I’ve always considered myself to be a fried chicken aficionado. Straight up, on a bun, hot and spicy, or smothered in sauce— I love it all. So when I got the call to be a judge at the National Fried Chicken Festival in New Orleans this summer, I was SO freaking excited to put my expertise to good use! I’d originally heard about the festival through my foodie friend @DiningWithSkyler who had judged the festival the previous year. After watching her IG stories, I knew I had to get involved. When the weekend finally came, I packed my bags, kissed my cat, and hopped on a plane headed back down south.
The festival was two days long and started each morning around 11 AM. When I arrived, I joined my fellow judges (like Chopped Champion Kenneth Temple and Masterchef contestant Christian Green) underneath a tent and waited for my score sheet. Once we had our score sheets, each table received a corresponding table number that represented what category you were judging that day: either Classic Fried Chicken or Fried Chicken Used in a Dish. With over 35 restaurants participating, I made sure to show up hungry.
I judged Fried Chicken Used in a Dish the first day and Classic Fried Chicken the second day. Both categories were delicious, but I loved seeing all of the creative, nontraditional ways the contestants were able to incorporate fried chicken the most. To keep everything fair, the judging was completely blind—so I had no idea what restaurant was responsible for each dish.
To me, the perfect Classic Fried Chicken is well seasoned, crispy, and moist. The only thing worse than bland, under seasoned chicken, is dry chicken. The competition for the best Classic Fried Chicken was fierce. Fiorella’s Cafe, a New Orleans favorite, won this category two years in a row before a new champion took the crown this year.
This contestant may not look like much…. but it was one of my favorites and was totally VEGAN! That’s right. No meat or dairy involved in the making of this bad boy. If you know me, you know I typically don’t eat a lot of vegan food, but I’d eat this spicy, smoky fried “chicken” again any day. I was VERY pleasantly surprised, not only by this dish, but by the number of vegan options available throughout the festival.
This beauty was my front runner. I gave this crispy fried chicken served on top of beignets with candied pecans my top score because it was bursting with flavor, super juicy, and oh SO creative. It truly captured the spirit of New Orleans in every bite. After blind judging was complete, I found out that the chef responsible for this dish was actually a female PHD student at LSU. Her business, Sweet Legacy, aims to help bring families in need together with food. I was so happy to learn that my first place vote went to a girl boss fighting to change the world!
Immediately following judging, I wandered over to the VIP Moet Champagne tent… because what goes better with fried chicken than a little champagne? If you truly want to enjoy every second of your festival experience, the VIP tent is a non-negotiable. I was able to hide out in the shade, sip a cold drink, and listen to the live music whenever I needed a break from walking around. This cocktail was made with Moet, Belvedere vodka, grapefruit, and thyme.
Two of my favorite vendors at the festival were Frencheez Food Truck and NOLA Brewing. I got a fried chicken grilled cheese from Frencheez that was absolutely amazing. It was reminiscent of childhood, but soooo much better. I also loved the Lemon Basil beer from NOLA Brewing. I don’t usually love beer, but this one was light and summery. Highly recommend them both.
In addition to all of the food and drink, this festival had some really great local bands perform. I love to dance, and after a few visits to the Moet Champagne Tent, I was putting on my own show right in front of the stage. My favorite performance of the weekend was by a New Orleans band called Flow Tribe. There was also a life size corn hole board sponsored by Raising Canes (a college favorite of mine) and several dessert vendors if you were craving something sweet.
At the end of the second day, they announced the winners—Blue Oak BBQ won Best Fried Chicken Used in a Dish and McHardy’s Fried Chicken won Best Classic Fried Chicken. It was a tough but amazing competition. Although, after judging all of that fried chicken, I was really craving something different. Every time I visit New Orleans, I always stop at The Company Burger and this trip would not be an exception. They just opened a new location right near where I was staying, so I popped in on my way home. The burger was melt in your mouth and the onion rings were crispy and perfectly seasoned. I finished the meal off with a chocolate shake and a huge smile on my face.
I couldn’t leave New Orleans without visiting my absolute favorite place for fried oysters…. Luke’s. I’ve eaten a lot of fried oysters in my life, but none compare to these. They are the perfect size, expertly seasoned, and beautifully fried. With a bowl of creole gumbo on the side, you absolutely cannot lose. Go during happy hour for discounted drinks and oysters!
My mom and I both love fried chicken AND New Orleans, so inviting her to be my +1 was a total no brainer. If you didn’t catch us at the festival, you may have seen us dancing together on Bourbon Street! She is my number one travel partner and best friend— there’s really no one I’d rather go on an adventure with. This is our second time to New Orleans together and it was definitely one for the books. Judging a festival sounds like fun and games but there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes and this woman made it all possible. From getting me bandaids for my heels to saving my seat while I danced, even at 26 she is constantly putting me first. I jokingly call her my Kris Jenner, but she’s so much more than that. So thankful for my mom and the memories we’ve made.
If you’re interested in visiting New Orleans— DO IT!! The city is beautiful, full of history, and is home to some of the best food in the country. We stayed a short walk from the French Quarter this time in something called a Sonder. Think AirBnB but WAY better. Our apartment had a full kitchen with a dishwasher, pots, and pans! The best part is that unlike an AirBnB, no one else actually lives there. Our’s was super cute and perfect for the long weekend. Would highly recommend looking into a Sonder property when you visit.
There are a ton of fun things to do in New Orleans other than eat…. that’s just our favorite thing to do! If you’re like us, check out this list and see how many native NOLA foods you’ve had and how many you have left to try and leave them in the comments! See you all next year at the festival!