A Great Night In: Rule the Roost


When it comes to the perfect fall dish, look no further than the simple, yet sublime roast chicken by Chris Johns

I’ve never been more anxious about cooking something than I was the first time I roasted a chicken. It seemed so fraught with the potential for disaster, utilizing what is essentially a whole animal and aiming to render it into some sort of golden, crispy skinned Rockwellian ideal just seemed unattainable.

I had been teaching myself to cook for some time before tackling the roast chicken and was already comfortable with elaborate recipes containing multitudes of ingredients, so it was even more disconcerting that the chicken recipe was so simple: salt, pepper, some lemon juice and butter. Convinced of disaster I put the bird in the oven and attempted to distract myself for the hour-long cooking time. Before long that telltale aroma, rich and heady, began emanating from the oven and I started to think it might actually be working. When it came time to remove the bird, I couldn’t believe it. There it was, dark and crispy and looking exactly like it should. I think it was at that exact moment I became a cook.

Roast chicken encompasses everything I love about cooking: it is meant to be shared and enjoyed with friends and loved ones, it creates an atmosphere of festivity and in its relative simplicity it is fun to make and delicious to eat. Few things in cooking – and in life – offer so much pleasure for so little effort.

In my quest for the perfect roast chicken I have taken some pretty lengthy detours. I’ve brined and marinated, basted and shellacked, stuffed, rubbed and trussed. I’ve layered herbs subcutaneously, spatchcoked and basted with Zen-like intensity. I remember one recipe that involved a sort of improvised refrigerator trapeze and a hair dryer. I’ve used high temperature, low temperature and a combination of both. From shady, anaemic factory birds to organic free-range grain fed, I’ve roasted them all. Oddly, perhaps, after cooking what amounts to entire flocks of them, I found that the more elaborate and convoluted the recipe, the less impressive the final result.

When my girlfriend and I moved into our first apartment together, the first thing I cooked after we’d mostly unpacked and settled in was a roast chicken. There’s nothing better to establish a sense of home. The perfect roast chicken, if such a thing exists, goes something like this. First the aroma strikes, filling the house with that rich, sublime smell, meaty and succulent. When it becomes too much to bear, it means the bird is done. It should be dark all over with skin that is shatteringly crisp and meat that is of a uniform texture, smooth and white, never stringy. The liquid that it releases should settle like dew on the slices, not run off the plate into a loose, hard to manage sauce. Your first bite should be a textural as well as a flavourful experience with the crispness of the burnished skin playing off the slickness of the thin layer of fat. A bit of crunchiness from the occasional grain of salt is also necessary as is the sharp bite of a tiny chunk of coarsely ground pepper. A slight herbaceousness, preferably from fresh thyme, should underscore the ever-so-subtle gaminess of the bird and a certain, bright acidity from fresh lemon ought to be apparent in the rich jus. Achieving just one of those elements makes for a terrific meal, achieving them all is the holy grail of chicken roasting. That may explain why so many chefs list the dish as their favourite thing to cook at home because although it’s easy to make a great roast chicken, making a perfect one is nearly impossible, but a lot of fun to try.

There is no denying one simple fact: a happy chicken is a tasty chicken and purchasing the best quality bird you can afford will go a long way to elevating your roast from simply delicious to sublime. The world’s most famous chicken – excepting Foghorn Leghorn, perhaps – is the legendary poulets de Bresse from France. It is the only chicken in the world to have its own Apellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) ranking it up there with the great wines of the world. The birds live for four months outdoors, foraging for insects and generally enjoying the best life a chicken can. I’ve only had it once, at a little restaurant in Bordeaux, but I can tell you the results are outstanding, firm, succulent flesh with a distinct, almost ethereal flavour. You have to travel to Europe to enjoy one, unfortunately, but here in Canada there is a desire for chickens of the same quality and a handful of farmers are going beyond free range to offer up a similar product. Quebec’s Ferme des Voltigeurs raises birds in the same, slow manner as those in Bresse – standard birds are bred to grow in six weeks. They can be found in grocery stores in Ontario and Quebec and on the menu at Far Niente and Reds in Toronto. Out west, Polderside Farms are importing Redbro chickens from France and feeding them by hand. Their chicken is not yet commercially available, but can be found on the menu of most of Vancouver’s best restaurants.

Despite its improving reputation, chicken still gets short shrift on most restaurant menus. It is considered beneath contempt by some “serious” diners who think the bird is a tedious cop-out and only for the unadventurous. Chefs, on the other hand, know that the best way to judge a cook is by his or her ability to make a roast chicken.

The famous French gourmand Brillat-Savarin once declared, “We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.” I believe that maxim is equally true when reversed: We are born knowing how to roast, but we must learn to cook. A simple, hearty and delicious roast chicken gives us an opportunity to do both.

Roast Chicken

Author’s Note
This is a version of the first roast chicken recipe our author ever attempted and it remains one of the best. Inspired by Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories, it has the advantage of being both simple and extremely delicious.


1/2 cup butter at room temp.

1 chicken, about four pounds

Salt and pepper

1 lemon

Several sprigs of thyme or tarragon, or a mixture of both

2 garlic cloves, slightly crushed and peeled

Preheat oven to 450F. Rub the bird all over with the butter, hit it with a good dose of salt and pepper, squeeze the lemon over everything and settle it in a roasting pan. Pop the garlic cloves, herbs and squeezed out lemon halves in the cavity and set the whole thing in the hot oven.

Leave it for 15 minutes and then spoon some of the the liquid over top, or use one of those suction basters. Turn the oven down to 375 F and roast for a further 40 minutes, glazing it with liquid a couple of more times. When the chicken is golden brown and the kitchen smells amazing take it out and let it rest for a good 10 minutes.

All that juice left in the bottom of your pan is your gravy. Stir it up a little and you’re good to go.