The Four Seasons has been famous for its roast duck since Chef Seppi Renggli introduced this recipe in 1976. It was right after Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi bought the restaurant from Restaurant Associates, their former employer, and they had a new refrigeration system and a convection oven installed.
Says Chef Renggli now: “I saw the oven, and all this refrigerator space—rack after rack, and it had a fan —and I said to myself ’Oh, I can make Peking duck now.’”
Renggli’s recipe is not truly the Chinese banquet dish. The Four Seasons serves its duck with orange sauce, not in the Chinese style, though Renggli is well-acquainted with Asian seasoning and cooking, since he is married to an Asian woman. His goal was not to create authentic Peking duck but seriously crisp duck skin. He achieved this by the Chinese method of letting the skin dehydrate through several days of air circulation in the refrigerator, then painting it with what amounts to a teriyaki glaze, a coloring and flavoring mixture of soy sauce and honey with spices. The drying is easily done in a home kitchen, if you are willing to monopolize a refrigerator shelf for three days. A convection oven is not needed. The following recipe is devised for a conventional oven.
- 2 (4½- to 5-pound) ducks (if frozen, thoroughly defrosted), necks removed and reserved for a sauce, if desired
- ½ ounce fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
- Zest of ¼ orange, cut into thin strips
- 1 teaspoon lightly crushed coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon lightly crushed black peppercorns
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon honey
- ¼ cup loose jasmine tea leaves
- 1 tablespoon Szechuan pepper (optional)
Cut the wing tips off the wings at the second joint. Cut or pull away all the fat from the ducks’ cavities.
Clear a rack in your refrigerator and place the ducks on it, breast sides up and several inches apart. It is important that the air circulates freely around the ducks so the skin will dry. You can place a large baking pan below the rack with the birds to catch drippings. (There will not be many.) Leave the birds for 3 days without touching them.
To make the marinade, place all the ingredients in a jar or plastic container. Shake well to combine and refrigerate for 3 days, along with the ducks, shaking daily.
To roast: After 3 full days of drying and about 3 hours before you plan to serve the ducks, remove them and the marinade from the refrigerator.
Strain the marinade through a sieve into a bowl.
In handling the ducks, avoid pressing on the breasts since this will leave dark spots after roasting. I use a two-pronged meat fork placed inside the cavity to hold the ducks without touching their skins.
With the point of a small sharp knife, prick the skins all over, giving the thighs a few more pricks than the breasts.
Holding the ducks over a platter or pan, brush the ducks liberally with the marinade.
Place the ducks on a rack and let dry, breast side up, for about 15 minutes. Then brush them again and let dry again.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and arrange the racks so the ducks can be placed on the middle shelf and so there can be a rack under their rack to hold a roasting pan of water.
In the roasting pan, combine 3 quarts of water and the jasmine tea. Place in the oven while it preheats.
Spoon the remaining marinade into the ducks’ cavities and carefully place them directly on the middle rack of the oven, breast side up, separated by a couple of inches, and positioned so they are directly over the pan of water and tea.
Let the ducks roast undisturbed for 1½ hours. The skin should be shiny, dark caramel in color, and very crisp.
Before removing the ducks from the oven, tip them to drain the liquid in their cavities, letting the juices run into the pan of water.
Place the ducks on a carving board. Sprinkle with Szechuan pepper, if using.
Let stand 10 minutes before carving. I use poultry shears to split the ducks in half the long way, then to cut the thigh-drumstick quarters from the breast quarters. Serve each person a half duck.