It’s one of the best days of the year, and certainly one of my personal favorites. I am talking about the Asheville Wing War of course, which I was lucky enough to be a judge at for the fourth year in a row on Sunday, March 4th, 2018. Eleven competitors threw-down in two categories: Traditional & Specialty. There were six judges this year, and here’s how things went down at the Judge’s Table.
SOME WINGS FLY, SOME WINGS FLOP
And Occasionally Even the Judges Fail
Above: The 2018 Asheville Wing War judges were (L-R) Jonathan Ammons (Food Writer / Mountain Xpress), Mackensy Lunsford (Food Writer, Editor / Asheville Citizen Times), Chef Duane Fernandez (Isa’s French Bistro / Hemmingways’), Stephan Pruitt (Dig Local), Dave Bristol (aka Spaceman Jones), some guy named Stu.
*** WINNERS ***
Judges’ Vote: 1) Salvage Station
2) Moe’s Original Barbecue
3) Culture Shock
People’s Choice: Dread Life Kitchen
Judge’s Vote: 1) Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Food Truck
2) Brinehaus Meat & Provisions
3) Salvage Station
People’s Choice: Mojo Kitchen and Lounge
As I said, there are two categories at the Asheville Wing War every year, the first being “Traditional.” It is super-duper-crucial for all of the competitors to understand what a traditional wing is.
TRADITIONAL MEANS CHICKEN
Way back at Wing War 2015, Chef Goff (King James Pub) submitted a duck wing in both the Traditional and Specialty categories, and won 1st place with the judges for “Best Specialty Wing.” At that time, there was some hew and cry that using a duck wing gave Steven an unfair advantage, so some rules were nailed down. It was decided and carved in stone that, while duck wings were indeed, and still are, perfectly ok for the Specialty category, ONLY chicken wings are allowed for the Traditional category. So, imagine how confused the judges were when this year, Chef Goff (now representing Brinehaus Meat & Provisions) submitted another duck wing in both categories!
Above: A duck wing is is not a chicken wing, but a chicken wing is. – photo by Stu Helm
Except. Oops. Hold that.
Yeeeaaahhh… No. The judges all THOUGHT it was a duck wing… but it was actually… I found out two days later… a chicken wing. That’s right. You read that correctly . All six judges — which included a chef, a cook, three food writers, and a hard-core eater — all six of us convinced each other and ourselves that this wing was a duck wing. I repeat: It was not. It was a chicken wing. Yerp. That happened.
Y’see… um… it’s a true tale of how a blind taste test is never truly blind, how past experiences have an incredibly powerful influence on present perceptions, and how even the so-called “experts” can be tricked by memories, assumptions, prejudices, peer pressure, and group-think. Read on…
But First: I want to officially apologize to Chef Steven Goff of Brinehaus Meat & Provisions
Chef Goff is well known for his duck wings. He’s also known for a certain style of presentation, so although the Wing War taste test is truly blind — unlabeled, color-coded plates are used to anonymously deliver the wings to our table, which is secluded, off in a remote corner of the event space — when an orange plate showed-up with a giant wing on it, a wing that was much larger than any other contender, and it had Steven’s signature garnishes of crushed peanuts, shaved celery & carrots on top, all the judges assumed correctly that this was his entry, and then each and every one of us assumed incorrectly — or allowed ourselves to be convinced via peer pressure and self doubt — that it was a duck wing.
In 2015, there was some feeling among the contenders that Steven’s duck wing gave him the unfair advantage, so ironically, this year, it could be argued that the duck wing from his past came back to bite him in the ass with what may have been an unfair disadvantage. Sorry, Steven. I asked all the judges after the fact, and we agreed that Steven’s wing would not have placed in the top three in the Traditional category this year, even if we hadn’t been so wrong about which bird this thing was from, if only because it was “traditional enough” as compared to the other winners. Feel free to mock me in public over this, but please mock the other judges equally. Anyhoo… I do know a couple of things for sure: My ass from my elbow, shit from Shinola, and that…
TRADITIONAL MEANS BUFFALO
This rule is carved in fucking stone, and FOR SURE, Kelly Denson (All American Food Fights / producer of the Wing War) let all the competitors know that Traditional means Buffalo. Not a BBQ wing. Not a wing that is simply smoked. Not a traditional Asian-style wing. Buh. Fuh. Low. There is no bending on that rule. Ever. Traditional is a word that has a meaning. Damn it. Without rules around the word Traditional, why even bother having a “Specialty” category?
So what is a Buffalo wing? I love questions with very easy answers. Also, pictures.
According to Wiki: “A Buffalo wing, in the cuisine of the United States, is an unbreaded chicken wing section that is generally deep-fried then coated in a sauce consisting of a vinegar-based cayenne pepper hot sauce and melted butter prior to serving. Wikipedia“
Above: The Salvage Station won the Judge’s vote with their excellent take on a traditional Buffalo Wing. – photo by Stu helm
The Salvage Station nailed it this year with their very well-executed take on the very traditional wing treatment described by Wiki above. Salvage Station didn’t try to rewrite the recipe, they didn’t eff with the basics, they didn’t go crazy, they just went better. At least 5 of the stars I granted this piece of chicken was for the piece of chicken itself, which seemed to be of a superior quality to many of the other pieces of we sampled that day. It was just a damn fine bit of bird to begin with.
It was cooked perfectly and served hot.
Nothing is worse than an under-cooked chicken wing. Blech! Just thinking about it gives me the heebie-jeebies. The Salvage Station’s offering was cooked to perfection through-and-through. It seemed to have been sauced, deep-fried, then sauced again? The judges actually know very little about the wings when we taste-test them. We have to guess how they’re made and what they’re made with. We don’t get the “key” to the color-code until after we have determined a winner, and that only tells us who made them, which believe me, sometimes that comes as a BIG surprise vis a vi which wing and which ones we loved or hated. No surprises here though! Salvage Station won the judges’ vote in the 2017 Battle of the Burger, proving themselves to be contenders!
Things that made Salvage Station’s wings the big winner with the judges were: The perfect amount of heat, the Buffalo sauce was super-traditional, but not boring or mainstream, the skin was slightly crispy, the presentation was good, and the slaw that it came with was excellent.
TIP TO COMPETITORS: You don’t have to give the judge’s anything extra on our plates, but if you do, make dang sure it is excellent! Pointless garnishes don’t impress the judges, and bad ones definitely detract from your wing. Also, food waste annoys us, so if we’re forced to not eat something extra because it sucked or was too much food, we get a little peeved.
The other two winners in the Traditional category were Moe’s Original Barbecue and Culture Shock (née Vieux Carre food truck).
Above: Sometimes less is Moe. – photo by Stu helm
Moe’s Original BBQ came in 2nd Place with the judges by entering a Buffalo version of their famous smoked wing, and with a little bit of their Alabama white sauce on top (looks yellow in the pic, but was white in reality!) I was happy to be part of the decision to award Moe’s OBBQ a silver metal! It was based on flavor, crispness of skin, heat levels, presentation, adhering to tradition, and adding a complementary, signature twist or two. This wing was strong on all counts, and deserved the top tier recognition!
3rd Place went to some young, enthusiastic new-comers to the food scene who are calling themselves Culture Shock, but you may know them by their former moniker, the Vieux Carre food truck. Their wing was quite simple, which the judges liked. Simplicity is not something that cooks and venues should shy away from at food competitions in general. A banana flambé ain’t never gonna win a best banana contest. (Which now I want to be a judge at.)
Above: Culture Shock shocked the world! Not really, but they made an excellent wing! – photo by Stu helm
The Culture Shock’s Buffalo wing was basic indeed, but really well done, and again, it came with a nice little bloop of slaw that we appreciated. Shit gets hot when you have to eat 11 Buffalo wings in a row, and would be slightly boring if the wings didn’t have a li’l somethin’ extra every once in a while.
And when I say “li’l,” I mean “li’l!”
A very small amount of a good side is appreciated, but not necessary.
The judges use a 10 Point system, BTW, with 1 being worst and 10 being best. That said… for the first year ever, the judges dipped into the negative numbers this year. :( One particular Specialty wing was so distasteful, that I gave it a “zero,” and two other judges gave it a “negative two!!!” No Joke, Yo. A collective “WTF?!?” swept across the table in a wave of disgust as we each bit into this thing one at a time. Another Specialty wing was so awful that I myself gave it a negative one. I didn’t even press my teeth into it! I touched it with my lips and tongue, tasted the nasty, felt the gross, slimy skin, and put it the fuck down, fighting a gag reflex. #truestories
It Ain’t Always Easy to Be a Judge at The Wing War
Especially the Specialty category, which is a bit of a crap shoot, and the toughest part for the judges every year, because there are always some truly offensive flavors that come our way. Words like “nasty,” “disgusting,” and “gross,” are in heavy rotation around the judges’ table during this half of the competition, and questions like, “What the fuck is that?” are not uncommon either. During the Traditional round, I eat almost every bite of every wing. I gorge myself, and for the most part, I love it. During the Specialty round, I take wee little nibbles more often than full-on bites, and as mentioned above, this year there was that one wing, that I couldn’t bring myself to sink my teeth into. It was that fucking bad. But of course, thankfully, all of the winners and runners-up were really awesome!
The Specialty category is the competitors’ chance to shine, get creative, spread their wings… so to speak… and it is also the most treacherous in terms of how many things can go horribly wrong. But let’s not concentrate on the bad wings, let’s focus only on the winners!
Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Food Truck does an amazing job with their wings, and were our #1 choice in the Specialty category! They won in both categories with the judges last year, so we were glad when we found out that they made a strong showing as our favorite Specialty wing this year, and took top honors with their Aji Amarillo ( Peruvian yellow pepper ) tossed wing, topped with blue cheese sour cream dressing, and their special green sauce on top. It was outstanding, and one of the few specialty wings that I ate every bite of. Congrats again to Out of the Blue, and chef/co-owner, Santiago Vargas. He’s a force to be reckoned with in this town!
Above: The winning wing in the Specialty category was from Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Food Truck – photo by Santiago Vargas
At This Time I Would Like to Apologize Once Again to Chef Steven Goff
Wouldn’t you fucking know it, of all the wings I forgot to take pics of, Chef Steven’s Specialty wing entry was one of them. . __ . So was Santiago’s, but luckily he had a photo for me to use, whereas Steven didn’t (he was too busy selling 2,000+ of them) so, sadly, I have no photo of his Yellow Plate, Specialty wing entry. It tasted fucking great, and it looked almost exactly like his Orange Plate Traditional wing entry. (Yes, shhhh, we all thought it was a duck wing, but regardless…) It was a great wing, and it it came in 2nd place! Here’s another picture of his Orange Plate entry, which again was almost the exact twin of his Specialty entry, which was excellent and worthy of the title we gave it. Congrats to Steven and Brinehaus Meat & Provisions. Next year, Steven, maybe stick a posty-note to each wing you send our way, “dear judges, this is an ostrich wing, you fucking idiots.”
Above: This is not the duck wing — or chicken wing – that won, but it looks just like it. I swear. – photo by Stu Helm
So as not to get a dang thing wrong in the description of Steven Goff’s Specialty wing, I went straight to the source. Here’s what he said…
“Specialty wing was a smoked chicken wing with brown butter sorghum charred onion mustard… funny story, someone burnt some onions and I was like, ‘how can I not throw that away?’ So I dehydrated the half cheered onions then buzzed em and folded them in with the mustard sorghum and brown butter and they played real nice.”
When I asked him if he had a picture, he sent me one… of a duck wing… and wrote…
“Just realized all I have here [at AUX Bar] is duck wings sorry but that is a duck wing dressed in the sorghum mustard. Also that sauce will be available as a secret item on the menu if people want to ask for it.”
Above: Not the wing, but the sauce, that won 2nd place in the Specialty wing category. Fuck, that was convoluted. – photo by Steven Goff
Salvage Station was the only venue to place or win in both categories this year, with first place in Traditional, and a spot on the podium in third place for their Specialty wing! I particularly liked this wing myself, and I ate every scrap of it, plus both plantain pieces. Again, the meat on the wing was really good, and it was cooked perfectly. It came to the table piping hot, the skin was nicely caramelized, and as I said, it arrived with a wee side of two beautifully cooked slices of soft, delicious plantain, which was a definite plus on the plate. It was described on the signage as simply “The Jerk.” I love a good Steve Martin reference, and I’m gonna say it was a take on Jamaican jerk chicken.
Above: Ain’t nuthin’ plain about those plantains! And wing was great too! – photo by Stu Helm
So, that’s how things shook-out at the judge’s table. Apart for one giant glaring error about which fucking member of the animal kingdom one of the wings came from, I think we did a great job! All the winning wings were all tasty as fuck — the most tasty as fuck, as a matter of fact — which is pretty much the point of judging shit, isn’t it? So yay for us!
As you know by now, the judge’s results are based on adding up our individual scores, and finding the top three entries in the two categories. The popular vote, on the other hand, is determined by letting the people loose on the vendors and then asking them to vote for their #1 favorites in the categories ONLY. Just one winner in Traditional and one in Specialty is announced at the very end of the day.
At the Wing War the People and judges almost never pick the same winners. I think that happens for a few reasons, mainly, the People aren’t doing a blind taste test. They know who made which wings, they get to read a description at the table, chat with the wing-makers, get a run-down on ingredients, and hear what makes the wings so “great.” That’s an influence that the judges aren’t impacted by.
Also, the People aren’t bound by the two rules of the Traditional category, so, as you’ll see below, a very non-Traditional wing — not even close to Buffalo style — won the People’s Choice in the Traditional category. It was a good wing indeed, but it was not a Buffalo wing, that is for sure.
Finally, the People don’t have to taste each and every wing. They can “tap-out” after 10 or 15 or just 5 wings if they want to, while the judges must taste all 22 wings at the very least. That means that the People are less apt to try all the wings, and might actually skip some, perhaps even missing out on the very wings that the judge’s deem to be the best.
This year, neither of the People’s two winners match any of the judges’ six winners. Interesting.
Above – On my score card for this one said “not a Traditional wing,” and little else. – photo by Stu Helm
Dread Life Kitchen, a caterer and food truck out of Hendersonville, won for Best Traditional Wing with the People. Congrats to them! They are first time competitors at the Wing War, so it made me happy to hear that they received an award! The People’s Choice carries just as much weight as the Judge’s pick, and some might say even more. Since this wing was decidedly not a Buffalo wing, I didn’t know what the ingredients where, so I wrote to the Dread Life Kitchen through Facebook, and asked for this description.
“I made it with my special seasoning an marinated overnight for eight hours and glazed it with my special honey barbecue sauce.”
Mojo Kitchen and Lounge won the People’s Choice in the Specialty category with their ramp-Parmesan truffle butter wings, which are available on the Mojo menu for a limited time. You guys already know that Chef AJ is one of my favorite cooks in town, and that I even gave him my 2017 Chef of the Year Stoobie Award. I always say that AJ “makes food people like,” and it seems like the People agree!
Above: Green on green, as Mojo co-owner Autumn says, “How Dr. Suess of us.” – photo by Stu Helm
And that’s the end of the writing portion of this post. The rest is just pictures. Enjoy!
Above: Unfortunately Bonfire had to drop out. The judges were not told why
The Final Break Down:
Judges’ Vote: 1) Salvage Station 2) Moe’s Original Barbecue 3) Culture Shock
People’s Choice: Dread Life Kitchen
Judge’s Vote: 1) Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Food Truck 2) Brinehaus Meat & Provisions 3) Salvage Station
People’s Choice: Mojo Kitchen and Lounge
— END —
Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.