Traditional Fried Chicken Flies the Coop in Favor of the Sweet and Spicy

By: Lindsay Damast
Related To:

There are few foods revered for their simplicity and nostalgia-inducing power like crispy, juicy fried chicken. But on Thursday night, 17 prominent New York City-based chefs and restaurants proved that sometimes it pays to shake up an old classic when they served their unique takes on chicken to guests at Central Park’s Loeb Boathouse.

Held on the opening night of this year’s New York City Wine & Food Festival, the fourth annual Chicken Coupe (presented by Cooking Channel) was hosted and judged by fried chicken enthusiast Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg had approached festival founder Lee Brian Schrager several years ago about dedicating an entire event to the universally loved dish, and this year, she wrote the foreword to Schrager’s book, Fried & True — so you might say they know a thing or two about anointing a winning bird.

While Goldberg made her rounds, taste testing the varied offerings, guests followed suit, seeing exactly how much fried chicken and Southern sides they could handle. A ragtime band played boisterous tunes while suspenders-clad mixologists from world-renowned bar The Dead Rabbit served carefully paired cocktails, together establishing a cool, classic, Old-World vibe.

Amid tough competition, Goldberg declared the winner to be Astoria-based Queens Comfort restaurant, who dished out Cap’n Crunch Chicken Fingers (coated in a sweet-and-spicy red chile bacon caramel sauce and served with their “atomic” mac and cheese). “When I bit into it, it kind of brought tears to my eyes,” Goldberg said. “I look for a little comfort in my food ... and [this dish] made me feel so good.” She recounted that it reminded her of Planet Hollywood’s classic Cap’n Crunch chicken, and lauded them for replicating — nay, superseding — that dish that she remembers so fondly. Chef Hernan Heras told Devour with a wink that Cap’n Crunch was their cereal of choice, as “it’s the best cereal in the world.” But he said they also chose it from a technical standpoint because, “It doesn’t fall apart. The way it fries up — it’s so crispy.”

Both sweet and spicy flavors figured prominently in the other chefs’ dishes, like that of Esquire’s just-announced best new restaurant of the year, Harlem’s The Cecil. Their Cinnamon-Scented Fried Chicken was one of the night’s most unusual, modeled after the restaurant’s similar Guinea Hen. “This is Afro-Asian cooking,” Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson told Devour. “We brine the chicken in palm sugar, bird’s eye chile, coriander seeds and both Madagascar and Chinese cinnamons. We let it sit for 48 hours, then we flash fry it. It’s savory. It’s sweet. It’s crispy.”

That crispiness is hard to achieve when you’re precooking food for hundreds of people, so many of the chefs tailored their batters and preparation methods in that pursuit. Chef MJ Chung of Mono + Mono rightfully claimed that his Spicy Korean Fried Chicken was the crispiest of the night. But when asked about his batter, he coyly smiled and said: “It’s very unique and made with Korean spices. We have a unique secret process we can’t reveal.”

Chef Dale Talde was also focused on the crisp factor, revealing his secret batter ingredient to be rice flour. “It holds much better and makes the chicken really crispy,” Talde told Devour, “and fish sauce adds that umami flavor you’re looking for.” He and business partner David Massoni were in disagreement, though, about what made his Chicken and Cheesy Bacon Waffles with Sriracha Maple Syrup (Devour’s favorite of the night) a standout hit. “It’s the teeny, tiny little slice of American cheese tucked in there,” said Massoni. “It gives you that sense of childhood comfort.”

Brines were on chefs’ brains too — particularly those chefs looking to impart their chicken with a mixture of bright citrus and super-spicy notes. Peaches Hothouse chefs Craig Samuel and Ben Grossman opted for a simple lemon juice, salt and pepper brine, then upped the ante with onion, garlic and cayenne in their batter and a final dusting of ground ghost chile peppers (the “hottest spice in the Western Hemisphere”). Root & Bone chefs Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth brined their Lemonade Chicken Pops in sweet tea and dehydrated lemon powder, while The Chester’s Stephen Yen topped his sweet-tea-and-lemon-brined chicken with a chile, scallion and lime dressing to add a distinctly Southeastern kick.

And in true current fashion, much attention was paid to sustainable and harmless growth methods. John Mooney of Bell, Book & Candle claimed that what set his dish apart was its accompaniment: “We grow the collard greens hydroponically on our roof,” he told Devour. And the energetic team behind Sticky’s Finger Joint presented the restaurant’s chicken as “highly elevated: no hormones, no additives, no antibiotics.” But it’s not so highly elevated that they can’t have a little fun — owner Paul Abrahamian shared that their chicken is coated in mesquite powder, black pepper and salt. “Our sauce is Buffalo-balsamic-maple. And that’s aged balsamic. It’s awesome.”

Surrounded by Asian-inspired dishes — En Japanese Brasserie’s Japanese rock salt-seasoned chicken; Birds & Bubbles’ chicken served over soba noodle salad; Maharlika’s batterless (gluten-free!) fried chicken served over ube root waffles with macapuno syrup — there were some classic holdouts. Elizabeth Karmel served fried chicken and sour pickle sliders, Harold Moore of Commerce praised his fried boneless chicken thigh on a biscuit for being “clean,” and Mooney’s collards were paired with a Southern buttermilk fried chicken.

We caught Cooking Channel host G. Garvin sampling the dishes and asked him to share why he finds fried chicken to be so comforting. “As a child, I would always eat fried chicken with my family,” G. told Devour. “So for me, it’s about family history and tradition. It was what brought us together around the table.” Nostalgia seems to have played a large part in the entire night’s festivities — from Whoopi’s winner to the evident carousing — and so guests exited the boathouse full of fried chicken (and doughnuts, and mac and cheese, and buttermilk pie) and, perhaps, fond memories.

Keep Reading

Next Up

Happy National Fried Chicken Day!

Happy National Fried Chicken Day! Get Cooking Channel's best fried chicken recipes and recipes and 5 tips you need to celebrate National Fried Chicken Day.

Meatless Monday: Spicy Thai Sweet Potato Soup

This Meatless Monday, go global and take your taste buds on a trip to Thailand. Skip the takeout and try Bobby Deen’s Spicy Thai Sweet Potato Ginger Soup at home. It’s easier than you would think.

Dinner Rush! Spicy Chicken & Chorizo Tacos

These quick and easy chicken tacos with chorizo make a spicy yet simple weeknight meal.

Comfort Feast: Fried Chicken, 5 Ways

Winter doldrums got you feeling down? Solution: fried chicken. It may be a year-round comfort food favorite but when winter's in full swing, nothing can uplift your mood more than a crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside piece of fried chicken.

Meatless Monday: Spicy Thai Sweet Potato-Ginger Soup

Bobby Deen's Spicy Thai Sweet Potato-Ginger Soup will taste amazing for dinner tonight, but once the flavors meld overnight, it will taste even better for lunch tomorrow.

What Kind of Fried Chicken Matches Your Personality? 5 Ways to Celebrate National Fried Chicken Day

Get Cooking Channel's fried chicken recipes for National Fried Chicken Day, including classic Southern, baked, Korean-style and more.

On TV

Eat St.

9am | 8c

Eat St.

9:30am | 8:30c

Eat St.

10am | 9c

Eat St.

10:30am | 9:30c

Unique Eats

11am | 10c

Unique Eats

11:30am | 10:30c

Unique Eats

12pm | 11c

Unique Eats

12:30pm | 11:30c

Unique Eats

1pm | 12c

Unique Eats

1:30pm | 12:30c

Good Eats

2pm | 1c

Good Eats

2:30pm | 1:30c

Carnival Eats

6:30pm | 5:30c

Carnival Eats

7:30pm | 6:30c
On Tonight
On Tonight

Carnival Eats

8pm | 7c

Carnival Eats

8:30pm | 7:30c

Gooey

9:30pm | 8:30c

Late Nite Eats

10:30pm | 9:30c

Good Eats

11pm | 10c

Good Eats

11:30pm | 10:30c

Carnival Eats

12am | 11c

Carnival Eats

12:30am | 11:30c

Carnival Eats

1am | 12c

Gooey

1:30am | 12:30c

Late Nite Eats

2:30am | 1:30c

Good Eats

3am | 2c

Good Eats

3:30am | 2:30c
What's Hot
What's Hot

The Best Thing I Ever Ate

New Episodes Mondays 8|7c

Home for the Holidays

So Much Pretty Food Here