If you’ve been around here a while, you might remember a couple of posts about the pastured-poultry movement. Pastured poultry is new old-style: beyond cage-free, beyond free-range, it puts chickens out on grass for most of their lives, producing a bird that lives longer, looks healthier, and tastes distinctly different from standard supermarket chicken. (“They have huge, old-fashioned taste,” Shaun Doty, a chef who has been working with them, told me last year. “They cook differently, and they eat differently.”
Pastured poultry represents a radically different way of raising chicken than the standard large-intensive model: no antibiotic use, no crammed chicken houses, no genetic-monoculture birds with their inevitable physical vulnerabilities. So far, it’s a niche in the market: The number of producers is small, the birds are more expensive — and even though the chickens taste like what our grandparents would have eaten, most of us have never known chicken tasted like that, so they can be a challenge to sell. The first problem, though, is raising awareness that the alternative exists at all.
So this year, for the second time, the nonprofit Georgians for Pastured Poultry — based in the state that produces more chicken than any other — has recruited restaurants to serve these birds in a “Pastured Poultry Week” celebration this week. As in 2012, there are plenty of Atlanta restaurants participating: 55, plus Whole Foods and the Peachtree Farmers Market. But the news this year is that 25 restaurants in New York City have joined the observance too. That’s a bold step: New York is one of the toughest food cities on the planet, with an educated, exacting audience (as a native New Yorker, I say this with love) — and because the outdoor growing season is shorter in the Northeast than in the Southeast, New York faces supply challenges that Georgia just does not.
I went up to New York last week to see how chefs were adapting to the different birds — which cost more, as well as tasting and looking different from the standard — and how they thought their customers would react. It was fascinating to hear how deeply they were thinking about what these chickens represent.
Marc Meyer, chef/owner of Cookshop, Hundred Acres and Five Points, told me:
“I just don’t want to be part of the system that uses factory-produced food. It has issues of quality, of consistency, flavor. So I started a long time ago finding locally raised pigs, and gradually moved into lamb and goat, finding sources for regionally raised meat. The first time I smelled this kind of chicken roasting, it was a revelation for me. And then you see how long it takes for them to grow to slaughter weight, you see how different the feed is than for commerically raised birds.”
John DeLucie, who owns Crown, The Lion and Bill’s Food & Drink (and hosted a pastured-poultry media event at The Lion), said:
“The commercial-chicken business is really a sham: You hear cage-free, free-range, organic, but there are no real standards; you never really know what you are getting. So to get the chance to talk directly to farmers who are doing a process that is very Old World, very time-consuming and doing it right, I am all for that. These chickens are allowed to be chickens. They are eating what a chicken should be eating, and their whole lives are humane. And it’s funny: You hear a lot more about these issues with beef, with pork. The chicken business has been a little slow to react to what I think Americans want, which is a natural, delicious, healthy product.”
Of course, chefs aren’t philanthropists: They run businesses, very complex ones with a lot of staff and slender margins. I asked Meyer and DeLucie how the more-expensive birds could fit their balance sheets.
“It’s tough — but not as tough as I thought,” DeLucie said. “i was really surprised at the value of these birds because they are delicious, but not that much more expensive, than something you get that is frankly inferior. As a restaurant owner, I am willing to pay more for it in the belief my customers are willing to pay more for it too.”
But it’s complicated, Meyer added: “The expectation is still that chicken is one thing people expect to be lower-priced, and it is the thing that, normally as a chef, you would expect to be able to make more money on. When you lose your margin on chicken, and you’ve lost it on humane beef, humane pork, where do you get your cushion?”
What I loved hearing from both chefs — and didn’t expect to hear — was how their buying pastured poultry fits into a larger belief system: not just about the food they serve, but about the kind of society they want to live in.
“I think of food and food production as probably the last battleground in the redistribution of wealth,” Meyer told me. “I am not going to go start a bank, I am not going to start an oil company, I am not going to build a car. But I can use regionally and locally raised food that is not part of a mass-produced monoculture or confined animal feeding operation. It supports growing things on a smaller scale, it promotes the whole reclaiming of lost skills that were abandoned. I am not just calling up and ordering 10 boxes of something and not knowing where the hell it came from.”