Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Event Coverage: 2019 Big Kahuna Wings Festival a World Food Championships Qualifier

[FTC Standard Disclosure]  I received no compensation for this post.

The 7th Annual Big Kahuna Wing Festival was this past weekend.  The crowds consumed some 20,000 pounds of delicious Springer Mountain Farms chicken wings during the festival and enjoyed a full schedule of entertainment activities.  

Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN

Thirty-One teams competed for the "Big Kahuna" title, giving them bragging rights for the best wing in Knoxville.  But this is also a World Food Championships Qualifying Event, so the winner gets to go to Dallas later this year to compete for $100,000 at the World Food Championships sponsored by Walmart.  

Three members of our BBQ team are EAT Certified Food Judges and we were selected to judge this qualifying event.  Here is how to become a judge for the World Food Championships, if you're curious.  

Alexis and I have been judges for a few years and have judged both regional qualifiers and categories at the World Food Championships.

Mike McCloud of the World Food Championships giving judging instructions.
World Food Championships founder, Mike McCloud, gives the certified food judges assignments and special instructions for the event.

The judging format for this event was altered from the typical EAT methodology, with the approval and oversight of the WFC organization.  The judging utilized the EAT scoring system but instead of double-blind judging, this event had live on-site judging like Memphis in May.  The competitors got to present and explain their wings to us, and we got to ask questions.  As a judge, I found this experience to be much more fun and feel that I had a better understanding of the wing that I was judging.  That said, blind judging has its own set of benefits.

I was excited to be a part of this controlled experiment, and I'm glad that WFC has the confidence to explore alterations to the EAT methodology, such as on-site judging.  Who knows if this will lead anywhere, but WFC is all about innovation so you never know.  

Due to the altered format, we had a different scorecard than EAT Certified Food Judges typically use.
We were broken up into groups of 5 or 6 judges with a captain and assigned a section of teams that our group would be judging.  Then we were off to carefully evaluate the wings served to us.

Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
The location of the festival is the site of the 1982 World's Fair, thus the cryptically named World's Fair Park.  The Sunsphere, is a remnant of the World's Fair and is a Knoxville landmark.

Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
Since last year, the city has improved the park with a paver walkway.  I like the look and functionality of it.

Smoking wings at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
The kitchen areas behind the teams are always of interest to me.  I like to see what other groups do to overcome the challenges of cooking outdoors at an event.

Voluntears at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
One of the Voluntears [sic] Wings team members preparing the samples for the judges. 

Wing turn ins Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
On-site judging allows freedom for more creative presentations compared to just sticking wings in a box.   Not every team entered all five categories.  This team, for example, called their shot and only served 2 entries.  

Karns High School at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
I was glad to see that Karns High School has a culinary program and that they entered the contest.

Karns High School culinary team at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
This high school team did an excellent job researching and putting together this wing based on an Indonesian flavor profile. 

Century Harvest at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
Other teams entered all five categories.  This was Century Harvest Farms presentation.  Their overall presentation was well thought out and the flavors made my mouth happy. 

Voluntears buffalo entry at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
This was the Buffalo entry for Voluntears Wings.  They are the Culinary Club at the University of Tennessee.  The two that we met are both chemical engineering students and put their knowledge to use.  These were the best Buffalo wings that I had at this event.  Their secret?  I was told that they put pureed roasted vegetables in the sauce.  Brilliant and I need to find these guys in town to learn more about their process because the results speak for themselves.

Gochujang wings at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
These were the Voluntears Korean Spicy Gochujang wings, which were one of my favorite wings of the day. They were a good flavor trip across the taste buds.

Citrus twist wings at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
Voluntears Sweet Citrus Twist Sriracha Wings.

Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
Voluntear's XX Spicy Buffalo Wings packed a severe sting.

These were the Voluntear's Exotic entry, a Mediterranean style Harissa Citrus Wing.

This team didn't even know they were going to enter the contest until about a week before the event but they sure nailed it.  For their Creative Spicy version, they used a Toe of Satan Lollipop in their sauce and it was fantastic.

Their Exotic Category was a spin on chicharones.  I was part curious and part afraid to try this one but it was suprisingly good.
This one left me stinging for several minutes.  I like habanero chiles so I don't know why this one hurt so much.  Either it was extra fiery habs or just a ton of cayenne in there.

S4N Wing Team also just entered two wings, but they served each version two ways - one breaded and fried, the other grilled.
Let's talk about that strategy for a minute.  It is good to give the judges choices and to show off your skillset and judges like options.  But for me, if I have two items in a turn-in box and one is noticeably better than the other, I turn in only the one great item.

The example I think of is brisket turn-ins.  Ideally, you want burnt ends and slices in the turn-in box. There have been times where my burnt ends are killer, and my slices are just okay, so I have just turned in the burnt ends and scored well.  The judges are only allowed to judge what is turned in so they can't count off if you don't turn in slices or skip the burnt ends.

So for me, if I am turning in more than one variety for a single category entry, I will taste each and make a decision at the point I am building the turn-in box or presentation.  Never put everything in the turn-in box just because that was the plan and because "we made it, might as well use it."  If each entry isn't impressive, only put the best in the box.

fried breaded wings at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
S4N had the best fried wings I had all day, and I would have given 10-10-10 (highest score possible) for this category. They were a standout entry.  But as good as these fried wings were, the grilled/smoked ones were just okay.  My personal thought is they would have scored better overall if they had just gone with the fried wings.

It would be easy enough if all the teams had to do was show up and cook for the judges.  But they are also cooking for 8,000 "other judges" who are just as important as the EAT judges.  This is a festival, not just a contest, so people expect to eat and eat heartily.  The lines start as soon as the gates open and don't stop until the festival ends.  It is a LOT of work and each of the teams did a fantastic job representing the best wings in Knoxville.

Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
From experience, I can tell you that the status of the "front of the house" at this event is continuously either "we're running out of wings" or "we just ran out of wings."  With voracious crowds, even for seasoned teams, it is a struggle to keep the chafing dishes full.

Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
Despite the lines, people are friendly and patient.

Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
The entertainment included live bands throughout the day, a scorching hot wing eating contest, and other activities. 

People use the large tent to get off their feet for a bit, listen to the bands, and cool off.

The park didn't seem as congested this year.  I'm not sure if that is due to the new layout or if the Vols horrendous upset loss the day before had people at home mourning ;) 

I love this picture.  The little kid peeking over the table and the smiling server just made this one for me.

Don't try to say this team's name 3 times fast.  Fluster Clucks is always a strong performer at this event.  They have some pretty twisted (good way) recipes like the Heisenberg blue hot wing.

Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
The weather was excellent for a festival - mostly sunny with mild temperatures.

You need a big ol' smoker to feed crowds like this.

Another custom smoker.

This is a combo smoker/grill, and from the looks of the firebox, I'm pretty sure it's a Smoke Hollow or other grill made by Outdoor Leisure Products. It's a backyard model meant to feed a family or small party. These guys did a commendable job with the equipment they had, but they could have benefited from something much bigger.

smoking wings at Big Kahuna Wing Festival in Knoxville, TN
Many hands make light work.

The crowds were steady all day long, the teams didn't get a break.

Another candid snapshot that turned out as one of my favorites.  The man and woman by the grill look like they are having a zen moment, especially with the beam of afternoon sunshine spilling onto them.

This?  This is what a successful wing festival looks like :)

Congratulations to all of the teams for a fantastic performance.  This is one of our favorite community events each year in Knoxville.

The top 5 places in each category are:

Buffalo Original

  1. Lord of the Wing  (WFC Golden Ticket Winner)
  2. Voluntears Wings
  3. Fluster Clucks
  4. Nappy Wings
  5. IDK Foods Crab Shack and More


  1. Century Harvey Farms Foundation
  2. Smoking Goat BBQ
  3. CCSE
  4. Fluster Clucks
  5. Reload


  1. Lord of the Wing
  2. Voluntears Wings
  3. Vol-B-Que
  4. Smoking Goat BBQ
  5. Advent Electric

Creative Spicy

  1. Reload
  2. Eagle Wings
  3. Voluntears Wings
  4. Lord of the Wing
  5. Fluster Clucks

Creative Sweet

  1. Eagle Wings
  2. Voluntears Wings
  3. Reload
  4. Fluster Clucks
  5. IDK Foods Crab Shack and More
The best thing is that all of the leftovers that didn't get used were donated to the Second Harvest of East Tennessee food bank!

Congratulations to Matt Beeler, the organizer and owner of Big Kahuna Wings, for another fabulous event!