For some chefs, Michelin stars are everything, a matter of life and death. Chef Antoine Westermann had three to this name when he contemplated, was there life after the stars?
He had visitors from all over the world visiting his restaurant Le Buerehiesel in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France. But he couldn’t in good conscience leave to pursue any new projects. “I would have given the impression of betraying my clientele,” he said.
So one day, 10 years ago, he went to the Michelin folks to return the stars.
“They said, ‘It’s not up to you to decide,'” he recalled. “I said, ‘Of course it’s not up to me to decide, but I’m letting you know I’m going away, and tomorrow there won’t the same cuisine. So you can put the stars in parentheses or you can do whatever you want.'”
He is one of the very few French chefs who have renounced their Michelin stars, including Joël Robuchon, Alain Senderens, and Olivier Roellinger. In Westermann’s case, Michelin took away the stars, though they awarded one the following year, when his son was newly at the kitchen’s helm.
“It was the fact of returning the stars that gave me the freedom to do what I’m doing today,” Westermann said.
He went on to open several restaurants in Paris and consulted for projects around the world. Several weeks ago, he opened Le Coq Rico in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, a bistro focused entirely on the best poultry he can find.
“Fowl is a world unto itself,” he is fond of saying. And while for many cooks, chicken may be more of a blank canvas, or a protein vehicle for sauces and accompaniments, Westermann sees each bird as having its own texture and its own flavors.
While he was growing up in a small town in Alsace, every Saturday his mother would go buy a chicken from a farmer; Butter came from a neighbor. “I am used to being face to face with real products. That’s also why I became a cook. It’s beautiful to please people by offering them the best.”
There is an original Le Coq Rico in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, with poultry from the French countryside: the famous Bresse chickens, alongside Challans chickens, Dombes ducklings, and Cou-Nu yellow chickens from the Landes region, for example.
When it came to the New York location, though, there was no question of importing these birds from France.
Westermann spent a year visiting American farmers across the northeast United States, including the Hudson Valley and Pennsylvania, looking for the best of American breeds.
At Le Coq Rico, he sources chicken like the Plymouth Barred Rock, a bird with a bright red comb and face, black and white plumage, and a firmer texture.
“Chicken of quality isn’t necessarily the most tender in the world,” he said. “Just like the most flavorful beef, it has texture.
For the most part, the birds have been given time to grow and develop deeper flavor: the Brune Landaise chicken for 110 days, the Plymouth Barred Rock for 90 days, and guinea fowl from the Catskills for 130 days.
“The more the animals live in freedom, and the older they are, the more flavor they have,” he said.
The menu carries far more than just rotisserie chicken (quarter chicken with seasonal salad, $24), though it is for many a delicious gateway dish to other preparations and parts, like the Offal Platter ($16).
“I use the heart, I use the gizzards, I use everything from poultry except the feathers,” he said.
When he was planning to open Le Coq Rico in New York, he was told Americans don’t eat offal. “It’s false,” he said. “People always stick to stereotype because it’s easy, but it’s silly.” He’s endeavoring to show people that hearts, livers, and gizzards are worth discovering—and enjoying.
Roasted hearts go on skewers, with slices of apples to give a touch of acidity and juice; wings are poached in tandoori spices and then quickly fried; livers are roasted and served with grilled toast; and a bite into the croquettes reveal meat perfumed with curry, turmeric, and ras el hanout spices.
Westermann applies those creative touches with ease and a light touch. He also serves a dish that recalls his Alsatian roots: baeckeoffe.
This dish was a sort of catch-all in his time, one in which women would add whatever they had on hand to an earthenware casserole: pork, lamb, beef. Along with the meat, they poured in white wine and water, added herbs, and brought the prepared terrines to the baker on Monday mornings before they went to do laundry, explained Westermann.
You could have about 20 of these casserole dishes in the oven, cooking in the residual heat left after the bread was done. Each woman sealed her terrine with dough and inscribed her name on it.
Traditionally it would take about three hours for the dish to cook. Westermann told himself if he ever did it, he would use chicken instead, since it cooks faster.
So when you put your order in at Le Coq Rico, you can get a cooked baeckeoffe in about 40 minutes. Lift the lid, and you’re hit by a myriad of herbs and aromatics, including garlic, preserved lemon, thyme, rosemary, and parsley ($120). It serves two to four people and it’s rustic and hearty; you could easily imagine a French grandma cooking it for you.
He also carries guinea hen from Mauer’s Mountain Farm in upstate New York, which has a firm texture with depth of flavor, currently served with an almond and spice crust and an asparagus, green pea, and lime fricassée.
“You don’t get tired of eating poultry. You can make it so many ways. … I can promise you, you won’t get bored,” Westermann said.
For example, he doesn’t hesitate to pair fish and fowl together, in inventive dishes such as cod wrapped in duck breast, or Maine lobster with chicken fricassée.
Perhaps the lone example of a bird that hasn’t lived a longer life is squab, sourced from California and under a month old, so young it hasn’t yet learned to fly. Wrapped in a braised cabbage leaf, it is incredibly delicate ($34).
“Today people are right: they want to have wholesome products,” he said. “For me, my first step is to have wholesome products, and a product can only be wholesome if the birds have lived a happy life.”
What says chicken also says eggs, and Le Coq Rico sources them from Handsome Brook Farm in Franklin, New York. You can enjoy them “en meurette,” a preparation with bacon, mushroom, and red wine. They are also sublimely soft-boiled, with a silky, golden yolk, topped with salmon roe, and served with butter soldiers.
If you’re not too full by then, eggs also await in desserts like the Ile Flottante, with soft meringue (made with egg whites) standing like an island in the middle of a small sea of crème anglaise (made with the yolks), and sprinkled with pink pralines ($10). A vanilla berry vacherin ($12) is also a refreshing ending, with the acidity and sweetness of the berries providing a nice contrast to the meringue and ice cream.
Le Coq Rico
30 E. 20th St. (between Broadway and Park Avenue)
5:30 p.m.–11 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday