Barbecue chicken is part of Australia’s food canon. At one point in time, you would have been hard pressed to find a suburb without a chicken shop or two. While many mum and pop venues have slowly started to fade out, there’s a guard of chefs keen to take on the challenge of elevating a classic concept.
Hospitality talks to Butter COO and Executive Chef Julian Cincotta and Sunday Culinary Consultant and Chef Ryan Blagrove about why they’ve decided to hone in on the protein, cooking techniques and what to look for when selecting a producer.
Butter in Sydney has garnered a loyal fan club for Julian Cincotta’s take on fried chook. But the chef has decided to do something a little different. Butter recently opened its third outlet in Chatswood and tacked on a new offering to the regular menu — one that combines Cincotta’s upbringing with a healthier choice for customers.
“Butter is the palace of fried chicken, hip-hop, Champagne and sneakers … however I always wanted to do more with our food and give customers a bigger choice; something healthier,” says Cincotta. “It was only natural we do something I have always been fascinated with — the humble charcoal chicken.”
Hence, House of Chook was born. You see, chicken is a family affair for the chef, whose dad ran Big Rooster stores on the New South Wales South Coast. “No one in Sydney really remembers the brand, but they were bought out by Red Rooster,” says Cincotta. “I have memories of being around charcoal chicken from a young age and I think it brings back memories for a lot of people. Charcoal chicken shops seem to be disappearing in recent years, so I wanted to bring it back and we felt the opening of Chatswood was the perfect time to introduce a new offering.”
The timing was also right for newly opened Sunday in Potts Point. The eatery is based around the notion of family dinners and the food offering echoes the ethos. The site also just happened to be a former chicken shop. Chef Ryan Blagrove, who
you may know from Apera, joined Morgan McGlone to develop a culinary offering that heroes rotisserie chicken. “We’re a modern hybrid version of a chicken shop with some European influences as well,” says Blagrove. “Everything is made in-house.”
Sunday and Butter share a common link, in that both venues use Bannockburn chickens from Victoria. When Blagrove first started delving into rotisserie a few years ago, the chef says he basically sampled every chicken available to him, but Bannockburn won out. “Some chickens have a chemical taste and have been chlorine washed, but Bannockburn doesn’t have any of those funky flavours — it just tastes like really good chicken,” he says. “The chickens are hung up and air dried before they come to Sydney so the skin is always dry and plump — they’re hard to beat.”
Cincotta agrees, and says that while Australia is home to chickens that are great all-rounders, Bannockburn comes out on top. “We get them in fresh daily so they’re never frozen, which makes the flesh plump and firm and results in a tastier final product,” he says.
Preparation is a key part to achieving the savoury, caramelised, smoky flavour you want from a barbecue chicken. Sunday kick off the process with whole birds that the team truss up with a knot Blagrove developed. The chefs skip brining and go straight to the spice rub.
“We use a house chicken salt which is inspired by European flavours and a hint of Cajun and Creole style, too,” says Blagrove. “I use celery seeds, Himalayan pink salt, smoked chipotle powder, Cayenne pepper and some other secret ingredients. We are quite generous on the amount of salt on the outside because we don’t salt the inside; it’s all in the skin. It really helps season the bird up; and getting that skin right is crucial because that’s where all the flavours are. Once you get it toasted, all the fats and oils come out and it helps caramelise and bring out more flavour.”
Over at Butter, Cincotta is a fan of presalting birds. “We butterfly first and then salt the birds two days in advance which flavours and tenderises the chicken,” says the chef. “We don’t brine the birds — the juices are all natural. On the seasoning front, Cincotta is tight-lipped: “Like the Colonel, we all need to have some secrets!” But Hospitality can
confirm roasted capsicum is a key player alongside coriander, cumin and paprika. “We’re going for a combination of spiced, smoked, char-roasted flavours with a bit of sweetness,” says the chef.
Sunday decided to splash out on the equipment front and purchase the “Rolls- Royce” of rotisseries from Chelles, France. The Rotisol is the crème de la crème of rotisseries and Blagrove says there’s just no comparison. “You have direct flame, a cast iron hearth and tiles above that, so you have three layers of heat to play with,” he says.
Blagrove has spent years learning the technique for rotisserie cooking, and says there’s “a method to the madness”, but a lot of it comes with time and experience. “We always start with three to four spits with six birds per spit. I put three at the top on a high heat and put two more underneath towards the end of the cooking cycle, which is around 45–50 minutes. By the time the ones on top are done, you just move the bottom to the top and start again. There are six positions you can move the spit, but you can’t just hit it hard and fast. It’s mostly done by feel and eye. You have to know what you’re doing.”
Butter doesn’t have a rotisserie, instead cooking chickens using two methods. “We cook the butterflied bird in the combi oven until just cooked so it retains the juices and then we kiss it on the charcoal to finish,” says Cincotta. “The bird generally becomes very dry when cooking directly over charcoal the whole time. Every bird is finished to order and stays succulent and juicy. From start to finish the whole process probably takes around 45 minutes.”
While a well-cooked chicken is key, a full meal involves sides. Sunday have taken the traditional route and upped the stakes. Blagrove says roasted cauliflower has been a hit with diners alongside seasonal roast vegetables with onion and fennel seeds. Of course, most people can’t go past roast potatoes, shoestring fries and coleslaw, which the team punctuate with fennel and mint.
House-made sauces are a big part of the chicken-eating experience at the venue, with options covering everything from chimichurri to burnt chilli aioli, madras mayo (which Blagrove compares to a curry aioli), gravy and a signature Sunday sauce.
Butter has also gone big on the sauce front as Cincotta is a believer that “any charcoal chicken is elevated by the sauces it’s accompanied with.” The range covers 10 options including toum, buttermilk ranch, spiced BBQ, fire hot sauce and honey mustard. The chef is also a fan of adding potato dinner rolls, pickles, shoestring fries with house chicken salt and a salad “to bring a little freshness to the whole event”.
In a time where customers are finding comfort in simplicity, venues can offer the dining public an experience that ups the ante when it comes to quality and cooking techniques. “It’s a great product that brings back so many good memories to people,” says Cincotta. “We find food is strongest when it has that emotional connection to people’s pasts. In Australia, there probably isn’t a dish that so many people from all walks of life can connect with.”