Genius Recipe: Richard Olney’s Chicken Gratin

For anyone who’s ever wanted to throw a dinner party but been unnerved, for anyone who thought they needed a dry run of every dish, we have a new hero — and, through her, a recipe to bring us praise and camaraderie and lusty conversations over bottles and bottles of wine. The recipe isn’t what you’d expect, but maybe the hero is.

Tracey Jackson, an accomplished author of screenplays and books with a self-described "rather dormant relationship to food and cooking", was re-inspired to throw a dinner party after reading "Provence, 1970," a chronicle of the dinners and conversations between Julia Child, Richard Olney, Judith Jones, James Beard, and M.F.K. Fisher over one winter in the South of France. But Jackson didn't ease back in.

She invited both the book's author, Luke Barr (he's also Fisher's great-nephew), and Food52's own Amanda Hesser. Our hero didn't make something she'd served a number of times, nor something she knew would be foolproof. She chose a recipe almost at random out of Olney's "Simple French Food," for a whole chicken, cut up and cooked in custard.

“I’ve never been intimidated by cooking,” Jackson told me when I asked her how she was brave enough to do this. “What’s the worst that can happen? Amanda will still like me.”

Nothing went wrong, or if it did no one remembered. The dinner party was a success. Amanda was especially smitten with the chicken gratin.

The recipe follows the same initial theory as Jamie Oliver's chicken cooked in milk: Crackle the chicken's skin up on the stovetop to get some browning, then cook it through as gently as you can in the oven, in a bath of dairy, a.k.a. the tenderizing forces of lactic acid and fat.

Olney’s milky chicken diverges after that — it has a few more ingredients and steps, though nothing that’s outside the realm of dinners you can make tonight. But this one is more likely to play at a dinner party, celebration, or night you’re in more desperate need of comfort, and could use a little chickeny custard to bolster you. Think of it like a crustless quiche with oversized add-ins.

If you’re already thinking it sounds too rich, you’re sort of right, but hear me out. In the end, there is balance, there is harmony, and, most importantly, there is one of the most flavorful and delicately cooked pans of chicken you’ll ever set on your table.

You'll brown chicken pieces in butter, then cobble them into a shallow gratin pan. You'll toast breadcrumbs in the residual chickeny butter, then scoop them out and hang onto them. Then you'll splash in some white wine (the rest is for you!), deglaze the brown bits of chicken and lingering bread, and reduce whatever's left in the pan.

Finally, you’ll mix together cream, Gruyère, egg yolks and lemon juice, add the winey reduction, and spoon that all over the chicken.

Those schmaltzy breadcrumbs will go back on top and you’ll bake till the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened into a rich custard all around.

All of this, for all of its seeming pageantry, has taken no more than an hour, and done so intermittently with making your sides, tidying as you go, and talking to your dinner companions.

Every bit of the chicken’s potential has been captured and put back to good use. The cream and egg don’t wash out the other flavors, but rather simmer down and intensify them. The brightness of wine and lemon and the salty funk of Gruyère tug you back from the buttery brink.

Jackson served the chicken simply, with Julia Child's foolproof rice and haricots verts vinaigrette. She started the meal with pretzel goldfish crackers (another nod to Julia) and finished with Amanda's raspberries with brown butter spooned over. And you can too.

ExploreRichard Olney’s Chicken Gratin

Adapted slightly from "Simple French Food" (Atheneum, 1974)

Serves 4

One 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-lb. fryer chicken, cut up (or use all legs and thighs, or all breasts)

Salt, pepper

2 Tbsp. butter

1 large handful finely crumbled stale, but not dried, bread, crusts removed

1/3 cup white wine

3/4 cup heavy cream

3 egg yolks

3 oz. freshly grated Gruyère

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Salt the chicken pieces and cook them in the butter over medium heat until nearly done and lightly colored on all sides — about 20 minutes, adding the breasts only after the first 10 minutes. Transfer them to a gratin dish of a size to just hold them, arranged side by side.

Cook the crumbs in the chicken’s cooking butter until slightly crisp and only slightly colored — still blond, stirring. Put them aside (don’t worry if a few remain in the pan) and deglaze the pan with the white wine, reducing it by about half.

Whisk together the cream, egg yolks, seasonings, and cheese, then incorporate the lemon and the deglazing liquid. Spoon or pour this mixture evenly over the chicken pieces, sprinkle the surface with the breadcrumbs, and bake 20 to 25 minutes or until the surface is nicely colored and the custard is firm.

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