Long before the most serious tailgaters take to the Wells Fargo Center parking lot, cooks at P.J. Whelihan's in Haddonfield, N.J. begin preparing the Wing Bowl's main attraction. Not the Wingettes, the sports talk radio DJ's, or even the local celebrities, but the chicken wings themselves.
“What up boys,” Jim Fris, P.J. Whelihan's chief operating officer, yells as he enters the kitchen at 1:20 a.m. on the morning of Wing Bowl 22. The restaurant is empty but for the busy kitchen, and there’s an air of excitement, not stress, as the group prepares for its seventh year as the official wing provider of Wing Bowl.
“It was stressful our first year just because we weren’t sure we knew what the hell we were doing,” says Rich Friedrich as he pulls a basket of wings from the fryer. "But now we've got the hang of it.”
The pieces de resistance, over 10,000 drumsticks and paddles, hit the fryers at around 11:30 p.m. Thursday night in advance of Friday's 6:00 a.m. eating competition and bacchanalia. The drumsticks and paddles are fried and boxed separately. Each contestant receives 20 wings at a time (10 drumsticks, 10 paddles). Only about 6,000 of the wings will be used in the competition, but P.J.’s likes to be prepared.
“We want to cover all of our bases,” said cook Terry Bailey, who is allergic to poultry and has never had a chicken wing in his life. “We don’t want to be the guys who run out of wings.”
The wings used for the competition are considerably smaller, about 10-12 pieces per pound, than those usually served to customers, which average seven to eight wings per pound. And unlike the normal product, wings for the competition aren’t floured. Two years ago Takeru Kobayashi set the all-time wing consumption record with 337 wings.
“They wouldn’t be breaking records if they were using our normal wings, that’s for sure,” said Bailey.
Before P.J.’s took over for Rib Ranch in 2008, the winner usually topped out below 200 wings. But P.J.’s wings, while nearly identical in size, lend themselves to higher consumption totals.
“The way we cook it, the meat just falls off the bone,” says Steve Annable. “We keep it warm, which is easier for the contestants to eat [previous wings were served cold]. Then it’s just up to the contestants to eat them.”
Smaller and undesirable wings are discarded at every stage. Once they’re finished frying, they are loaded into trays holding about 275 wings each. From there they are placed in hot boxes, each holding 13 rows of wing trays where they continue to steam at 145 degrees.
The wings won’t get sauced until 5 a.m. The spectators, however, are likely to get sauced long before them.