"There's nothing better than an egg laid that day," promises Jennifer (formerly Plank) Horvath, the chef and newlywed who operates Toast alongside her husband Joe.
So rather than trying to seek out the nearest farm-fresh egg vendor, the two took matters into their own hands, building a chicken coop to augment the restaurant's nearby kitchen garden.
It was constructed from wood left over from the build-out of the new Detroit-Shoreway eatery. This is urban homesteading at its finest: Even the nesting boxes are upcycled, made from an old bookshelf that the Horvaths broke down to use for the laying hens.
The two learned how to care for the chickens on their own. "Kind of just got them and learned by trial and error and read a lot of books," Horvath says.
Every morning around 10, the couple frees the 11 chickens from the coop, allowing them to forage on compost, weeds and bugs on a roomy 50-by-100-foot patch of land. Throughout the day they return to the coop to lay eggs, and at dusk they're locked inside for safekeeping from hungry predators. Their free-range diet is supplemented by non-GMO, organic grain from Grace Brothers Nursery on West 65th Street.
"They're happy chickens," Horvath laughs. "They like being petted, they like their butts scratched, and they like being picked up. I've never seen chickens like this. They are very personable."
Alas, they're not pets; they're providers. "We use their eggs in our deviled eggs, and we also use them for our brunch eggs," she says.
The eggs are collected daily. "You have to or else they'll lay on them and molt their feathers," Horvath explains. The eggs are washed and sanitized and stored in cartons that the Horvaths and their employees have accumulated.
Toast's popular appetizer beet-deviled eggs are a spin on "straightforward bar-food pickled eggs," she says. They start by pickling beets, which also come from Toast's gardens. "We take that beet pickle liquid and pickle the egg whites in it, so it's a pickled egg with a straightforward deviled egg filling, a pickled beet on top and homemade beer mustard."
The eggs also star in Toast's Saturday morning brunch. In fact, every egg on the brunch menu comes from their hens. Horvath suggests the smoked tomato poached egg, which is flavored with a South African spice blend, or the farm egg omelet made from three fresh eggs, plus sautéed onion, corn and smoked tomato. "And then, you know, the poached eggs, the sunny side ups... all that."
As with most livestock, the fowls have a multitude of uses. These particular hens will produce at high levels for only about two and a half years, according to Horvath. "Next year, we'll probably have to turn them into stewing hens," she admits. "You use them for stock; they're too tough for meat."
She and Joe do the slaughtering and butchering in-house, learned primarily through time both spent working at the Greenhouse Tavern, which brings in its fair share of whole animals.
"I tried to [name them] when we only had six of them," Horvath says. "It got really confusing when we added on, and I have no idea who's who anymore. But I'm really attached to the first batch." Horvath calls the butchering process "terrifyingly sad," since she has raised the hens from chicks. Then she laughs, perhaps in an effort to shake it off. "You know, but it's the circle of life."