In the predawn hours on the Friday before every Super Bowl, after he’s cooked 10,000 chicken wings and transported them to Philly’s debaucherous celebration of the decadent and depraved — Wing Bowl — chef Rich Friedrich makes one last important phone call.
“I call my daughters during that morning to make sure they’re not at Wing Bowl,” he said.
As culinary director for the P.J.W. Restaurant Group, Friedrich and a team of 11 staffers are responsible for cooking the wings that a field of competitive eaters consume as exotic dancers and a sold-out crowd of 20,000 drunken revelers cheer them on — at 6 a.m. — at the Wells Fargo Center.
“You couldn’t hold Wing Bowl anywhere else but Philadelphia,” Friedrich, 50, said. “It’s Mardi Gras meets the Mummers meets WWE Monday Night Raw.”
The event was started in 1993 by WIP sports radio hosts who wanted something to look forward to, since the Eagles hardly ever make it to the Super Bowl. But with the Birds set to face off against the New England Patriots in the big game just two days after Wing Bowl this year, Friedrich expects it to be “an event to remember,” at least for those who remain sober enough to remember anything at all.
“I think this Wing Bowl will surpass any other with excitement and fan participation,” he said. “Tailgating will be unlike any other tailgating that Wing Bowl has seen before.”
Friedrich, who was born and raised in Philadelphia’s Spring Garden section, got his start in the restaurant industry two days before his 15th birthday, when his dad dragged him to the South Philly restaurant where he worked to wash dishes. After high school, Friedrich attended the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y.
For 16 years, Friedrich worked for Aramark and has served as executive chef at Citizens Bank Park, Lincoln Financial Field and the Wells Fargo Center, where he got a real sense for Philadelphia’s sports fans.
“I think Philadelphia truly gets a bad rap for being overly passionate about their teams, but we definitely are not,” he said. “We are appropriately passionate about our teams.”
Having worked at South Philly’s sports stadiums, Friedrich was no stranger to Wing Bowl when he joined the P.J.W. Restaurant Group in 2013. The group, which owns the P.J. Whelihan’s chain among other restaurant properties, has had the Wing Bowl account since 2008, according to Jim Fris, the group’s chief operating officer.
“A sports agent came to us to try and sell us Wing Bowl. He left us a tape of exactly what it was … so we brought it to the president of the company,” Fris said. “He watched the video and basically said, ‘Are you guys nuts?’ and gave us the boot.”
It wasn’t until WIP sent former Flyers player Chris Therien, who served as a color analyst on the station, to talk to P.J.W.’s president that the restaurant group agreed to take on the chicken-wing challenge.
Friedrich typically arrives at P.J. Whelihan’s Haddon Township location around 10 p.m. the night before Wing Bowl to prep the restaurant’s kitchen. The first basket of wings is dropped in the fryer around midnight. By 3:30 a.m., the cooking is done and the team transports the 1,000 pounds of wings to the Wells Fargo Center in hot boxes that have a digitally controlled temperature between 141 and 148 degrees.
Friedrich even uses an infrared laser thermometer to check the temperature of the wings every eight minutes, which is probably the fanciest thing that occurs at Wing Bowl.
Shortly before the wings are plated for the contestants, Friedrich’s team slathers them with 16 gallons of barbecue sauce.
Friedrich said he and his team look forward to cooking for Wing Bowl every year like kids look forward to Christmas morning.
“As a group, it’s almost like a family event to us,” he said, making him the only person to ever refer to any aspect of Wing Bowl as “like a family event.”
Of all of the Wing Bowl memories he’s willing to share — and he won’t tell us the really good ones, because his daughters might read this — Friedrich said the first year was the most memorable for him.
“We were arriving into the arena and we’re wheeling the 10,000 wings out onto the arena floor to the cheer of 20,000 fans who were just excited to see that the wings had finally arrived and Wing Bowl was about to start,” he said. “The roar of that crowd was unlike anything I’ve ever heard.”
“Well, I was born and bred here in Philadelphia, and the passion that we have for our sports teams — and our wings — are pretty much the same. We wear our emotions on our sleeve and we’re proud to say that we’re truly big Philly sports fans.”
What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?
“I guess for me the most classic moment was probably working the Republican National Convention down at the Wells Fargo Center and feeding a little over 120,000 people over the length of the event.”
If you had a wish for the city, what would it be?
“To bring home that Lombardi Trophy and parade it down Broad Street and give the Philadelphia fans what they’ve deserved for so long.”
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