Blake Hartwick made one fateful road trip this past season. Minutes after the Carolina Panthers suffered their lone blemish—a 20-13 loss at Atlanta on December 27—in a 15-1 run that has the organization on the doorstep of its first Super Bowl title since joining the NFL in 1995, a friend brought up the obvious. “You know why we lost?” Hartwick recalls being asked. The chef at Bonterra Dining & Wine Room in Charlotte replied with a typical answer, saying that the Panthers, who needed to stage a late comeback to topple the New York Giants a week earlier, were due, and didn’t approach the divisional game with the proper mindset.
“Nah, man,” his friend corrected, “It was because you didn’t make the wings.”
It was in that breath that Hartwick began to see some legitimate superstition, if such a thing truly exists, in a hunch that was attached to his culinary skills all year.
Starting in Week 1, Hartwick, who has lived in the city since 1993 and embraced fandom from the outset, began making what is now lovingly known as “Winning Panthers Wings.”
During typical road games, the restaurant’s staff sets up a large-screen TV and watches the contests on site, with Hartwick supplying the fare. When Carolina plays uptown in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, the chef borrows a grate from their wood-burning grill and brings it to the tailgate. Outside of his December trip to the Georgia Dome, the wings were present at all 15 victories, meaning that, while the team might not be able to claim this, his dish is, in actuality, still undefeated.
“It’s like anything else,” Chef Hartwick says. “You wear your lucky jersey; you wear your lucky hat; you keep winning and you’re not going to stop wearing that lucky jersey or hat. It’s every one’s own superstition and you have to keep it up.”
It made perfect sense, of course, that Hartwick would carry his tradition into Super Bowl 50 weekend as Carolina readies for a matchup with Peyton Manning and the 12-4 Broncos at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Since 2009, the restaurant has represented the Panthers at the Annual Taste of the NFL Party with a Purpose, a culinary fundraiser that benefits the Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina. Each NFL squad brings in a hometown chef, and usually, a player. The restaurant supplies a signature dish and serves it up mass-scale style to the many attendees at the event, which will also feature a musical performance from Third Eye Blind this year.
Hartwick quickly knew what was on his menu for the 2016 edition, held in Daly City, California, on the eve of the big game, especially since his table will almost surely draw increased traffic due to the Panthers’ spotlighted role. The logistics were a tad bit more complicated, however.
“[Springer Mountain Farms] was like, ‘OK, well how many wings were you thinking?’” Hartwick remembers asking. “I’m like, ‘Probably going to need 3,000.’”
After a few ticks of silence, Hartwick offered a hopeful “Hello,” into the receiver to check if anyone was there.
“Do you realize that’s a pallet of wings?” came the response.
“They’ve been really gracious,” Hartwick says of the Georgia-based poultry company, which has supplied Hartwick with all-natural, American humane wings.
After the shipment arrived, Hartwick packaged the wings on Wednesday and sent them to the West Coast, hoping they would arrive in tact. Once there, he notes the preparation will begin on Friday, with Hartwick and sous chef Mike Long breaking all of the chicken out of the bags and getting them panned up. The cooking for Saturday’s event will likely begin around 3 or 4 p.m.
The event sends each restaurant some help—a few culinary hands, and in typical years, an NFL player from the team. Hartwick says he was expecting kicker Graham Gano at his station until circumstance stepped in.
“I would rather he spend the night getting ready for the game,” Hartwick jokes.
Hartwick has talked about the wings through various media outlets leading up to the game, including a recent radio spot. That’s led to a few customers walking into the restaurant asking if they were on the menu, especially one particular guest who wasn’t thrilled when she found out they weren’t.
And what exactly is in this mythical dish? Hartwick began working on the recipe in the preseason and arrived at an elevated take with plenty of finesse.
The wings are involve a marinade that is a combination of Kentuckyaki sauce, sweet chili sauce, rice wine vinegar, minced garlic, thyme, and cilantro. There’s also a finishing Alabama white sauce that includes Dukes Mayo, apple cider vinegar, corn syrup, red pepper flakes, granulated garlic, and sugar. He smokes 2 ounces of roasted peanuts with a tablespoon of paprika as well. The result is a crispy, sweet and sour Teriyaki style wing under a savory Kentuckyaki sauce. He cooks the wings sous-vide style before finishing them on the grill.
“We’ll see what happens,” Hartwick says of the game, which he was able to secure tickets for. “You never know. That’s honestly how I’ve seen every game. I just can’t wait to get there and see what happens.”