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

By: Lindsay Damast

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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.

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