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Chicken Wings the Hot Thing for Vikings

Posted Dec 14, 2015

Ask most Vikings, and they’ll say the hottest item on the Winter Park menu this season has been chicken wings.

Hot sauce is optional, but being full of flavor isn’t.

Neither is departing from what’s become a Thursday tradition, except for Thanksgiving and last week when the Vikings visited Arizona for Thursday Night Football.

Director of Food Service Operations Geji McKinney is in her 21st season with the Vikings. Most of the meals served are on a 30-day cycle, but Everson Griffen, Barr and Adrian Peterson were part of a group that asked McKinney to put wings on a weekly rotation.

“That started, and then she started adding a little twist to it,” Peterson said. “They’re just a hit. Guys love them. I love them and I think it’s about the hottest thing on the menu.”

One hundred and 80 pounds — an estimate between 900 and 1,000 wings — disappear.

Like many chefs, McKinney has developed a dry rub seasoning that can be used on chicken and some other meat, fish and vegetable presentations. It’s a secret blend, one developed over time by “putting some things together and tasting, adding a little more here, taking out here.”

She also takes pride in Vikings players, coaches and staff enjoying the meals served up by her staff and gathers feedback from the likes of Linval Joseph, who presented a flavor, and Chad Greenway, who has spent all 10 of his pro seasons in Minnesota.

“[Griffen] likes to think he can cook,” McKinney said. “He thinks he has a palate. If it’s wrong, they’ll let me know it’s wrong.”

In addition to the dry rub, the Vikings have also enjoyed lemon pepper and barbecue. McKinney doesn’t mind if players want to add hot sauce and offers a variety of liquid heat, but Peterson opts not to alter them.

“They’re all good. I would say probably the dry rub and lemon pepper [are my favorites],” Peterson said. “You don’t need hot sauce or anything. You can just suck them off the bone. They’re scrumptious.”

The wings are cleaned with cool water, rubbed with olive oil and seasoned. Wings are stacked into tubs and taken to the grill, rolling hot at 8 a.m. while breakfast is still being served in the cafeteria.

“We get the grill as hot as we can get it, we sear it, both sides as much as we can, you don’t want to burn it or overcook it,” said Chef Rich Gray. “Then we finish it off in the oven at about 400 degrees until they’re hard. The outside needs to be nice and crispy. The inside is still going to be juicy and tender.”

Gray, Lou Carter and Koffi Yigan-Kohoe are the three chefs on staff, and they’re skilled with tongs and timing. Gray is on the grill during this Thursday morning during a taping for Vikings: Beyond the Gridiron.

He wants to sear them on high heat to draw out the flavor before transferring them to baking pans to finish cooking in the oven. The oven allows consistency and efficiency for the high quantity.

“It goes quick once you get going with it. Flavor is everything,” Gray said. “I didn’t clean the grill between each round because I want that flavor involved, that smoky grill flavor. You want it to be nice and crispy. I put it skin side down on the parchment paper to get it extra nice and crispy.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s fun to see people excited about what you do,” Gray said. “They eat a lot of it and come back and take to-go. It lets us know we’re doing our job right. I’ve never heard a complaint on it, and I don’t think they’re going to complain because they love it and keep coming back.”

The techniques of grilling then baking help the meal stay within the range of nutritional guidelines that Head Coach Mike Zimmer has requested since arriving in 2014.

“Years ago we were frying chicken, but we’re on a healthier kick,” McKinney said. “I always say everything in moderation, but with a chicken wing, you really can’t help it. You see guys, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10.”

McKinney likes blending what she learned from her family members about cooking with the technical components she learned working her way through culinary school.

“My father’s side of the family were great Southern cooks. I wanted to be just like them,” McKinney said. “I learned, I watched them, I listened to them, caramel cakes, sweet potato pies, the greens. It was good, so I learned from them, and then culinary school helped to apply it all to make sense. I would never tell them that, but I think some things are maybe a little better now.”

McKinney said she wouldn’t have imagined being with the Vikings this long when she first started, but it’s been “a blessing” in part because of the feedback from her Vikings family.

“It makes you feel good. It makes you feel like it’s loving you back,” McKinney said. “We put our love into the food, and guys respond by loving you back, if that makes sense.”