There’s a few things I’m known for among my closest friends: having a spreadsheet for everything, a certain kind of resting face, and an incurable love of fried chicken.
I am that friend who ducks out of nights out early to venture in search of the deep fried good stuff, no matter how long or how far it takes me. Indeed, will I even go on a night out if consuming fried chicken isn’t factored into plans? Unlikely. I enjoy it sober as much as I do inebriated; I enjoy the questionable £3 two-piece meal I can get on my local high street as much as a £15 KFC bucket; I am prepared to pay even more and travel even longer for an East London newcomer I’ve seen on one of the many dedicated fried chicken accounts I follow on social media. The Chicken Connoisseur, come at me.
So when I was invited to peruse the stalls at Wing Fest, the London iteration of the world’s biggest chicken wing festival, I thought: can my job get any better than this?
Wings. Music. Beer. Bourbon. That’s how the “Ultimate Chicken Wing Showdown” was billed in my inbox one day a few months ago and it was, as you can expect, very much a “need I say more” situation. Onto an hour-long Central line tube I immediately hopped, salivating and with big expectations.
This year’s first event touched down at the London Stadium in July, with the second and third stops on the tour due in Bristol this weekend and Manchester at the end of the month. The premise is simple: every year the festival showcases the best chicken wings the UK has to offer, with thousands of ticket holders and an expert judging panel deciding who will take home the crown. The competition is split into two categories: the Best Buffalo Wing – the battle for who can execute the perfect classic spicy sauce – and the Best Wild Wing, where wing slingers can let their creativity flow with flavours and toppings to transform a humble chicken wing into a flavour explosion.
Arriving at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park with equally hungry Boyfriend in tow, we pick up our free Wing Fest colourful mesh baseball hats and a fistful of Frank’s RedHot sauce sachets (one of the big name sponsors) and head in. The stalls were set up in a ring around the outside of the stadium and, deciding to walk the perimeter to survey all the options before spending our entire net worth at the first one we find, feature plenty of the classics – Buffalo, BBQ, Korean – among some more peculiar flavour pairings – peanut butter and jam; bacon, maple, bourbon and butterscotch; and “Homer’s Donut”, maple-frosted wings coated in spicy chilli jam, crispy bacon and popping candy. It’s hard to know where to start.
After much deliberation and with long lines of hungry wing fans starting to form (I recommend investing in an early bird ticket for the optimum eating-to-queuing ratio), we stop at London powerhouse Thunderbird. I can tolerate a decent amount of heat but it’s for the Wild Wing category that I’m really here – and these are the 2019 defenders. We order one serving of Chipuffalo Dynamite, an upgrade on their previous winning chocolatey-smoky sauce served with creamy blue cheese dip, and one serving of their new entry Sex Panther – bacon-infused maple-bourbon-butterscotch topped with fluorescent pink maple-infused sauce, a sprinkle of furikake and crumbled pork scratchings. A mouthful in more ways than one.
It’s hard to describe in words our reaction to the latter, other than this: Boyfriend and I took one bite, paused, looked up at each other, eyes wide and said, in unison: “Oh my God.” Rich, complex, smoky, mildly spicy and, in their own words, “utterly, utterly filthy”. Maple syrup and bacon are well known bedfellows and I’m not surprised to find they’re even better in a threesome with fried chicken. Suddenly the name Sex Panther makes total sense.
So does “Thai Me Up You Naughty Chick” (are you sensing a theme? I’m sensing a theme) from Chicken George, the Luton and Hitchin-based restaurant that took home gold for both Best Buffalo and Best Wild Wing. While the flavour pairings in their Wild Wing contender were more familiar to me than experimental, the combo of spicy Thai chilli sauce, crushed peanuts, crispy garlic, chilli flakes and spring onion with lemongrass and coriander mayonnaise, for want of a better word, banged. The queue alone spoke for itself – arrive early to avoid a long wait.
Bagging second place, also for both categories, was Gurt Wings, AKA the West Country wing slingers. Karaage-style wings tossed in a special dredge then covered in spicy Korean ketchup, drizzled with a sriracha lime and maple mayonnaise and sprinkled with shichimi togarashi and sesame seeds… if that’s not the language of love then I don’t know what is. The aforementioned Homer’s Donut left a little to be desired, the popping candy and sweet-salty-spicy toppings overpowering what we really came here for: the chicken.
Other highlights included guava-glazed wings with habanero mayo from Latino wing purveyors El Pollote and Petare, gochu-gang wings from Mexican Seoul, a winning mish-mash of cuisines, tandoori-fried Sidhu Juicy Wala Wings from the DJ’s Kitchen… the options seemed endless, the creative juices clearly flowing, both metaphorically and literally. There were vegan options too, so even your plant-based friends can enjoy an outing to Wing Fest.
Brave and hungry aficionados could take part in Frank’s RedHot Wing Eating competition, hosted by the legendary DJ BBQ on the main stage, to see who could eat the messiest wings – kind of like when you try to eat a doughnut without getting sugar all over your face. Great entertainment. Meanwhile the “Get Heated” lava wing challenge served up the hottest wings in Wing Fest history, measuring a hellish 12 million on the Scoville scale. Let’s just say there were tears.
All of this was washed down by beer from Meantime brewery, and music from DJs and live blues and brass bands. While what can only be described as biblical rain put a bit of a dampener on the day we attended, it certainly didn’t stop anyone from dancing the night away, chicken wing in hand. In between rounds, you could enjoy a spot of axe throwing or a go on a fairground ride, which, I’m pleased to report, were all free, an added bonus you don’t often see at London festivals like these.
As we left to roll home, stuffed to the brim and adorned in merch, Boyfriend furiously googling which wing shops delivered to our area (you’d have thought he’d had enough), I thought: yes, my job definitely doesn’t get better than this. Perhaps it was because it was one of the first events I had attended since the easing of restrictions, or perhaps it was the passion with which slingers slung their wings and made fans queue in the rain for hours.
This is a truly fun festival that I expect will only get bigger and better as it tours the country. I can see why people come back every year and the restaurants have such a massive following, but it’s also perfect for people who just love great food, creativity and, most importantly, a laugh. For £17.50 for early birds, or £20 thereafter, £1 wings and a bunch of free stuff thrown in, it’s well worth the price and the stomach ache.
For tickets and more information, visit the Wing Fest website here