Festival serves up Nashville hot chicken – kosher, of course – to 500 at GJCC

Posted on: November 7th, 2016 by tgregory

By Charles Bernsen

Robert Kashani was one of the chefs for the Hebrenero Peppers, which took the prize for best booth at the second annual Kosher Hot Chicken Festival. (Photos by Charles Bernsen)

Reva and Gene Heller decided to err on the side of caution when choosing which samples to taste during the second annual Nashville Kosher Hot Chicken Festival last month at the Gordon Jewish Community Center. Good thing. 

“I’m eating the mild but it tastes very hot,” said Gene. “Maybe when I was younger it might have been mild.” 

“We’re too old to eat the hot,” chimed in Reva. 

Mild or hot, the competitors in the festival’s hot chicken-cooking contest handed out north of 70 pounds of the deep-fried, mouth-scorching, sweat-inducing treat that has become Nashville’s culinary trademark. And that doesn’t count the meals sold by the two pro vendors from Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish and Slow Burn Hot Chicken who didn’t compete.

Organized last year by a group of four friends, the hot chicken event is part of the burgeoning phenomenon of kosher food festivals and cooking competitions that have become a way for American Jews to express their Jewish identities while participating in a distinctively American cultural form. 

Though it was labeled cham, cham, cham (hot, hot, hot in Hebrew), this was the mild version of the hot chicken recipe Michael Wolf had been perfecting for a year and a half. The hot version was called gehenom (Hebrew for hell). His team, Holy Flock, won the prize in the mild category.

This year’s festival, sponsored by the GJCC and underwritten by the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, added live music and, more important, an actual cooking competition featuring seven teams with names like 613 Degrees (representing West End Synagogue) and the Hebrenero Peppers (representing NowGen Nashville, the Federation’s young adult group).

There were a dozen volunteer judges – after all, you can only eat so much hot chicken – including Good Ol’ Boy Mike, the producer and host of the podcast Sips, Suds & Smokes. 

The grand prize – a new $150 deep fryer – went AZchArife (Hebrew for “how hot), a team representing AZA Athens of the South, the local BBYO youth group for boys. Holy Flock, a team representing Congregation Sherith Israel, won the top prize for the best mild version of hot chicken and 613 Degrees won the award for the best hot version (and for most creative name). The People’s Choice Award went to the Hebrenero Peppers. 

For Michael Wolf, head chef for Holy Flock, the win validated what has become a culinary obsession. 

“I love hot chicken, and I’ve been working on a hot chicken recipe for a year a half,” he said. “So this is a dream come true for me.”   

Simon Sedek cooks up a batch of hot chicken for team Tea Party, who said the name reflected their aim to “disrupt the chicken industry,” not their politics.

In order to ensure that the food was kosher, organizers provided the teams – as well as both the two non-competing vendors – with all of the ingredients and utensils, including the fryers. 

The weather was sunny and unusually warm for early November, and Stuart Wiston, one of the founding organizers, estimated attendance over the course of the three-hour festival at 500, almost double last year’s inaugural festival. 

“It’s been a great event,” Wiston said. “We went from no competition last year to seven teams this year. Next year I expect we’ll have 15 or 20. Others cities have already said they want to come to the next one.”  •

Judges Jason Sparks (center) and Good Ol’ Boy Mike (right) of the Sips, Suds & Smokes podcast sample some of the hot hot chicken under the watchful eye of Stuart Wiston, one of the festivals founders and organizers.

 

Evan Nahmias, a founder and organizer of the Kosher Hot Chicken Festival, brings ingredients for the batter to one of the teams competing in the cooking contest.

 

The teams cooked up more than 70 pounds of chicken, including these samples being set out by Chase White II of the Smokin’ Wahoos.

 

Members of Holy Flock cheer the announcement that they won the prize for best mild hot chicken.

 

Andy Neuman and Isaac Beard tend a batch of hot chicken for team Oy Vey.