Chicago's WingFest inspires flavor innovation

by Donna Berry
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The 18th Annual Chicago WingFest took place March 5. More than 9,000 lbs. of wings were served by a total of 30 different restaurants. These Windy City culinary professionals showed the poultry industry that wings are so much more than barbecue and buffalo.

 

The event featured a collection of chefs from some of Chicago’s best eateries competing for various prizes including the Best of Fest, and the Best Mild, Hot, BBQ and Exotic Wing awards. A number of them shared with MEAT+POULTRY their secrets to delicious, succulent wings, often with a unique flavor twist.

For many chefs, the secret is using only fresh wings and making them extra crispy. That’s what Carlos Arreola of Reggie’s on Chicago’s south side said.

“I marinade fresh jumbo wings, fresh always, for 24 hours,” he said. “I bread and fry them once, and then I bread and fry them again.”

For the father and son team of Tony and Anthony Garland of River Forest Catering located in the western suburb of River Forest, it’s all about grilling the wings until they are almost blackened. Then they get tossed in a signature sauce based on a variety of grilled and blackened peppers.

The Best of Fest and Rookie of the Year award went to first-time contestant Half Day Brewing Company (HDBC) located in Chicago’s far north suburb of Lincolnshire. The restaurant buttermilk brines its wings before hickory smoking them for four hours. The wings are then flash fried and tossed in sauce. For WingFest, Chef Bob Zrenner created Devil’s Catsup, a spicy hot sauce that made most tasters eyes tear after just one bite. After winning the Best of Fest, as well as the top award in the hot category, the restaurant is now featuring this variety on its menus, joining buffalo hot, HDBC lager barbecue and HDBC sweet and spicy.

Chef Thomas Gravett of The Revel Bar, Chicago, agreed that brining is a key to successful wings. He brines his wings for 48 hours then smokes them for six hours before they get tossed in one of his signature sauces.


Paisans Pizzeria & Bar took first place in the mild category at WingFest.
Paisans Pizzeria & Bar took home the gold in the mild category for its signature mild buffalo wings tossed with a savory garlic butter and topped with parmesan.
 

First place in the mild category went to family-owned Paisans Pizzeria & Bar with four locations in Chicago’s western suburbs. The winning flavor was the restaurant’s mild garlic parmesan, which Chef Sergio Villegas created by accident earlier in the year when a patron ordered buffalo wings and garlic wings. He mixed them together, and voila, he developed a winner. Since, he has fine-tuned the recipe, which is described as “our signature mild buffalo wings tossed with a savory garlic butter and topped with parmesan.” The chain’s dragon wings, described as sweet and spicy, took top in the exotic category.

Estrella Negra in Chicago chef and owner Oto Michael served his specialty: tamarind chicken wings.
Estrella Negra’s entry in the exotic wing category featured a tamarind-based sauce with goat cheese and chive topping.
 

Estrella Negra in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood is a modern Mexican-Latin street eats restaurant. Chef and owner Oto Michael served his specialty at WingFest: tamarind chicken wings.

They are what he describes as “an all original dish made of estrella negra style.” Featured on the restaurant’s menu, the wings are covered in his homemade spicy, sweet and sour tamarind sauce. They get topped with goat cheese crumbles and chives.

“Who knew goat cheese worked on wings,” he said. “I did.”

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