The world is full of food fanatics. If you fancied, you could happily jet off and dive head first into pizza parties, curry conventions and sushi showdowns from here to eternity. But while these foods hold a special place for many people, their popularity pales in comparison to one particular feathered food. If all-American, no-nonsense snacking is what you’re after, chicken wings reign supreme. What’s more, they’ve got the fans to prove it.
Team Twisted realised this within minutes of our arrival at London’s Wing Fest 2018. The event, which has been run for the past five years by the poultry pioneers at Randy’s Wing Bar in East London, is a celebration of all things wing. Vendors up and down the country flock to Wing Fest’s call, serving up a selection of their finest recipes in Stratford’s Olympic Park and competing for the crown of Britain’s best bird appendage. It draws quite a crowd.
During this year’s two-day extravaganza, over 10,000 die hard wing-thusiasts dragged themselves around 35 different stalls, sampling some 70 separate wings and wolfing down beer, ice cream and obscene amounts of chicken. Early bird tickets to the event had sold out in a matter of days. One glance at the gathered throng and it was obvious that wing culture is alive and well in the United Kingdom.
Given the size and scale of Wing Fest, it would be easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of choice on offer. But Team Twisted are nothing if not professionals. We had a job to do. Having helped to decide the winning wing at last year’s event, the good people at Randy’s had invited us back for Round 2, with more wings and more responsibility.
Together with comrades Edd Scicluna, from dedicated fowl fanciers “The Wingadors”, and professional golfer Andrew “Beef” Johnston, we formed a merry multi-faceted band of wing nuts. We might not have been the obvious panel of food judges, but this band of brothers were determined to make its mark. Seventy wings awaited. This was our Everest. As the gates opened and the punters poured in, we happy few set off to pass judgement and make someone’s day.
Each contestant was competing in two distinct categories. The first was focused on the buffalo wing, which remains for many fans the only real way to eat chicken. Hot, tangy, sticky and sour, true buffalo wings should be deep fried for added crunch before being slathered in the glorious orange lava that is buffalo sauce. The meat should be juicy, practically falling off the bone, and the flavour should be big, bold and brash. Everyone knows how it should taste. Making it is another matter entirely. It was with these interpretations of an icon that we began our mission.
Every stall brought something new to the party, adding to the group’s rapidly-growing headache. Playful twists on tradition made us rethink what we knew about buffalo. Ghetto Grillz's addition of Scottish soft drink legend Irn Bru was inspired. Lord of the Wings won points for their near-perfect traditional approach as well as their name. It was a two hour blizzard of buffalo and chicken.
In the end however, Category One came down to two competitors. In one corner, we had We Serve Humans’ bold riff, which featured giant drumsticks of beautifully cooked bird, drowned in a salty blue-cheese dip and textbook buffalo sauce, topped with the inspired addition of crunchy croutons. Texture, taste, technique - this wing ticked every box.
In the other corner sat People’s Favourite, Wingmans. Despite being swamped with orders from the moment the event opened, this crack team of wingsperts managed to turn out plate after plate of perfect poultry. Their buffalo sauce was significantly less subtle than We Serve Humans - sharp and acidic, but brilliantly offset by their own tiny tub of blue cheese dressing. With a sprinkling of celery sticks to boot, Wingmans managed to just drag themselves over the line. Category One was done.
As with any sequel, for Category Two, we would be going bigger and bolder than before. Leaving behind the hard and fast rules of buffalo, the next few hours would be a journey into the wild west of wing making. For their second “Wild” wing, competitors were encouraged to let their creativity off the leash and put anything and everything into making the wackiest wing possible. With no small sense of trepidation, we began our second circumnavigation.
The wild wing entries were, well, wild. There were wings topped with parmesan and sweet chilli sauce, wings flavoured with prawn cocktail crisp, wings bathed in Bombay spice and wings that tasted like a Christmas dinner. If our earlier rulings had been decided by minute details, these next entries were worlds apart.
Whatever you may think of buffalo, we were all left in little doubt that the wild wings were at the pinnacle of Wing Fest cookery. Petare, a Venezuelan fried chicken joint, treated us to sweet guava marinated morsels, drenched in a heady habanero mayo. Thunderbird blew us away with an insane combination of black treacle and miso that left both sweet and savoury lingering in the mouth for several minutes afterwards.
The biggest shock, however, was delivered by the innocuous-looking Earl’s Serious Sandwiching. Burying a bed of sweet Asian style wings under a blanket of red amaranth, bright green baby coriander and cool aioli, Earl’s wild wing looked more like a herb garden for a doll’s house than street food. As pretty as it looked, the taste took no prisoners. An initial punch of aromatic sweetness was soon dotted by bitter pin pricks from the plants, making every mouthful more delicious and complex than the last. It took a bit of discussion, but in the end there could only be one winner - even if they did have “sandwich” in the name.
Though you could easily write a book dissecting the pros and cons of every entry at Wing Fest, it’s not actually the food that makes the event special. What’s so striking about spending a day in the company of dedicated wing fanatics is that this food, for whatever reason, seems to be able to draw people together like nothing else on the menu. We tasted food from Chicken George, a Luton-based American diner run by three generations of the same family - all obsessed with this awesome ingredient. We tried the debut entry from Gurt Wings, a Bristolian husband-and-wife team, who were so inspired by their previous visit to the competition that they decided to give up the day job and make their living from chicken full time. Despite inexperience, they placed an impressive third in the buffalo category.
I started by saying that there are food fans everywhere you go. Depending on where you are, different ingredients may mean different things for different people. But, as the competition at Wing Fest proves, there’s something uniquely all-encompassing about the chicken wing. It takes something special to bring people from South America, Asia and Europe all together behind one ingredient. Maybe that’s why we all love it so much. It might rank among the least glamorous foods in the kitchen, but hunting for the nation’s best wing is easily one of the most enjoyable ways to spend a weekend.