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Tough man No. 2: Jim Perdue to follow in father's tracks


He's 44 but looks at least 10 years younger.

The eyes are blue and definitely friendly.

Good smile, too.

Quiet? A little. But in a nice way.

A likable guy, this Jim Perdue.

But it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. Or at least that's what Frank Perdue, Jim's famous father, has been saying for more than 20 years.

Frank Perdue made the Salisbury poultry firm -- founded 75 years ago by his father, Arthur Perdue -- the largest poultry producer in the Northeast and the fourth largest in the United States.

He didn't do it by acting like the nice guy next door.

In television commercials that emphasized his cackling voice and leghorn looks, Frank Perdue convinced viewers that a chicken with his label on it was better than the competition's because he, Frank Perdue, was a real stickler for perfection.

Now Jim's the big chicken at Perdue.

Frank's only son (he also has three daughters) has been working his way through the ranks of Perdue Farms since 1983. In 1990, Jim Perdue became chairman of the board, head of the company management committee and point man for long-range planning.

Soon Jim will star in Perdue commercials as well.

His father seems to enjoy the recognition that the commercials bring. Jim thinks the repeated exposure brings with it a lack of privacy. But if it's important to build recognition for the family business, he'll face the camera, of course.

His father thinks he'll do just fine.

"He's sincere," Frank Perdue said recently at Manhattan's Tavern on the Green. "That's important.

"You take somebody like Michael Jordan who's out there endorsing everything. You can't believe that he likes all those products. Jim, on the other hand, does eat Perdue poultry."

Seven top chefs and a small army of food writers bear witness to that.

The chefs from Perdue market areas had been brought to the restaurant in Central Park to cook signature poultry dishes for a party to introduce Jim Perdue to the food media.

With the enthusiasm of a politician seeking re-election, the younger Perdue stopped, tasted and approved each dish.

At Patrick Clark's table, he appreciated the creamy goat-cheese filling of the stuffed chicken thighs prepared by the chef from Washington's Hay-Adams Hotel.

Lal De Silva, chef of the Jefferson in Richmond, Va., had marinated his grilled chicken in Virginia apple wine and seasoned it with Virginia-grown peppermint. Jim Perdue praised his creative use of home- grown products.

The younger Perdue nibbled enthusiastically at the tamarind-guava-seasoned chicken breast cooked up by Robbin Haas, chef of Miami Beach's Colony Bistro.

Cambridge, Mass., chef Jody Adams wowed him with the truffle-fragrant Cornish hens she cooks for patrons of Michela's restaurant there.

Atlanta's Paul Albrecht had ordered a crate of passion fruit for his dish. The fruit wasn't quite ripe, but the chef of Pano's and Paul's used it anyway in a marinade for chicken breasts that Mr. Perdue pronounced perfect.

Jim Perdue's plate of grilled honey-mustard turkey tenders from Stephen Langlois, chef of Prairie, a Chicago restaurant, had an interesting garnish that looked like orange excelsior.

"Sweet potatoes," explained Mr. Langlois, adding that the restaurant kitchen uses a special Japanese cutter to shred the potatoes, which are then deep-fried to make them very crisp. "We use about 100 pounds a day," said Mr. Langlois.

Silvain Portay, chef of New York's prestigious Le Cirque, had prepared a sophisticated dish called Barbecue Chicken Riviera Style that began with a marinade of honey, lemon, garlic, parsley, pepper and thyme. After marinating, the chicken breasts were grilled. Each serving arrived with a bouquet of grilled vegetables. Here, too, Mr. Perdue was pleased.

The chefs were still basking in their praise from Jim Perdue as I made my own tasting rounds.

Mmmmm good, I agreed.

"But do you use Perdue chickens when you cook the dish at your restaurants?" I asked the chefs.

One man blushed, looked at his feet, looked skyward and confessed.

"They're good," he said. "They're very good. But we use free-range chickens."

I told Jim Perdue what the man had said, without naming names, of course.

His answer:

"Free range? It's a hoax! Those chickens are raised in chicken houses the same as ours. And the price is 50 cents-a-pound higher."

If the chickens labeled free range were getting something other than standard feed -- weeds, grass, insects, for example -- it would take them longer to grow, the younger Perdue said. Except for a few small operators, he said he knew of no one in the United States who raised chickens on open ranges.

Jim Perdue's well-modulated voice was heating up as he told of one company's brochure that said that its chickens were free "to range inside spacious chicken houses."

"The government has no definition of 'free range,' " he said. "We can put it on our packages if we want. But it makes the consumer look like an idiot. We think our consumers are smart."

Now that was more like it.

No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Like his father and grandfather before him, this Perdue would do just fine.

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