw uses an entirely different process to the French rotisserie method. Here the chickens are injection-brined overnight, rolled in a dry rub and spit roasted over smoke and fire. By contrast, in Mouchel's kitchen, mushrooms and herbs are stuffed underneath the skin, before the chicken is seasoned only with salt and pepper. "There's no secret," says Mouchel, "People think it's very complicated, it's really very easy. But you need a good quality chicken first."

Philippe Mouchel's truffle chicken at Philippe, Melbourne.

Philippe Mouchel's truffle chicken at Philippe, Melbourne.


The chicken industry in Australia has nowhere near the diversity of France or England, but, as Brookshaw explains, "If you look at where chicken is, it's exactly where [the] beef [industry] was about 13-14 years ago." Which is on the verge of something much bigger. About 95 percent of all chicken eaten in Australia is one of two breeds, says Brookshaw — and around 85 percent still comes from the major suppliers. But the trend is now that people are more aware and interested in where their food is coming from, which means more space in the market for small producers to exist.

There are currently only two specialty chicken producers in Australia licensed to breed the famous Bresse birds from France. Prized by top restaurants for their complexity of flavour, the Bresse is a slow growing and much taller chicken, with a larger thigh and leg region than the standard broiler bird. At around $50 a bird wholesale, they're not cheap. But as a more fastidious market continues to prove, there is demand for organic, hand-reared and specialty birds in Australia.

Chefs are embracing and taking advantage of the better quality produce available to them, and that's not just limited to chicken. "Like everything else, if you want to cook a nice meal then you need to use beautiful ingredients if you can afford them," says Mouchel. And while Australia may not have reached its peak yet, it's very much on it's way to becoming a more diverse and specialty supplier.

"Chicken is the last domain in a lot of ways," says Brookshaw. And it's true — we already know where products like beef come from, so presumably, it's just a matter of time until the chicken industry catches up. And Greeno would tend to agree. "Ten years ago, in England, if you wanted to get a really good chicken you were very limited." Like England, it looks like Australia will get there eventually.


Stuart Brookshaw's chicken at Henrietta's Chicken Shop, Melbourne.


"Everybody keeps saying, 'why do you think chicken is this new hot trend?' And I probably don't agree with that," says Greeno. "I mean, is it? There're some guys in Sydney that have opened a chicken shop; there are some guys in Melbourne that have opened a chicken shop. But I don't see everybody doing chicken. Dan Pepperell is doing a fantastic chicken down at Hubert, but it's just a chicken. I was doing roasted chickens at Momofuku, I was serving them with fucking witlof and black truffle, but I was still doing chicken."

Whether it is a trend or some seriously trumped up charges, some interesting things are happening with chicken right now. Perhaps it isn't the hottest new trend of 2016, but rather a slow growing Bresse that will come into maturity over the next five, ten or even 20 years.


Rotisserie chicken at Mercado, Sydney.


Get your chicken fix from any of the following good restaurants.

Chicken breast rôtissoire at Philippe
The dish that started it all.

The Belair Club at The Premises
Breakfast or lunch with a solid take on the classic chicken and stuffing sandwich.

Charcoal chicken at Henrietta's
New world charcoal chicken cooked with native ingredients. Don't forget the potato salad.

The GLT at Bar Liberty
The soon to be cult classic (a chicken skin sandwich) from ex-Attica staff.

Rotisserie chicken at The Paddington
French-style rotisserie chicken and late night chicken bacon sandwiches.

Chicken fricassee at Restaurant Hubert
The go-to dish at this bound-to-become Sydney institution.

Spit-roasted chicken at Mercado
A picture-perfect chicken available in half or whole.

Top image: The Paddington. 

Published on July 22, 2016 by Lewis Fischer
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