Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman
At festivals the music often takes centre stage, but nowadays, the lineup of food is almost as vast. When dancing, camping and getting by on very little sleep, we all reach that pivotal point of ravenous hunger, and once it hits there’s just no shaking it. Packed full of guides and interviews with music talent and food truck vendors, our new franchise, The Hunger Stage, celebrates the sheer joy of food at festivals in all its messy, greasy glory.
About a decade ago, gourmet chicken wings weren’t really a thing on the high-street.
People associated them with their local chicken shop – a delightful and greasy fast food option they may have been, but a serious meal they were not – however, over the years, we’ve seen this change, and there’s no better indication than Wing Fest.
The festival, which was inspired by US’ buffalo wing culture and started by Richard Thacker, has seen restaurants and street food stalls come together annually since 2014 to celebrate all things chicken.
Not only are the crowds of punters growing year on year, but so is the quality of the grub on offer. That’s because as well as offering chicken wing enthusiasts a place to get their fix, Wing Fest also awards the best Buffalo Wing and the best Wild Wing (which is one with creative, fusion flavours) as judged by the public and professionals, like our very own Twisted chefs.
The ‘hall of flame’ has housed dishes like Chicken George’s ‘Thai me up u Naughty Chick’, (made of spicy Thai chilli sauce, crushed peanuts, crispy garlic and a lemon grass mayo), Thunderbird’s ‘Sex Panther’ (fluorescent pink, and flavoured with bacon infused maple-bourbon-butterscotch) and Petare’s Venezualan ‘Guava Glazed Chicken’ (garnished with a ribbon of tingly habanero mayo and chilli flakes) – and the list could well and truly go on.
Through the sheer creativity and variety of the dishes on offer, traders are changing the UK’s perception of chicken wings one whacky idea at a time, cementing themselves as culinary names to watch, and even landing themselves slots on supermarket shelves and bricks and mortar sites.
“I started the festival to showcase chicken wings, and give them the respect they deserve as a cut of meat,” Richard says.
“The event has also always been about putting small traders and big restaurants on the same platform and giving them all equal opportunity to be recognised for their talents. Supporting independent businesses is central to the entire event, and one of the reasons it has grown so much”.
With that in mind, we thought we’d introduce you to some of the stars who have risen from the festival and since spread their wings… (see what we did there?!).
Check out our interviews with three Wing Fest prize winners below:
London based Wingmans has an unprecedented reputation at Wing Fest, having won their first awards when the festival was in its infancy.
They’re showing no signs of slowing down now, either. In fact, the brand recently bagged not one but two first prize accolades three years in a row (in 2017, 2018 and 2019).
Founded by trained chef Ben Ford and international food lover, David Turofsky, the concept – “inspired by street food culture” from all over the world, and with an onus on Asian flavours – was one of the first to really launch chicken wings into the UK’s consciousness.
They’re clearly doing something right. The duo are so successful today that they even have a pair of brick and mortar restaurants around London, and another on the way.
“At our first Wing Fest, there were nowhere near as many traders as there are today, but those we were competing against were our idols and our role models – the likes of Orange Buffalo,” David says, as he looks back on where it all begun.
But such a response was modest, given the sheer amount of grafting the pair did to perfect each dish they brought to the judging table.
“With the Wild Wings specifically, it’s a long process. I mean, we are perfectionists, and if it’s on the best we’ll go back to the drawing board time and time again,” he says.
“Once, we changed our idea the night before the festival, pulling an all nighter, creating the Shanghai Oriental, which ended up winning.”
They may be hustlers, but the duo also deserve credit for their sheer creativity and flare. They have since won with the likes of their Bang Coq chicken wings, glazed with honey sriracha hot sauce and garnished with Japanese Kewpie mayo, and their Korean inspired Soulja Boy, made with pickled daikon, coriander, pineapple and a roasted sesame dressing.
“Winning is great, but at this point, we don’t even see Wing Fest as a competition, it’s just pure epicness,” David adds. “We may have been there since the beginning, but we’re always getting inspired by other people’s concepts and their menus.
“Chicken wings were always regarded as a side dish or a starter. We’re trying to change the game and make them a main meal.
“There is a million things you can do with a chicken wing, and we’re here to showcase that”.
Having traded at Wing Fest for the last three years, Poor Boys are being billed this year’s ‘ones to watch’ – and for good reason.
Inspired by the food of New Orleans and Louisiana, chicken hasn’t always been the bread and butter of restaurateur Jas Kadar, who runs the Kingston based spot alongside his brother.
But having opened their eatery in 2017, they’ve since evolved from beyond popular Po’ Boy sandwiches and fried shrimps and oysters to sell chicken wings, inspired by the “regionality of American flavour combinations” and the global influences that exist throughout the States.
“Chicken wings are just adored by many folk, wherever you are from in the world. There’s something caveman-like about biting meat off the bone and I think people seem to [universally] like that,” David says.
“We’re not traditionally a chicken shop, but Wing Fest gave us an opportunity to just go nuts.”
Sure enough, nuts is just the word we’d use to describe their Homer’s Donut wing last year (a maple glazed BBQ wing with a strawberry and popping candy chilli jam alongside it), although, delicious would also more than suffice.
It might sound quirky, but former restaurant consultant Jas is adamant he’s about far more than just novelty value.
“The popping candy actually opens up your mouth a bit more, and reaches those taste buds that otherwise might not be hit,” he says. “While you’re biting a wing that’s glazed with a home-made cajun and BBQ spice, it allows you to fully appreciate those tastes.
“It’s not all jazz and fireworks. Our main interest is that the wing is tasty”.
True to everyone’s predictions, Poor Boys has already bagged a first prize for its Wild Wing at this year’s Wing Fest in Derby, after placing for multiple categories last year.
“It’s nice to have a pat on the back”, he says, but his main interest is “the sounds people make, and the faces they pull” when they bite into his food.
As for the friends he’s made? Jas says they’re more valuable than any prize.
“When you work for yourself, you often don’t have any peers to look to. I’ve built up some wicked working relationships through Wing Fest. What’s developed is a beautiful sort of family”.
It’s always a good thing when Wing Fest’s founder, Richard, says you’re destined to be one of the festival’s All Stars.
A long-time Wing Fest attendee, Ashley Chipchase found himself on the other side of the chicken wing stalls last year when he took Mexican Seoul to the masses.
He bagged a second place judges choice award alongside two number one titles, for his Buffalo Wings and his Wild Wing – the Korean inspired Gochu Gang, made with gochujang sauce, a gochu-mayo, and garnished with sesame seeds and spring onions.
“It was actually going to Wing Fest in 2016 that I saw Wingmans and what they were doing, and I realised street food has come a long way in the UK, and if there’s any time to do it, it’s now,” Ashley says.
After sitting on his idea for a while, six months of Covid furlough pushed the chicken wing enthusiast to make his business a reality, and he used the time to research ingredients at his local Korean supermarket and BBQ restaurants and finesse his recipes, before setting up shop at the Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane.
“All of a sudden I was brought back into my job, and I was basically just working seven days a week, with my 9-5, the markets and all the prepping that came with it, too,” he says.
“Even being invited to Wing Fest was a huge deal for me. I had imposter syndrome, and I was like ‘I’m not a chef’.
“When I got an award, it made me realise…my food’s actually good. I went on stage and they asked me to say something and I got so overwhelmed that I quit my job”.
Sure enough, Ashley said goodbye to the world of sales and is now working on Mexican Seoul full time, and throwing himself into bringing his Mexican and Korean flavours to festivals across the country this summer.
Alongside his Korean wings, Ashley also offers wings with a Mexican Honey Habenero glaze, using the chillis and maple syrup, with some other secret ingredients to boot.
Plus, when he’s not at Wing Fest, he also sells tacos, inspired by the Korean-Mexican fusion food pioneered by the likes of US chef, Roy Choi.
“What’s blown me away this year is the amount of people who come up to us at festivals and say ‘oh, we’ve tried your wings at Wing Fest and we’ve been trying to seek you out!’,” he says.
“I’m looking to like build a taco bar by the end of the year, so, for me, the biggest focus of my business has been building a community – my Gochu Gang.
“I would never have expected to be saying this a year and a half ago. Without Wing Fest, we would honestly not be where we are today. It’s been amazing.”
You can grab tickets to this year’s Wing Fest here. It hits London on 16th and 17th July.