Chef Matt Payne’s Cornell Chicken

Megan Scott's attempt at Chef Matt Payne’s Cornell Chicken. She says it was easy to do and tasted absolutely amazing.

Well, it seems like we blinked and suddenly August is over. September is here with its 7:30 sunsets and slightly cooler temps, and summer is almost in the rearview mirror. If you’re eager to maximize the last bit of those summertime vibes, what better way than to fire up the grill? Here, we’re sharing a simply delicious recipe for barbecued Cornell Chicken.

Actually, it’s Chef Matt Payne’s version of Cornell Chicken, something he developed after years of eating it growing up in New York, where he attended culinary school at The Culinary Institute of America before moving to the Outer Banks. Payne has been executive chef at Kitty Hawk’s Bad Bean Baja Grill since 2010. He and the restaurant’s owner, Rob Robinson, create one-of-a-kind Mexican and Latin-American fare. Technically, it’s more of a mashup of those two food genres, plus influences of coastal Carolina, Baja California, Tex-Mex and Asian cuisine.

On the menu at Bad Bean, you’ll always find fresh takes on its famous pork belly taco. The most recent one featured a grilled corn salsa, but the classic version topped with jicama slaw, pickled red onions, and scratch-made chipotle barbecue sauce is hard to beat. Last year, the purchase of an ice cream machine led to customers losing their minds on social media over fresh-spun flavors like strawberry and coconut-cinnamon. Back on the savory side, specials such as house-smoked brisket with fried green tomatoes on a homemade bun, or duck leg confit with pineapple salsa and fresh warm tortillas appear regularly. Perhaps you’re getting the picture that Payne and his crew can cook.

Paynefully Good Artisans creating unique, small batch eats on the OBX

Matt Payne, chef at Bad Bean Baja Grill, and owner of Paynefully Good Artisans.

Maybe all we really needed to say was that every sauce, salsa, and tortilla chip is made fresh in the Bad Bean kitchen. That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

So, when Payne passed along this recipe that he praises as his absolute favorite summertime grilling dish and his go-to for company, it seemed like the perfect thing to share just in time for Labor Day. The dish’s New York roots trace back to Robert Baker, a poultry and food science professor at Cornell University. He created the recipe for Cornell Chicken Barbecue Sauce in 1946. The fact that it’s still passed around in communities today is a testament to the dish’s amazing flavor, but also, Baker knew a thing or two about chicken. His list of achievements includes inventing a favorite of children (and adults) everywhere: the chicken nugget.

The original Cornell Chicken recipe calls for oil and an egg yolk mixed with cider vinegar and seasonings to create a well-balanced marinade and basting liquid for chicken. But Payne simplified that by substituting Duke’s mayonnaise for the oil and egg. Of course he did. No respectable summertime recipe on the Outer Banks is complete without Duke’s. Payne says, for him, this version is reminiscent of eastern North Carolina barbecue, and when you taste it, you’ll recognize that richness punctuated by the familiar vinegary tang. A little poultry seasoning, salt and pepper round out the flavor to create a simple but unforgettable dish.

Payne offers user-friendly instructions for alternating between direct and indirect heat on a charcoal or gas grill, so you’ll feel like you’re doing real cooking, but you can definitely crack open some beers or a bottle of wine and relax without too much work. Follow Payne’s instructions and you’ll have what might be your favorite dish of the summer – tangy, deeply flavorful chicken with crispy skin and supremely tender meat. This chicken is a very enthusiastic exclamation point at the end of a late-summer evening and the perfect way to commemorate the near-end of a season on the Outer Banks.

Chef Matt Payne’s Cornell Chicken

Chef Matt Payne’s Cornell Chicken on the grill. Basting and flipping is the key to this tangy, flavorful grilled chicken.

Matt Payne’s Cornell Chicken

Serves 3-4

2 pounds chicken thighs or chicken quarters (skin-on, bone-in)

1 1/2 cup cider vinegar

¾ cup Duke’s mayo

3 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons poultry seasoning

1 tablespoons cracked black pepper

  1. Mix all ingredients and pour over chicken and marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
  2. Prepare a charcoal grill and rake the coals to one half of the grill. A gas grill can be used as well, just make sure to have a hot and a cold side.
  3. Remove chicken from marinade and reserve marinade for basting.
  4. Start the chicken skin-side down on the indirect heat side of the grill for 5 minutes. Move the chicken, skin-side down, over the coals (or to the hot side of your gas grill) for another 5 minutes, or until you achieve some color on the skin.
  5. Flip chicken skin-side up, move to indirect side of grill, and baste with marinade. Keep repeating this process of moving from indirect to direct heat approximately every 5 minutes, flipping and basting as you go, for 30-40 minutes until chicken is done.

*Payne notes it’s important to baste whenever the chicken comes off the direct heat as it re-introduces moisture to the chicken. Toward the end, Matt prefers to almost char the skin and keep basting it for extra crispiness. To maintain proper food safety, be sure to let the final application of marinade cook for a bit to kill any bacteria before taking the chicken off the grill.

Megan Scott is co-owner of The Spice & Tea Exchange in Duck. You can check out her food blog at


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