Thomas Keller's Guide to Prepping 'The Whole Bird' for the Holidays

Courtesy Deborah Jones

How to make the perfect whole chicken, according to the culinary genius behind Per Se and The French Laundry.

Every culinary great, from Julia Child to Ina Garten, has their own idea of how to perfectly prepare a whole chicken. Cooking a perfectly succulent whole chicken, whether you’re roasting, poaching, or spatchcocking takes patience, good cookware, and most importantly, a favorite recipe. This whole chicken recipe, shared with Departures by chef Thomas Keller, who owns New York’s Michelin-starred Per Se and the ever-coveted French Laundry in Napa, isn’t so much a recipe as it is a poultry lifestyle. Chef Keller breaks down the preparation for every element of the bird—from leg confit and rillettes to the garlic puree you’ll serve alongside your whole chicken. Here, the Thomas Keller guide to prepping “The Whole Bird.”

“The Whole Bird”


Courtesy Deborah Jones

Poached Breast with Leg Rillettes, Crispy Skin, and Sauce Suprême

1 3½-­ to 4-­pound (1,500-­ to 1,800-­gram) poularde

Poularde Leg Confit 

¾ cup (150  grams) kosher salt
¼ cup (45  grams) sugar
3/10 teaspoon (1.5  grams) thyme leaves 
3/10 teaspoon (1.5  grams) lemon zest (grated on a rasp grater)
¼ teaspoon (1 gram) freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves 
1 teaspoon (5  grams) thyme sprigs 
2 bay leaves
Duck fat (optional)

Poularde Stock 

6 cups (1,200  grams) chicken stock (see below)
leg Rillettes 
½ cup (100  grams) mousse base (recipe follows), made with 1 cup (200  grams) reserved poularde leg meat
1 teaspoon (5  grams) Burgundy mustard
½ teaspoon (2.5  grams) roasted garlic puree (see below)
½ teaspoon (2.5  grams) kosher salt 
¼ teaspoon (1 gram) minced shallot 
Two grinds black pepper

Sauce Suprême

1 cup (200  grams) heavy cream
½ cup (100  grams) whole butter, cut into cubes and chilled
Lemon juice 
Kosher salt 
Armagnac 

To Complete

Activa GS (transglutaminase), for dusting
Burgundy mustard

Special Equipment

Meat grinder with a medium die, chilled in the refrigerator
Chamber vacuum sealer (optional)
Immersion circulator (optional)

For the Poularde

  • Cut the legs from the poularde. Remove and reserve the skin from the legs. One leg will be used for the confit and the other to make the mousse base. Remove and reserve the skin from the rest of the poularde. Cut off each side of the breast, keeping the small tender attached to each breast.

  • Remove the bones from one leg and weigh the meat. You will need 1 cup (200  grams) to make the mousse base; if you do not have 1 cup (200  grams), trim off some of the meat that remains on the carcass. Rinse the bones and feet (if they were on your poularde) under cold running water to remove all visible blood. Remove and discard any organs still attached to the bones. Cut the bones into 1-­inch (2.5-­centimeter) pieces and reserve them for the poularde stock.

  • Keep all parts of the poularde refrigerated in an airtight container until you are ready to use them, up to 2 days.

  • Grind the skin through the chilled medium die of a meat grinder and place it in a 2-­quart (2-­liter) saucepot. Cook over low heat for about 30  minutes to render. The fat will separate and the skin will become crisp and golden brown. Strain the fat through a chinois or fine-­mesh strainer into a bowl and let cool to room temperature; reserve the fat for the stock. Drain the fried skin on paper towels and let cool until crisp, then chop it very finely and reserve it for finishing the dish. 

For the Poularde Leg Confit

  • Mix the salt, sugar, thyme, lemon zest, and pepper in a bowl. On a piece of plastic wrap, make a bed of just less than half of this cure. Lay the bone-­in poularde leg on the bed of cure and pat the remaining cure over and around the sides of the leg. Cover with the plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 2½  hours. 

  • Rinse and dry the cured poularde leg.

  • If you have a chamber vacuum sealer, set an immersion circulator in a water bath and heat the water to 80 C (176 F). Place the cured poularde leg, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves in a sous vide bag. Place the bag in the sealer chamber and vacuum seal. Cook in the water bath for 5  hours. 

  • If you do not have a chamber vacuum sealer, preheat the oven to 200 F (93 C). Place the cured poularde leg, garlic cloves, thyme sprigs, and bay leaves in a small heavy-­bottomed pan and add duck fat to cover. Cover with a cartouche and cook in the oven for about 2  hours, until completely tender.

  • Remove the bag from the water bath or the pan from the oven and let the leg cool in the fat. Remove the leg from the fat and dry it on a clean kitchen towel. Carefully pick the meat from the bones, removing any veins. Shred the meat as finely as possible and chop. Reserve the meat for the rillettes.

For the Poularde Stock

  • Combine the reserved poularde bones and feet (if using) and the chicken stock in a 2-­quart (2-­liter) saucepot and bring to a rapid boil over high heat. Boil for about 30  minutes, until the stock has reduced by half. Do not skim or reduce the heat at any point.

  • Strain the stock through a chinois or fine-­mesh strainer into a clean pot, bring to a boil, and reduce the stock by about two-­thirds to about 1 cup (200  grams). Strain the reduced stock into a narrow vessel and nestle the container in an ice-­water bath to cool. 

  • When the stock has cooled, using a hand blender, blend in ¼ cup (55  grams) of the reserved rendered poularde fat on high speed. 

  • Refrigerate the stock in an airtight container until ready to use, up to 3 days. Once the emulsion is set, it can be reheated or cooled without any risk of breaking.

For the Leg Rillettes

  • Combine ½ cup (75 to 100  grams) of the chopped poularde leg confit with the mousse base, mustard, roasted garlic puree, salt, shallot, and pepper and mix until completely homogenous. Transfer to a disposable piping bag and refrigerate until ready to use, up to 1  day.

For the Sauce Suprême

  • Bring the cream to a gentle boil in a 2-­quart (2-­liter) saucepot over medium-­high heat, adjusting the heat as necessary, and reduce the cream by a little more than half to about ⅖ cups (75  grams). Add 1 cup (200  grams) of the poularde stock to the pan and reduce the sauce by half. Rapidly stir the butter into the sauce (this will improve the richness, body, and shine of the sauce). 

  • Season with lemon juice, salt, and Armagnac to taste. Keep in a warm spot until serving.

To Complete

  • Lay the two poularde breasts on the work surface with the tenders facing up. Using a paring knife, very carefully remove the white tendon on each tender. Peel the tenders back but leave them attached to the breasts. Lightly spray the exposed side of the breasts with water and sprinkle the surface lightly with Activa (shake it through a small fine-­mesh strainer or from a shaker). Fold the tenders back into place. Turn the breasts over.

  • Wipe the work surface with a slightly dampened kitchen towel. Lay out two pieces of plastic wrap, each about 9  inches (23  centimeters) long. Smooth the plastic so that there are no creases. Spray the plastic lightly with nonstick spray. Lay a breast on each piece of plastic, about one-­third of the way up from the bottom edge. The length of the breast should run the direction of the length of the plastic. Pipe a line of the rillettes down the center of each breast. 

  • Use a small offset spatula to spread the rillettes evenly into a ¼-­inch (6-­millimeter) layer across each breast, spreading it to the edges of the breasts. Fold the top of the plastic up and over each breast to meet the other side. 

  • Continue to “flip” the breasts in the plastic, keeping the bottom of the breast flat and the rillettes in a natural dome. Keep the plastic wrap tight. Pull the ends of the plastic tightly, then trim them and tuck under the breast to hold its shape. 

  • If you have a chamber vacuum sealer, set an immersion circulator in a water bath and heat the water to 60 C (140 F). Place the breasts in a sous vide bag. Place the bag in the sealer chamber and vacuum seal. Cook in the water bath for 45  minutes. Remove the bag and let rest until cool enough to handle. Remove the breasts from the bag and remove the plastic wrap.

  • If you do not have a chamber vacuum sealer, preheat the oven to 180 F (80 C). Put the poularde in a wide 2-­quart (2-­liter) saucepot (just large enough to hold the pieces of poularde without their touching each other) and add enough water to cover by 1  inch (2.5  ­centimeters). Remove the poularde and set aside in a bowl. Bring the stock to 180 F (80 C). Return the poularde to the pot, cover with a lid, and place in the oven. Poach for 30 to 40 minutes, until an instant-­read thermometer inserted into a breast reads 160 F (71 C). Remove the poularde breast from the stock and let rest until cool enough to handle. Remove the breasts from the plastic wrap.

  • Slice each breast in half on a slight bias. Using a small pastry brush, lightly brush the top of the breast with mustard. Carefully cover the top of the breast with the reserved crispy skin. Spoon the sauce suprême on each serving plate and place a piece of the poularde alongside.

In order to carry out chef Keller’s “The Whole Bird,” there are two separate recipes you’ll need:

Mousse Base

Makes 1.5 cups (370 grams)

1 cup (200  grams) lean protein
2 tablespoons (30  grams) egg whites
⅓ tablespoon (5  grams) potato starch 
⅘ teaspoon (4  grams) kosher salt
½ cup (90  grams) heavy cream
⅕ cup (40  grams) crème fraîche, preferably Kendall Farms

Special Equipment

Meat grinder with a medium die 

This recipe works well with all types of lean protein, including chicken, pike, scallops, raw lobster, beef, or veal.

  • Refrigerate a medium die for a meat grinder, food processor bowl, and food processor blade until cold. Cut the protein into ½-­inch (1.25-­centimeter) dice. Grind the protein twice through the chilled medium die into a bowl. 

  • Transfer the protein to the chilled food processor bowl and process until smooth. Add the egg whites and process briefly to emulsify. Using a silicone spatula, scrape the bowl and the lid of the food processor. Add the potato starch and salt and process briefly to combine. It is important not to overwork the mousse, as the friction of the blade will overheat the mousse and cause it to break.

  • With the machine running, slowly add the cream to maintain the emulsification. Scrape the sides and the lid of the food processor again. Add the crème fraîche and process until the mousse becomes smooth and develops a nice shine. 

  • Transfer the mousse to a bowl and nestle the bowl in an ice-­water bath to chill. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly against the surface of the mousse, smoothing out any air bubbles, and refrigerate until cold. For longer storage, transfer the mousse to an airtight container, press a piece of plastic wrap directly against the surface, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3  days.

Golden Chicken Stock

Makes about 5½ quarts (5,500 grams)

2½ quarts (2,500 grams) chicken wings
½ quart (450 grams) chicken feet
3 ¾  quarts (3,750 grams) cold water 
2 quarts (2,000 grams) ice cubes
1 cup (225 grams) carrots, cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) dice
1 cup (225 grams) leeks (white and light green portions only), cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) dice and rinsed to remove any dirt
1 cup (225 grams) onions, cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) dice
1 ½ tablespoons (20 grams) garlic cloves, roots removed, crushed
1 ½ tablespoons (20 grams) fresh thyme
20 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf

  • We call this golden because of the color that the abundant carrots give to the stock (as always, we add the vegetables at the end). It’s also very concentrated (we often water it down if its flavor could become too pronounced if used in, say, making risotto) and, from the additional chicken feet, very gelatinous. For chefs at The French Laundry (Per Se also has a fortified chicken stock that is based on the golden chicken stock), it’s an all-purpose tool each night on the line, used for braising and glazing and finishing. Because it’s so rich and flavorful, we can use more stock and less butter to obtain a beautiful glaze, and a very nutritious one that the vegetables can absorb.

  • Rinse the chicken wings and feet thoroughly under hot running water to remove visible blood and place in a 15-quart (15-liter) stockpot. Cover with the cold water. Set the stockpot slightly off center over the burner. (This will cause any impurities that rise to gather at one side of the pot, making them easier to skim off.) Bring slowly to a simmer, skimming continually. Once the liquid is at a simmer, add the ice; this will cause the fat to congeal. Remove the fat and skim off as much of the impurities from the surface as possible. Bring the stock back to a simmer and cook gently for 90 minutes. Remove any excess fat as necessary.

  • Add the carrots, leeks, onions, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf and slowly bring the liquid back to a simmer, skimming frequently. Simmer for 35 to 45  minutes, skimming often. Turn off the heat and let the stock rest for about 20  minutes; this allows any particles left in the stock to settle at the bottom of the pot.

  • Set a chinois over a large container. Carefully ladle the stock off the top, disturbing the bones as little as possible so that the impurities that have settled to the bottom are not mixed into the stock. Once you reach the bones, tilt the pot to reach the stock; once again, be extremely careful not to move the bones. Do not press on the solids in the strainer or force through any liquid that does not pass through on its own. Discard any stock at the bottom of the pot that is cloudy with impurities. Nestle the container in an ice-water bath to chill. 

  • Cover the container with a lid and store the stock in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or freeze for longer storage.

Roasted Garlic Puree

Makes 1 ¼ cups (250  grams)

10 large heads garlic 
Kosher salt 
1 tablespoon (15  grams) extra-­virgin olive oil 

While this may seem like a lot of puree, it has many uses. It can be used to make roasted garlic bread (added to the dough itself), roasted garlic aïoli, garlic hummus, and garlic butter. It imparts a garlic flavor to items such as pasta sauce without adding the strong, pungent flavor of raw garlic. 

Preheat the oven to 325 F (163 C). Place a baking rack over a sheet pan.Slice off just enough from the top of each head of garlic to expose the tops of the cloves. Place the heads of garlic in a medium saucepot and add water to cover. Bring the water to a boil over medium-­high heat. Turn off the heat and remove the garlic. Lightly season the garlic with salt. 

Place the heads of garlic in the center of a 12-­inch (30-­centimeter) square of aluminum foil and fold up the sides to form a foil tray. Drizzle the olive oil over the garlic and cover with a second piece of foil, crimping the foil along the edges to seal the two pieces together. The sealed pouch will steam and roast the garlic at the same time. 

Place the pouch on the baking rack and bake for 1 to 1½  hours, until the garlic is cooked through and light golden brown in color. Remove the garlic from the foil and let sit until cool enough to handle.

Place a fine-­mesh strainer or tamis over a bowl. While the garlic is still warm, push the whole heads of garlic, cut-­side down, against the strainer, pressing the garlic cloves through; discard the skins. Let the roasted garlic puree cool to room temperature. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 7  days.

Excerpted from The French Laundry, Per Se by Thomas Keller (Artisan Books). Copyright 2020. 

We’ve converted this recipe in accordance with the imperial system, but the chef’s original metric system measurements remain in parentheses.