Vegan Chicken Ruled the Roost at the National Fried Chicken Festival
I was recently flown down to New Orleans to be a judge at the National Fried Chicken Festival. (I know, I know, being a food editor is such a tough, awful life.) All the judges—various media folks and fried chicken stans—were seated at picnic tables in Woldenberg Riverfront Park. Tray after tray of fried chicken was presented to us to taste and evaluate. There were a few categories to score, such as tenderness, overall presentation, crunchiness, and juiciness. We didn’t know the restaurant that made each dish, but we did know that our votes would help crown the winner. This was serious work.
The thing about judging fried chicken is that all the dishes are pretty good. I've eaten cheap, not-great fried chicken late at night while saying something like, "Oh my god, this is the best food ever made." Basically, they're all good fried chickens, Brent. The other thing about judging fried chicken is that in order to be in peak physical condition, fried chicken needs to be eaten moments after it leaves the fryer. Serving dozens of dishes to dozens of judges presents a problem. Some of the chicken that weekend, unfortunately, was not in tip-top shape because it had been fried earlier in the morning and had to wait to be judged. No fault of its own; just the nature of the sport.
There was one dish that wasn’t affected by these conditions and it was the most enjoyble fried chicken I ate in two days of judging. It was chicken and waffles, and the thigh and drumstick were super-crunchy and super-tender, even after sitting for a while. The skin was thick, nubby, and crunchier than any fried chicken skin I’d ever encountered. And—you can probably see where this is going based on the headline—it wasn’t even chicken. It was vegan.
Was this an imposter? Was it allowed to compete? If the dish could talk, I could see it channeling the referee in Air Bud: “Ain’t no rule that says vegan fried chicken can’t be in the competition.”
After eating this meatless wonder, the judges looked at each other approvingly. It was a hit. It was my favorite chicken of the weekend and I needed to know more about it. Turns out, it’s made by Atlas Monroe, a San Francisco-based catering company started by Deborah and Jonathan Torres. They do festivals around the country and have plans to open up retail locations soon. Deborah told me they didn’t model their vegan fried chicken off of any chain’s or chef’s—except for maybe their mothers'. The “chicken” is made entirely from wheat protein, and when I asked about what’s in the batter, she wasn’t quick to give up the recipe, saying it’s a proprietary signature blend of spices. Understood—you don't get to the top of the plant-based chicken game by giving out your secrets.
Their recipe “took a lot of trial and error,” she said, “but once we got the perfect texture and rich flavor our recipe has remained the same. We've only been in business a little over a year, so I'm sure there will be revisions for different flavors in the near future.”
We also talked about the future of plant-based eating in the US. Deborah is very optimistic, saying there’s something “very permanent” about what’s going on—it's not only a trend. Indeed, it seems like a new vegan comfort food spot opens every week, at least in New York. “If you can eat big, juicy, extra-crispy pieces of succulent and flavorful fried chicken without harming any animals using a hundred percent organic and fresh ingredients, why wouldn't you?” she said. “If vegans are concerned with not killing animals then shouldn't we be much more concerned with not killing ourselves through food? We are in the business of making our bodies a garden and not a graveyard.” And she's dead right.