The versatility of chicken energizes menu creativity and customer demand.

You might think that chicken’s near-universal appeal would eventually peak with the American dining public, but there seems to be no end in sight for consumers’ love affair with this tasty winged creature. Operators are infatuated with the bird’s endless variety and utility, whether it's served as an entrée or appetizer, in soups or side dishes, from morning to night.

According to the National Chicken Council, chicken consumption has increased nearly every year since the mid-1960s, while red meat consumption has steadily declined. With almost half of all chicken sold to the foodservice industry, a number that has remained consistent for the past 10 years, chefs continue to relish the challenge of coming up with creative ways to prepare and plate this versatile protein.

Chicken is a multi-functional protein that allows chefs to create concepts for all meals throughout the day, from chicken breakfast sausages, to deli sandwiches and soups, to flavorful combinations on the dinner plate. Because it lends itself so easily to simple and classic preparations, chicken fits the current “less is more” thinking that has been informing the American culinary scene in the last decade.

Working in the OSI Group’s Culinary Innovation Center, I get to experience first-hand the emerging culinary trends that contribute to chicken’s unshakeable popularity. Since 1955, OSI has partnered with the world’s leading foodservice brands to provide custom-formulated protein items and other prepared foods, and these relationships have given our team a big-picture perspective on what makes chicken so important back-of-house and so appealing in the dining room.

The art of parts

Diners’ appetite for chicken remains strong — for its lean, healthful profile; its generally moderate menu pricing; and its ability to carry familiar flavor profiles as easily as adventurous ones. Demand is also growing for different cuts and applications. Popular formats such as chopped, formed, and ground chicken have given way to whole-muscle, minimally processed chicken, which is stepping up to the center of the plate.

As a result, while chicken wings maintain their broad consumer appeal, especially around big events like the Super Bowl, it's the other parts of the bird that are attracting attention from chefs. I view chicken as a toolbox of choices, utilizing the wings, legs, and thigh muscles in different preparations.

As the U.S. diet grows more sophisticated, the foodservice industry is responding with creative solutions that incorporate dark meat — and its fantastic eating properties.

A go-to global protein

Interest in secondary cuts has also received a boost from the mainstreaming of ethnic and regional cuisines. As the world shrinks, people want to relive the meals they’ve experienced around the globe. From a cultural aspect, chicken is the preferred protein in many parts of the world.

In my work, I’ve seen a surge of interest in Indian and Thai cuisines among food industry leaders, based on what’s on the radar of OSI customers.

Minding menu prices

With rising commodity prices a key concern for operators, chicken is being menued more, taking on a starring role in entrees that typically feature more expensive proteins. It's supplanting beef, pork, and even seafood dishes. But these are risky times for all commodities, and chicken has had its share of pricing “bad press” as feed costs fluctuate.

Chefs have responded by utilizing the whole carcass of the chicken, which can yield multiple menu solutions. They are bypassing primal cuts in favor of secondary cuts, which can deliver better depth of flavor and are often featured in authentic ethnic preparations. It’s really a matter of taking the time to look at the whole menu, getting creative with a purpose in mind, understanding what’s in season and what’s on trend, and then taking advantage of it.

High tech

It’s difficult to quench a chef’s thirst for experimentation, and chicken readily offers a blank canvas for creative execution and novel flavors.

As chefs, we have the end idea in mind from the beginning. Chicken is available in many formats: skin-on, skinless, white meat, dark meat, ground, whole-muscle, etc. We can choose what methods to apply, knowing that technique drives flavor. Personally, I ask myself a series of questions in order to find the end result: “Do I sear it ahead of time? Do I season it? What kind of oils do I use? What oven conditions will give me the best product?”

I’m a true believer in the idea that technique separates you from your competition. You can have a room full of chefs, and if the menu item is, say, roast chicken, each one of us will develop a roasted chicken. All will differ radically, however, based on our varying methods of preparation, our experience level, and the recipes we choose. Chicken allows you creative ways to develop the technical insulation that will create a unique product, which helps differentiate your menu.

Professional kitchen equipment manufacturers are now giving chefs an additional edge, with technological advances that help yield the highest-quality product possible. Ovens now allow operators to dial in specific cook cycles that can not only enhance moisture in the cooking process, but will also finish a roast chicken so the skin crisps up without subjecting the whole carcass to high temperatures and uneven cooking.

Bird of paradise

It’s hard to identify a single poultry cut that is essential to every restaurant walk-in. The whole bird gives chefs maximum menu flexibility. From menuing a whole chicken’s various flavorful pieces to using the entire carcass, chicken delivers on so many levels. Imagine adding a technically driven ingredient, such as a roasted chicken stock, then reducing that stock to become a base ingredient in a signature gravy. This dish can then be a key driver of consumer cravings, promoting word-of-mouth advertising for your operation. Chicken can truly set a restaurant apart.

Expert Takes, Feature