“You should probably bring a bucket,” he said a few nights before the kickoff of the much anticipated Fried Chicken Challenge. “Six chefs, six pieces of chicken, plus sides — that’s a lot of food.”
The He: Edwin Real, founder and moderator of the fast growing food lovers group called Eating and Drinking in San Diego (EDSD). Founded in January, EDSD started off as a small closed group where Edwin and some of his friends could hang out and discuss the local happenings in the San Diego food scene.
Fast forward to “Real Time”. Having recently approved his 3700th member, Edwin and EDSD have become perhaps one of the most important and influential groups in the San Diego food scene. Members of the group contain not only serious and hard eating and drinking, interested and interesting San Diegans that are on top of the local food scene, but also respected food writers, chefs, purveyors and suppliers of food. In this group, a broad range of conversations and recommendations from tacos to cinnamon rolls, restaurant groups to Mom & Pop joints, beer to wine and just about any other topic regarding food and drink in San Diego county are bandied about and discussed, with staunch defenders on about 15 sides of every conversation.
EDSD remains a closed group of friends discussing the San Diego food scene – “I know basically everyone by name because I authorize every single person,” says Edwin. He continues, “We’re changing the way food is discussed, disseminated and photographed. This is food in real time. The idea is, this is what’s going on right now in the city. By keeping it closed, it’s keeping it honest. More than anything, (keeping the group closed) is to protect the members of the group. So that they can be in an environment where they can share, talk and do what they want without being interfered with.”
That’s cool. But what makes this group different than others, namely the 4 letter word that’s dressed in red and rhymes with kelp? “That’s kinda the beautiful, thing,” Edwin responds. “On here, you can talk (smack) all you want, but you don’t know if the person responding to you is the owner of a restaurant, the chef of a restaurant, or the waiter that just helped you that night. All of a sudden, you become accountable for your words, so it’s self-policing.”
The Event: EDSD’s Fried Chicken Challenge – second in a lineup of at least five events that Edwin has planned for EDSD members this year. Six chefs, each doing their best fried chicken recipe. 72 attendees, about 75% of them EDSD members and 25% patrons and followers of the host establishment, Local Habit in Hillcrest, and the chefs. By design, all of the pretentiousness and prettiness was removed from the event. This was meant to be a celebration of the food, the chefs and the diners, not the garnish, the fancy dishes or the light fixtures.
The Chefs: This was an all-star lineup containing one former Top Chef contestant and talent and experience straight out of some top kitchens and restaurants from East to West coast. Many of the chefs have multiple gigs happening from supper clubs to new restaurant openings. From left to right they are—
Aldo Negrete — Rare Form/Consortium Holdings
Jimmy Tessier — Local Habit
Bradrick “Coop” Cooper — Coop’s West Texas BBQ and the soon to open Chicken Coop
Logan Mitchell — Cellar Door
Rich Sweeney — Florent
Karen Blair — Small Bar
The Crowd: Looking around, it quickly became clear that this was a diverse group of diners. All age ranges and every race on the planet looked to be represented. The mood was one of expectation, perhaps slightly subdued. Since this was only the second event promoted by EDSD, many seemed as though they weren’t quite sure what to expect other than some great fried chicken. There was a light fervor and jubilance (maybe it was light headed giddiness) in the air as people settled in for the evening. Many had purchased their tickets weeks before and hadn’t eaten all day in anticipation of the night’s fare. As the drinks and food started to flow, so did the conversation among all of the diners sitting at the family style tables. All in all, it was a fun, lively group with a high food IQ, so it didn’t take long to find common ground to discuss with tablemates.
The Kitchen: Seriously? Raise your hand if you have a closet bigger than this kitchen. Remember, 420+ pieces of chicken needed to be prepped, fried and served by six chefs out of this space. Dang, those competition kitchens always look a lot different on TV.
The Broom Closet: Who put Baby in the corner? Yeah, it got worse. Chef Logan was pretty much next to the broom closet with enough space for what looked like a commercial version of a double Fry Daddy and a couple of pans of chicken. Husband Gary and friend Abby stood poised, hands at the ready and riveted with interest in her every movement.
The Fry Pot: If you thought Logan’s Fry Daddy was a challenge, look what some of the other guys got. Really? You’re gonna cook 72 pieces of fried chicken in this thing, Chef?
The Balboa: The specialty cocktail of the evening and soon to be quintessential San Diego drink on par with the Manhattan or the New Orleans classic Sazerac. Containing Henebery Whiskey, Sarsaparilla Bitters, fresh lemon, and Paprika Honey, it was lightly sweet, tart and refreshing with a hint of spice to keep you from taking it for granted. Ask for it in your favorite bar around San Diego – it’s on about 40 menus now and spreading.
The Chicken: It was hot, it was juicy, it was crispy and it was served with an absolute lack of frills. 6 pieces served in separate courses in a recyclable paper bowl – they all pretty much looked like golden fried chicken, hence the single picture. Amazingly, though, every piece of chicken was quantifiably different from the next. Amongst the different flavors and textures presented through the night (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) were salt, cayenne, cinnamon, fresh herbs, wet battered, dry rubbed, flour crispy, corn starch crunchy, lard fried, brined and marinated. Look, maybe none of it was like your Mom’s fried chicken but all of it was like somebody’s Mom’s chicken. Irregardless, it was six pieces of fried chicken…maybe the most perfect food ever created.
The Sides: They might not have stolen the show, but it was hard not to fill up on these AYCE wonders. The Kale (a personal favorite) was a great Cali version of a classic southern style collard greens dish with a similar texture. It had the toothiness generally associated with a heavy green, a light, peppery vinegar sauce and a Wow factor of Holy Crap. The potato salad with fresh herbs had a light mayonnaise dressing and whole baby dills, exactly the side that should always accompany fried chicken. Then there was the sweet, toasted and roasted corn with a bit of crunch. It was that kind of night – good, home style food, more than you could handle, every bite a joy.
The Voting: Each diner was given ballots for the People’s Choice award with three criteria to judge on — Flavor, Juiciness and Crunchiness. The celebrity judges for the Judges Choice award were Tommy Gomes of Catalina Offshore Products, Nate Soroko of Toronado and Rob Burr of the Miami Rum Festival. So, the competition was not only on the chefs for the evening, but also, never spoken aloud, but still in the back of everyone’s mind, to see whether the “regular” eaters were going to catch the same things and feel the same way about the chicken as the judges.
The Judges Choice: Judges Choice was announced first — the voting was tight — 2 votes separated the 1st and 3rd places. “Coop” Cooper took home this award with his Texas style fried chicken — simple flavors of salt and pepper with a light, thin, crispy crust. His secret, “Fried Chicken, Man, it’s simple…Nice flour batter, a little buttermilk batter that goes with it, mix ‘em together, fry it ‘til its golden crispy, make sure its cooked in the middle and watch everybody enjoy some good food.”
Damn. Nailed it.
The People’s Choice: And then he nailed it again as the winner of the People’s Choice award. Coop’s chicken was first one out of the kitchen in a blind lineup, not a coveted place to be in any competition, but especially in a first time competition where people didn’t know what to expect and were leery of “over-voting” early lest they didn’t leave room for higher scores later. Pretty solid performance, Bro.
The Honorable Mention: It has to go to those burlap napkins… we were given two each. People sat in their seats at the beginning of the evening and chuckled, snorted and maybe even sneered at the thought. Two napkins? For 6 pieces of chicken? Yeah, right. Where’s the roll of paper towels?
Good God, Man. These things, special ordered for the event, were soft, easy on the skin, absorptive and tougher than nails… and they looked a helluva lot better than the rest of us did at the end of the night. Cheers, my friends!
For more information on upcoming EDSD events, here’s the Facebook link: