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Chicken Fest cook teams lined up
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Annual Spring Chicken Festival sponsored by Keep Hall Beautiful. - photo by Scott Rogers

Almost 20 teams are coming out drumsticks blazing in the Spring Chicken Festival cooking shootout this month.

On April 28, 19 teams will smoke, grill, fry and smother 8,000 pounds of North Georgia chicken in a four-hour cook-off on the Gainesville square.

Spring Chicken Festival

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 28

Where: Downtown Gainesville square

How much: $6 for 10 samples with “cluck card” 

The cook-off lasts from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., said organizer Regina Dyer with the city of Gainesville, and the festival’s upcycled craft market runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

But you’re not here for nicked-up furniture, you’re here for crispy, saucy, juicy (and maybe a little greasy) chicken, and there’s a solid list of competitors signed up to make it happen:

  • Antioch Church

  • El Tacoman

  • Gainesville Fire Department

  • Haitian Jerk

  • River Roadies

  • Southern Country Cue

  • Skyline Contracting

  • Team Barrett

  • Team Monee Rich

  • Walgreens

  • Wrenched

  • Bear Sloan

  • Chipotle Brothers by Budget Blinds

  • EZ Out Bonding

  • Ninja Pig

  • Rick’s Smokin Pig

  • Smokin Butts

Teams are made up of restaurants, businesses and professional competitive cooks divided into backyard and professional categories, but even the amateurs stand to win serious cash and, as a result, will be frying like their lives depend on it for the festival.

“We start getting our cook teams together back in January, and really by March we already have our cook team lineup in place,” Dyer said.

Whether they’re grilling, smoking, frying or working some black magic on their chicken, teams have to cook a minimum 200 pounds of meat during the cookoff — a serious undertaking during the festival.

“It’s not like going out there with a grill — we’ll cook about 8,000 pounds of meat that day,” Dyer said. “They need to know it’s a big event.”

And serious effort can turn into serious cash: The grand champion of the whole cook-off walks away with $1,000, and winners in the various categories take home $200 each.

If you’re thinking $200 doesn’t sound like much, there are 100 entries that are judged across multiple categories, and the top three winners in each category take home cash.

“There’s 36 chances for them to be in the money and get a trophy,” Dyer said. “If you come with your A game, you could certainly win a couple thousand dollars and the trophy.”

This year, smoked wings have their own category after years of being lumped in with fried wings.

“It’s really hard for a smoked wing to compete with a fried wing. A fried wing is just hard to beat,” said Gary Moore, one of the cooks of Ninja Pig.

Moore, Paul House and Steve Klein are coming back to the festival for their sixth year. The crew smoke and fry wings and serve up a “chicken football,” made by pounding a chicken breast flat, seasoning it, dressing it with crumbled bacon, jalapenos and cream cheese, rolling the breast up and binding the whole ensemble with bacon.

That done, it goes into the smoker until cooked, Moore said. A fan favorite, Ninja Pig has brought the chicken football back each year they’ve competed.

And when Ninja Pig and the rest of the teams are finished cooking, judging is done through a “double blind” system that ensures judges aren’t biased.

“Cook teams drop off entries at a drop-off station. Those are then carried into the judging area, and 24 judges will evaluate the entries and then score those entries based on appearance, taste and texture,” Dyer said. “Those are then entered into a judging program where the highest score is dropped and winners are determined.”

You can get a taste of that action with $6 “cluck cards” for sale that get you 10 samples from around the festival.

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David Stringer of the Gainesville Fire Department serves their "controlled burn" wings to Kurt Fekdhaus. during the annual Spring Chicken Festival sponsored by Keep Hall Beautiful. - photo by Scott Rogers
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