On 5 January, chef Nick Bramham — a chef who seldom sat still in the last 12 months — announced that Quality Wines at Home, the delivery version of his celebrated Mediterranean restaurant, would temporarily be replaced by an Italian roast chicken project called Arrosto.
It was a pivot inspired not by the rotisserie of France, but a rosticcerie Bramham “stumbled across” in Naples: Roast chicken, deep-fried potatoes soaked in chicken juices, and grilled chicken thigh meat basted in a bright, herbal and citrusy preparation from Sicily and Calabria. “The highlight was the the roast potatoes that sat under the spit, gathering all the chicken juices [...] my god,” Bramham said two months ago.
London, it turns out, is mad for chicken and potatoes too. Arrosto is now working through between 140 and 160 chickens a week, Thursday to Sunday, midday — 9 p.m., testament perhaps to the unique, comforting appeal of a hot roast chicken by-bike. In lockdown one, restaurant goers were energised by the need to cook for themselves; restaurants were shellshocked. By lockdown three, many of those people have had enough of cooking for themselves. Meanwhile, the smart operators always know what people want to eat.
In the first of a new series of up-close-and-in-detail dish studies, here’s a full run-down on how Arrosto is making it happen.
The roast chicken
Small chickens — around 1.3kg — from Swaledale, a Yorkshire butcher that supplies the kitchens of many of London’s best restaurants, are dry-cured at least a day before they’re cooked. Arrosto currently goes through around 140 — 160 chickens per week.
That cure comprises salt, pepper. finely chopped thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, and bay spread all of the outside of the bird. Whole bunches of those herbs are stuffed inside the cavity, along with a 50g knob of unsalted French butter and a quarter of a lemon.
The reason this is done is to ensure the bird remains “juicy after it’s cooked,” says Bramham. It is a practice that some call dry-brining but which this chef prefers to call “curing,” because, he says simply, “a brine is wet.”
The curing keeps the breast meat juicy, allowing the chefs breathing room to ensure the darker leg meat is fully cooked through and falls away from the bone. This overcomes one of the perennial conundrums of roast chicken cookery: Whether to sacrifice the integrity of the breast to achieve the perfect, tender dark meat, or ensure a perfect, moist breast but end up with rubbery legs and thighs.
The chickens are left untrussed, left to cure on racks with a complete air flow around them in order to dry out the skin further, which will render it crisp upon roasting.
The chickens are “roasted aggressively” in a commercial Rational brand oven, undergoing a two-stage cooking process.
They are “pre-cooked” for 40 minutes in a 180 degree oven, until they reach an internal temperature of 75 degrees. The chefs baste the birds with the roasting juices constantly throughout this first cook.
They then rest at room temperature — “which you can safely do for up to four hours” — during the course of the afternoon. Then it’s time for the evening service, when the chickens undergo their second phase of roasting.
In the evening, once the delivery checks start racking up, the birds are cooked eight to 10 at a time on a high heat of 230 degrees, in order to caramelise and crisp the skin.
The birds are then loaded into their trays and, Bramham says, “finish cooking and resting on the way to people’s houses.” The intention is that the bird arrive not just hot, but having rested during transit, meaning diners don’t have to wait when it arrives. It’s a clever use of transit time for a dish whose final quality relies heavily on proper resting.
Arrosto also offers par-cooked chickens to a wider delivery radius — within 15 kilometres of the restaurant. These chickens are roasted in the same way as the ones delivered hot, but are cooled right down in the refrigerator after the initial cook to 75 degrees.
The home cook then roasts their chicken for 40 to 50 minutes at 180 degrees, before resting it for at least fifteen minutes.
Bramham trialled four different potato varieties, ultimately selecting Maris Pipers for the chicken dripping roast potatoes — which he admits are “essentially a chip” — because of their “shatteringly crisp exterior.”
The potatoes are boiled first, then “blanched” in oil at 120 in fryer. Then rested. And, finally, cooked to order: deep-fried at 180 degrees.
The original idea — rotisserie-inspired as Arrosto is — was to cook the potatoes in with the chickens. “But logistically wouldn’t work,” Bramham says. It was impossible to get an even cook on the potatoes and there was insufficient space in the oven.
Because of the quantity of chicken drippings the chefs are burning through, there is insufficient dripping coming from the roasted birds themselves. So they’ve taken to creating surplus of a substance which mimics the real thing: Chicken carcasses are roasted with butter, eliciting an elixir of roasted chicken juice and fat. “It tastes like the essence of roast chicken,” Bramham says.
Bramham explains that there are “different names for skewers in different parts of Italy” — “arrosticini” in Abruzzo, for example — but he settled on spiedini: Chopped chicken thigh meat, seasoned with salt and pepper just before grilling.
During grilling (to baste) and then again once the spiedini are cooked (as they rest), the chefs liberally brush a herbal, citrusy condiment comprising oregano, grated garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt — to the skewers. This southern Italian preparation is known as salmoriglio, traditionally smashed in a pestle and mortar, but in Arrosto’s case, a Thermomix electric blitzer. Bramham adds the squeeze of lemon at the end, “otherwise it dulls the flavour of fresh herbs.”
It’s all then packed up, collected, and delivered — across the city.