These days, there’s only one thing on chef Micah Wexler’s mind — did this chicken have a good life? If that sounds akin to an early Portlandia sketch, maybe Fred and Carrie were just ahead of their time. You see, it actually does matter what kind of lifestyle an animal had when it comes to taste, quality and how our body processes the meat. Let’s back up for a second because there’s a reason why Wexler’s thoughts on chicken matter.
He’s been cooking in Los Angeles kitchens since he was 15, hustling his way through the restaurant industry before he could even drive. Born and raised in LA, Wexler worked at landmarks like Miceli’s and Vincenti (RIP) before heading to Europe to do stints at Michelin kitchens in Spain and Italy. Since then, he’s attended the Cornell Hotel School, worked at Spago in LA and L’Atelier Robuchon in New York, and started a few restaurants of his own — the first of which, Middle Eastern-focused Mezze, was immediately nominated for a James Beard Award. He followed that up with the Grand Central Market hit, Wexler’s Deli, which eventually expanded to a second location in Santa Monica. Stints on both Iron Chef and Netflix’s The Chef Show increased his national presence, but as a dad with two young kids, most recently he turned his attention to cooking at home instead of more TV appearances. And that’s where the chicken comes in.
His latest venture, Pasture Project, is a new line of frozen, ready-to-cook chicken designed for at-home chefs. “The number one thing that’s most important to us with Pasture Project is that this is an heirloom breed chicken,” Wexler tells InsideHook. “Ninety-nine percent of the chicken that’s raised and eaten in this country (and most other countries) is one of two industrialized breeds. They were bred over many years to grow quickly, with big breasts and small legs, so they’ve got a lot of white meat, and that’s what they’re all about. They don’t focus on flavor, juiciness, health of the animal or health of the environment.”
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Heirloom breeds are based on the original breeds of chicken instead of these factory-bred hybrids. They spend time in the sunshine, grow much slower and are healthy animals because they move around and get exercise. They spend time outside, foraging for grass, grubs and flowers. Pasture-raised heirloom chicken is also super juicy and cooks up really crisp, and another bonus from all that cavorting in the sunlight is regenerative agriculture.
“Pasture-raised means the chicken can naturally fertilize the soil,” Wexler says. “It’s part of a closed loop system, where the animals are feeding the land, the land is feeding the animals and we’re having minimal impact on the process.” All the meat for Pasture Project comes from chickens that are California born and raised on a farm in the Central Valley, but in order to make sure he was getting meat from reputable, local farms in California, Wexler turned to a provider who helped LA chefs change the way they thought about meat in the first place — Debbie Rocker.
“My partner Debbie really is the person responsible for changing the conversation around meat in LA,” Wexler says. ”At the time, we’d all ask, ‘Is it Prime? Is it Choice? How much marbling does it have?’ And she was like, ‘You’re asking the wrong questions. You need to be asking what kind of animal was this? What breed was it? How was it raised, what did it eat, what was its lifestyle?’”
Now, those questions are top of mind for chefs like Wexler, whether they’re cooking in a restaurant or working on DTC brands. The idea for Pasture Project came to Wexler during the peak pandemic months when no restaurants were open, even for take out, and plenty of less skilled cooks were struggling to prepare food for their families. So, instead of sending up their heirloom chicken breasts raw, Wexler and his team prepared three different marinades, so all that’s left to do is heat the chicken and serve.
“We call it ‘last mile cooking,’ where we’ve done all of the hard work and all of the tough stuff,” he says. “We figured out the flavoring and the seasoning — you don’t have to chop or get messy or deal with guess work. All you have to do is turn on your oven, put it in a pan and put it inside. That was the genesis of Pasture Project.”
With boneless, skinless chicken breasts and a whole spatchcocked chicken currently on offer, expansion plans for wings, tenders and ground chicken are in the works. The three current marinade flavors are Smokey Red, a sauce with smoked paprika, tamarind and yellow mustard (loosely based on the cult-y Dino’s Chicken); Eureka Lemon and Herb, a light, Provencal-style marinade; and Spicy Bomba, a Calabrian chili-driven sauce with rosemary and garlic.
Get some chicken by Pasture Project right here.
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