INTERVIEW: Talking Wings On Super Bowl Week With The Director Of ‘The Great Chicken Wing Hunt’

Matt Reynolds was 31 years old when he decided to give up a steady gig as a Reuters writer in Bratislava to return to his hometown of Buffalo, New York in search of the world’s best Buffalo wing, effectively re-dedicating his life’s work to the celebrated delicacy of his hometown. He gathered together a rag-tag crew of weirdos, similarly inclined to believe that the Buffalo wing, who some will tell you is the only truly American food, born in the USA without roots elsewhere, was worth such dedication. What ensued was a 16-day trip throughout the wing belt, mostly through upstate New York and Eastern Pennsylvania, with detours through Vermont and Canada, in an RV with a professional eater named Thor, a handful of wing-loving odd balls, a Slovakian film crew, and Reynolds’ long-suffering Czech girlfriend, Lucie.

Before I watched The Great Chicken Wing Hunt, which hits Hulu today (and is also available on iTunes), I probably would’ve told you that a search for the world’s best Buffalo wing wasn’t worthy of a feature-length documentary. I mean, I like wings, but isn’t it sort of like searching for the world’s best french fry? The beauty of the film is that it’s one part chicken wings, and one part wild goose chase, with a protagonist in the midst of a quarter-life crisis on a cockamamie journey with a wild cast of characters. The foundation of every good story is people and place, and through the greasy lens of Buffalo wings, we meet a whole crew of lovable oddballs and eccentrics, and all the conflicts and culture clash that goes along with cramming them into an RV and forcing them to eat nothing but chicken wings.

On the eve of its Hulu release and in the lead up to the Super Bowl, the Buffalo wing’s biggest day of the year, I got to chat with Matt Reynolds. I can talk food for hours, so we got pretty deep into wing specifics (this is a must-read for anyone cooking wings for the big game). It’s not every day you get to talk to a guy who ate so many chicken wings that he gave himself an ulcer when he was 7.

Okay, first thing’s first, I know (from you) that the parts of the wing are called the drumette (the little part that looks like a mini drumstick) and the flatty (the part with two bones). What’s the little claw part that sticks off the end of the flatty called? They usually cut that off, but I love that part.

We recently did a wing nomenclature survey on Facebook. There are a lot of alt terms for flatty and drum. But the only term we came across for the tip is ‘the tip’. That seems to be universal. I like it too. If you fry it long enough you can eat it whole – bones an all. It’s like biting into a crunchy potato chip.

If you’re making your own sauce at home, what are the necessary components?

The original recipe is Frank’s Red Hot and butter. And that’s still the recipe most people use. The proportions change depending on how spicy you want it. No other sauce tastes like it because Frank’s grows a proprietary kind of pepper. I like to build off the basic recipe by adding garlic, fresh hot peppers, mustard, dashes of assorted hot sauces and a little honey. You can see the full recipe here.

How hot and how long? Can I bake them? What kind of oil do you usually use, does it matter?

It depends on your deep fryer, but generally speaking, 8-14 minutes at 375 degrees. Make sure you use fresh (not frozen) wings. But you’ve got to get to know your deep fryer when it comes to temperature and time. Yes! you can bake them. I find that you can get 95 percent of the deep-fried flavor by tossing the wings around in a oil first, and putting a generous amount of oil, like maybe an eighth of inch, on your cookie tray or baking pan. And baking them at like 375-400, turning them once or twice. But again, you need to know your oven and experiment a few times. Use regular vegetable oil.

Breaded or not breaded? Why? I’ve noticed that I sometimes have a hard time getting the sauce to stay on the wings. Is there a solution to that? Should the wings be dry before you sauce them? Do you blot the oil?

These are good questions! A traditional Buffalo wing is UNBREADED. As far as I know, it was an arbitrary choice by the Buffalo wing’s inventor, Teresa Bellissimo. Yes – making sure all the oil is drained from the wings, and patting them dry, will help the sauce stick. It will also help if you create a thicker sauce by reducing it by 10-20 pct (you do this by letting it simmer for 15-30 minutes).

Are you going wing crazy for the Super Bowl?

I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m a little winged out. I’ve been eating a lot of wings in connection with promoting the film, including a mini Manhattan wing tour last weekend, during which I repeatedly broke my cardinal wing-hunting rule of never eating more than 4 wings per stop.

Four wings!? That’s so European of you. No way I have that kind of will power. I stopped at six once, but only because it was 3 am and I managed to pass out in the middle of them.

To shake things up, I may make a wing dip for super bowl. The recipe is basically shredded chicken, homemade Buffalo sauce, and three layers of cheese, with celery on top.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Super Bowl and wings. With the insane popularity of football, Super Bowl has become almost a new national holiday, perhaps behind only Thanksgiving and Christmas, and maybe July 4. And the wing is the food of choice. Wing is to Super Bowl as turkey is to thanksgiving.

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt focused mainly on the Buffalo area, with forays into Vermont and Canada. If you expand your search, where’s the first place you go and why?

With unlimited budget, I would probably go to Japan and Korea. They have their own style of really interesting indigenous wings. In fact, the there’s a type of Japanese wing, whose name is escaping me, that was also invented in 1964 (same year as the Buffalo wing). I guess something was in the air that year. It’s inferior to the Buffalo wing, in my opinion. But still, what an amazing coincidence. And it’s definitely worth trying. And there are a lot of interesting things going on these days with Korean BBQ wings.

Plenty of strong American wing houses outside the Wing Belt, but I have yet to come across one that is so amazing, or so different, that I felt like it was a huge omission on our tour. I would actually love to do a tour of the divier bars in Buffalo. The Buffalo heavyweights, which were the only places we went to, because there are so many of them, crank out so many wings these days that I’m afraid they are not able to put as much care and thought into what they’re putting out.

Do you ever try frying up drums or thighs? Is it sacrilege to Buffalo sauce a drumstick?

I try not to be dogmatic about these things. But yeah… it kind of is. It comes back to taste. The Buffalo wing delivers a combination of flavors – hot sauce, butter, meat, skin (and possibly blue cheese and celery) – in just the right proportions. With drums or thighs, there’s not enough skin, and because of that, also not enough sauce (unless you’re continually dipping), per unit of meat.

While shooting, a pair of clowns ambushed us with Buffalo turkey wings. (freeze frame attached). We found them lacking for the same reason.

What about chicken breasts, why do they suck so much? When you buy a rotisserie chicken, what do you do with the dry ass crappy breast? [Editor’s Note: I really hate chicken breasts]

Part of the secret of the wing’s amazing flavor is the bone. The bone helps hold in flavor. And the wing also has a high ratio of skin to meat. The breast has neither of these qualities. I think the way to go with the breast is covering is with a lot of sauce, or using it in an awesome recipe like Buffalo wing dip.

Your crew was from Slovakia. One of the guys, I noticed, would bite off the ends of his bones. Is that a Slovakian thing, or just a that-guy thing? How about you, do you suck the marrow or is that weird?

It’s not a Slovak thing per se. But I think the conditions in Slovakia are ripe for producing someone like Maros, who not only bit the ends off, he ate the ENTIRE WING, bone and all. 1. Slovaks clean their wings, and any other meat dish, VERY THOROUGHLY. So they’re used to digging around the bones and eating skin and cartilage and probably occasionally ingesting a piece of bone. And 2. yes – they eat marrow, which I guess makes it a shorter jump to eating bone. Having said that, Maros is the only Slovak I know, out of maybe 30 I’ve seen eat wings, who eats them that way.

What do you miss the most about Bratislava? The least? Conversely, what did you miss most about home when you were there?

That’s a really tough question. I think my feelings about Bratislava are tied into my feelings about the AGE I was when I lived there. But one thing is that the politics were so in flux when I got there. Nobody knew whether the country was going to become the next Belorussia, i.e. headed by a dictator, or instead a functioning democracy. I of course wouldn’t want the country to go back to that,  but there’s definitely something fascinating and bracing about living in a country in turmoil. The other thing that was cool was that the country was still transitioning into a normal market economy, and as part of that process, people were becoming more materialistic and consumerist. But they were also still partially of the mindset that materialism and consumerism were bad, or potentially bad.  It was like – we overthrew communism…for this? Better TVs and Coca Cola?

There’s an amazing documentary called Czech Dream (Cesky sen) about these two guys that set up a fake supermarket. They spend months creating the illusion of this new supermarket in order to learn about the process of marketing and advertising. And then when the day comes, hundreds of people sprint to the gates of the store, in order to get the best buys, and it turns out the store is only a facade. It’s really interesting and funny. I remember thinking when I saw it that no one could make that film here because who would even think to question why we spend so much of our lives thinking about buying and selling things?

For a more superficial answer…I guess I can say this on FilmDrunk… The girls in Slovakia are amazingly beautiful. Like maybe a Slovak 10 is not any hotter than an Austrian 10. But 95 percent of Slovak woman are in the 7-9 range, and maybe only 20 pct of Austrian women are 7-9. I hope you don’t have a lot of Austrian readers. The consistency there is amazing. And the beer is really cheap.

When I lived in Slovakia, I definitely missed food, and some TV shows. I missed all of the Sopranos. Sports was another thing. I basically didn’t watch American sports for 8 years. I read an interview with Steven Soderbergh where he was talking about how the production value of our sports is amazing and unparalleled anywhere else in the word. I would definitely agree.

What was the strangest culture clash moment you had in Bratislava? And personally, are there any areas where you feel like you and Lucie will never agree because of your backgrounds?

I’ll tell you one that’s really embarrassing, and I can’t believe that I did this, but it’s true. I got heavily intoxicated my first night in Bratislava, and I woke up the next day – keep in mind I was only two months out of college – and spent two hours frantically trying to have a pizza delivered to my apartment. It never occurred to me that pizza delivery might not exist in Slovakia.

Another time, when I met Lucie’s family, they were very formal and polite, almost to the point of being rigid. And we sat down for a formal meal, which ended with ice cream for dessert, and when everyone had gotten all the ice cream they could out of their bowl with their spoons, they proceeded to pick up their bowls and licked them clean. Ice cream was a precious commodity during communism and to this day my wife’s people do not waste a drop of it.

In terms of our relationship, It’s hard to untangle what’s cultural, from what’s idiosyncratic to my wife and her family, from what are universal man/woman conflicts. Czechs tend to be very careful and cautious, and since most of them grew up in medium to big families in small apartments, very very organized with their things. I am none of these things. So that’s hard.

And irony. I think Lucie doesn’t always get the ironic undercurrent that runs through many interactions and conversations here in America.That’s something that’s really hard to fully pick up on if you’re not a native speaker.

Cool, man. Well thanks for talking to me. If you need me, I’ll be blotting my wings and booking a flight to Slovakia.