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Chefs Cook at Home: Sean O'Toole's Roast Chicken

Mediterranean spices add intrigue, and Washington Syrah makes the match

Laurie Woolever
Posted: December 23, 2014

Chefs spend all week planning and overseeing the execution of elaborate dishes for the pleasure of the dining public. We have often wondered, what do chefs cook, eat and pour on their days off? In this series, Chefs Cook at Home, we visit the personal kitchens of some of our favorite chefs, to see—and taste—what they're up to in their downtime.

Sean O'Toole does not want to wash dishes or spend all day coddling a sauce when he's in his home kitchen. "A day off involves a lot of sleep," says O'Toole with a laugh. "TORC is a young restaurant—we opened about a year ago—and I don't take many days off. When I'm cooking at home, I'm usually cooking grilled stuff, always on charcoal or mesquite. We'll do a piece of beef, maybe a nice dry-aged rib eye or a New York strip, with a Little Gem [lettuce] salad dressed with good oil and vinegar."

TORC occupies the space in downtown Napa that was once home to the Michelin-starred Ubuntu. O'Toole is a native of Boston who grew up working in the hotel and restaurant business. In a career that's taken him to New York, Paris and San Francisco, he has cooked for Floyd Cardoz, Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Laurent Gras and Ron Siegel. He was the opening chef at Bardessono in the Napa Valley town of Yountville and held operations management roles at the Michael Mina group and at Quince and Cotogna in San Francisco before opening TORC with his wife, Cynthia. She has written a wine list that's balanced between Napa and Old World selections, with a few standout bottlings from other regions.

The recipe below is a much-simplified version of a roast chicken dish for two from the TORC menu. "When you cook six and a half days a week, you want to do something really simple, but at the same time tasty and elegant," says O'Toole. A compound butter under the skin gives the bird intrigue and layers of warm, spicy, nutty and herbal flavors, but at the end of the day, it's a comfortable dish that requires little fussing. Sean and Cynthia enjoy it with a Syrah from Cayuse winery, or another Syrah from Washington, as the wine's big structure stands up to the buttery chicken while an olive/herbal element is echoed in the vegetables.

Sumac and Za'atar Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Recipe courtesy of chef Sean O'Toole of TORC, Napa, Calif.


Cynthia O'Toole's Wine Pick: Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Valley Cailloux Vineyard 2012
Wine Spectator Alternates: Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Valley Cailloux Vineyard 2011 (93, $80)
JM Syrah Columbia 2012 (93, $45)

For the chicken:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon ground sumac
  • 2 teaspoons za'atar (an Eastern Mediterranean spice blend containing thyme, cumin, sumac and sesame seeds)
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 2 1/2- to 3-pound chicken, wings and wishbone removed

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Soften 2 tablespoons of the butter to room temperature and combine with the parsley, sumac, za'atar, garlic, lemon zest, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl. Fill a small disposable piping bag (or plastic bag with a corner snipped off) with the mixture and reserve.

2. Place the piping bag under the skin at the top of the breast and squeeze the butter mixture under the skin. Using your hand, spread it out to cover the whole breast. With butchers twine, make a loop below the knee joints on the drumsticks. Pull the neck skin underneath the bird and tuck the drumettes. Using the twine looped around the legs, tie a knot.

3. Coat the outside of the chicken with the remaining tablespoon of soft butter, and season with salt and pepper. Place the chicken in a hot cast iron pan. Cook the chicken in the oven for 50 minutes, basting with the renderings every 10 minutes. Remove the chicken to rest and reserve the pan and the renderings to roast the vegetables.

For the roasted vegetables:

  • 1 piece fennel bulb, cut into quarters and cored
  • 6 white pearl onions, peeled
  • 6 small potatoes, cut lengthwise into quarters
  • Finely grated zest of 1 Meyer lemon
  • 10 Taggiasca olives, pitted
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Increase the oven temperature to 425° F. Toss the potatoes and fennel in the pan that was used to roast the chicken, so that they are coated with chicken renderings. (You may also choose to roast the vegetables in a clean pan, tossed in the renderings and additional butter or olive oil, if needed.) Roast for 15 minutes, then add the pearl onions and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Drain the excess renderings from the pan if necessary, then toss with the zest, olives and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

2. To serve, quarter the chicken and cut the legs in half, at the joint between the drumstick and thigh. Serve the chicken and vegetables together on individual plates, or pass family-style. Serves 4.

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