Some had come for the spectacle of it all: 17 different fried chicken dishes, 9 enormous casseroles filled with various macaroni and cheeses, salads and side dishes and desserts enough to feed Alexander's own army. Some had come to observe the madness. And some came, bloodthirsty and ravenous to win, for the pure competition.
The Fried Chicken Throwdown at Beaver's Ice House Monday night satisfied all parties: People shoved enough deep-fried poultry into their maws to satiate an entire lifetime's worth of cravings, and the winners walked away with the knowledge that they'd just battled the best chefs in the city and won.
Organized by Jenny Wang, head hound for local eat-for-sport club the Houston Chowhounds, and Jonathan Jones, executive chef at Beaver's, the event was originally started as a small follow-up to the popular Michelada Throwdown that took place at Anvil Bar & Refuge on May 24. The success of the Michelada Throwdown was such that chefs around the city wanted to compete in an event of their own, and the Fried Chicken Throwdown was born. Houston's culinary community has become engaged in Iron Chef-style battles, and it's a good time.
Proceeds from ticket sales to the Fried Chicken Throwdown went to Recipe for Success and to cover the costs of the hundreds of pounds of chicken that were purchased for the event. Competing chefs were required to provide enough chicken for at least 50 people, plus the six judges - Bryan Caswell of Reef, Jim Gossen of Louisiana Seafood, Jenny Wang, Jay Francis and me, plus Karen Rittinger, the wildcard Chowhound whose essay on why she'd make the best judge was chosen from dozens of entries.
In exchange for competing, the chefs themselves got to play judge to a side showdown: a macaroni and cheese contest featuring versions of the dish created by Chowhound members and won by Cindy Robertson's "Truly Scrumptious Mac-N-Cheese."
Diners didn't only get to enjoy a spread of down-home food that rivaled the best church picnic on earth, they also enjoyed lively discussions with a roomful of Houston's best chefs: Monica Pope of t'afia; Jamie Zelko of Zelko Bistro; Randy Evans of Haven; Justin Bayse and Cody Vasek of VOICE; Randy Rucker of Rainbow Lodge; Plinio Sandalio, Dax McAnear and Frank Moore from Textile; Ronnie Killen from Killen's Steakhouse; Michael O'Connor from the Houston Country Club; Chris Shepherd from Catalan; Frank Butera from Frank's Chop House; Jason Gould from Gravitas; Ryan Pera from The Grove; and Jonathan Jones and Dusty Sagasser of Beaver's.
In the end, though, the Throwdown was all about the chicken itself. Chefs entered their dishes in Creative and Classic categories, with the latter receiving a dozen entries. With 17 fried chicken dishes to go through, the judges settled in for a long night of dining and discussing.
The Creative category's most unusual item was a fried chicken ice cream, served with a biscuit and a chicken crackling, created by pastry chef Plinio Sandalio. It tasted as though Sandalio had taken a buttermilk biscuit, spoonfuls of honey and a piece of Frenchy's chicken, pureed them together in a blender and created a dessert. The ice cream was, improbably, utterly captivating and delicious. Despite this, Sandalio lost out to Randy Evans, who created a tender balantine of chicken breast and served it alongside a tart watermelon rind salad and Bell jars filled with fresh watermelon juice.
During the Classic category part of the competition, the chefs worked double-time in Beaver's kitchen to turn out the dishes as quickly as possible. Rival chefs worked as each others' sous chefs, waiters and bussers in a show of camaraderie that was almost as enjoyable as the fried chicken itself. The respect and affinity the chefs all had for one another couldn't have been more evident.
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Some of our favorite dishes in the Classic category came from some unlikely places: Ronnie Killen, who owns and runs a steakhouse, turned out a skillet-fried, buttermilk-battered chicken that was redolent with the deep, visceral flavor of fatback and gave off a profound sense of nostalgia. Frank Moore, the sommelier at Textile, surprised nearly everyone by not only being a damn good cook, but by plating chicken quarters that were the size of a koala bear. And Michael O'Connor served up his fried chicken with a sweet potato waffle and tangy honey-lemon butter than everyone agreed should be bottled and marketed as quickly as possible.
With a dozen entries to choose from, tallying the judges' ballots (which ranked the chicken based on crispiness of the crust, tenderness of the chicken, seasoning and overall taste) took a while. But the grand prize winner was finally announced to a raucous and loudly cheering crowd: underdog Cody Vasek, sous chef at VOICE, who was the last entrant to the competition. His perfectly simple fried chicken had wowed the judges with its ideal blend of seasoning, expertly battered crust and fork-tender meat.
But the competition didn't end there. Chris Shepherd of Catalan immediately threw down the gauntlet for the next showdown: a pork belly cookoff. And one can only wonder what battles lie ahead after the pork bellies have had their day.
View a slideshow of all the entries and the evening's events here.