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White meat or dark? When it comes to preference, chefs and customers typically part ways. "I prefer dark meat, but most of my customers would vote the other way," says Chris Keff, chef/owner of Seattle's Fandango.
Chef John Caputo of Bin 36 in Chicago confirms what is common knowledge among chefs: Dark-meat poultry has the reputation of being somehow inferior to white meat. "Our customers--especially those in our suburban location--are convinced that white meat is a better cut,'" he says. "But chefs know that dark meat has more flavor, so it's frustrating."
Only in America is the demand for white-meat chicken and turkey so lopsided. Although dark meat poultry has long been the centerpiece in a range of cuisines, from Latin to Asian to Mediterranean, consumers here eat more than twice as much white meat as dark (15.8 billion pounds in 2002, versus 6.5 billion pounds). Clearly, dark meat has an image problem. Most consumers cite calories as a chief concern, yet, according to the USDA, the difference is negligible. A boneless, skinless chicken thigh has 50 calories per ounce, as opposed to 46 calories per ounce for boneless, skinless breast meat. But, through creative menu strategies and just plain good recipes, chefs are increasingly turning on customers to the more intense flavor and moistness of dark meat. In doing so, they're able to capitalize on an ingredient that is not only versatile, but forgiving when there's a need to hold or reheat. And the cost is so modest--about one-third that of white meat--that operators can pass some of the savings on to the customers and still make a healthy profit.
The Thighs Have It A preference for dark meat is not merely personal, but a matter of tradition for David Fortuna, chef/owner of Wholly Ravioli, Sacramento, Calif. Ever since his family's first restaurant was opened in 1945, its members have preached the virtues of chicken thighs. "In Italy you use all parts of the chicken," he says. "Dark meat has a more 'chickeny' flavor, and it absorbs marinades and holds sauces better than breast meat."
Familiarity Breeds Content Staying within customers' comfort zone works best for foodservice operations like Zale Lipshy. "We serve a lot of bone-in chicken because customers here in Texas prefer it," Kimbrough says. Roasted, fried or barbecued chicken quarters sell well, and Kimbrough estimates that at least 40% of customers choose dark meat.
In Seattle, Fandango's regular dinner menu serves Yucatan-style chicken breasts, grilled to order, with lentil stew ($16). But every Sunday, from 5 p.m. to midnight, it's Familia time, meaning 10 dishes served family style for $25 per person. And then it's chicken thighs that get the Yucatan treatment--a rub called recado consisting of garlic, achiote seeds, allspice, black pepper and cloves, soaked overnight in vinegar and water before being ground. "It's a very red, stainy rub used for all kinds of pit cooking, including bone-in chicken, definitely," Keff says. Why does dark meat work on Sunday night and not the rest of the week? "If it's the main thing they're ordering, my customers expect breast meat," Keff explains. "But Familia is a value, to begin with, and customers have lots of other things to choose from--at least three proteins, two vegetables, starches, salad."
While Americans staunchly prefer white meat, dark meat has more fat, and that delivers more flavor, says Chef Lucien Vendome, senior executive chef of an ingredient supplier. "When you grill it, the fatty juices come out, and it cooks more evenly, without drying oat. The best flavor comes from fat and skin." His visit to Japan several weeks go revealed that yakitori--grilling meat aver charcoal--is very popular, and one of the most requested items is dark meat chicken on a skewer. "It doesn't have more than salt and pepper, or just salt--the leg meat has great flavor."
He points out traditional American recipes, derived from European cooking (i.e., French or Italian cuisine) use dark meats for the best flavor, such as braised chicken or candied chicken or goose. When making a chicken nugget, kabob or meatball, he suggests a ratio of 50% white meat and 50% dark meat. "It delivers the best mouthfeel without the fat overwhelming the flavor." Kraft has a flavor that can be added to chicken breasts to deliver o fatty mouthfeel and fat-like flavor. "It tastes like chicken drippings and char-roasted flavors together and can be microwaved, roasted or baked. We call it "Too Good to be Skinless."