Before Riley Starks bought the Willows Inn, hired Blaine Wetzel, and set the establishment on its path to international food-pilgrimage status, he raised chickens. But the demands of running an inn and a farm left him with little time to pursue his dream of developing a really great roaster. Starks is particularly passionate on the subject of a good roast chicken: "I don't think there's anything better on earth."
He sold Willows last December, and now he and partner Bernie Nash of Mad Hatcher Poultry in Ephrata want to reintroduce Americans to the more flavorful, not-grown-at-warp-speed birds they remember from their youth. The two men would like to do this by importing a flock of Canadian poulet bleu chickens, a bird Starks says is virtually impossible to find in the U.S.
According to Starks, 99 percent of the chickens we eat are Cornish crosses, a type of chicken engineered to fatten up as quickly as possible, ready to eat in about 40 days. Even small farmers who raise happy, pastured, organic chickens, he says, are mostly using Cornish crosses.
The poulet bleus, on the other hand, take 17 weeks to mature and Starks gets downright rhapsodic recalling the tender meat, packed with flavor. A man named Peter Thiessen spent 11 years developing these chickens in Canada, breeding them to mimic France’s famed poulet de bresse…right down to those signature blue-hued feet. The poulet de bresse even has its own AOC, or controlled origin status.
As Starks tells it, the story behind these Canadian chickens has enough drama to fuel a good HBO series. After devoting more than a decade to his flock, Thiessen sold 600 to a breeder in California in 2004, planning to market the rest to Canadian restaurants. Not a week after he shipped out his birds, the avian flu epidemic struck his farm and the Canadian government ordered every one of his birds slaughtered. Starks says the California farmer wasn’t keen on selling back any of his birds, so Thiessen started anew. He spent the next seven years building a new flock, then died at age 70 right as he had perfected the genetics and felt that his roasters were market ready.
That California flock sparked some excitement among chefs and food lovers, though Starks says some different characteristics have been bred into those birds, making the original poulet bleus just about unobtainable in the U.S.
Hoping to change this, Starks and Nash went up to talk with Thiessen's son, and would like to buy the flock and raise it on an 80-acre farm in Whatcom County. To gather the necessary $175,000, they have designed a preorder program, inspired by Thierry Rautureau's program at Luc. Options start with a $250 gift certificate, which gets you a $300 credit, which will likely be good for about seven of the chickens. Here's the full rundown. Starks says the effort has raised $18,000 thus far, and there is talk of some matching funds. The guys have put together a full-on website with details on the chickens and their efforts.