On a frigid afternoon, a day when the Ravenel bridge was closed due to ice, Mike Lata confidently strode into the Waffle House next to the round Holiday Inn, wrapped a black apron around his waist, donned a visor, and took his spot at the griddle. His mission? To master the five dishes in his Waffle House training manual along with a mind-boggling combination of hashbrown and egg preparations — which he did with serious swagger. Of course, his confidence is justified. Hanging on the wall at FIG, next to his James Beard Award, is a golden waffle, evidence of his dominance at last year’s Waffle House Smackdown, where he took down Edward Lee and Michelle Weaver with perfect plates of eggs and waffles. This year, he’ll get a chance to battle a new round of contenders from around the South. These chefs have been undergoing their own Waffle House training in their respective cities in hopes of wresting that blasted waffle away from Lata. And we have to say, Kevin Gillespie sounds pretty dang serious about it. He’s also representing Waffle House’s hometown of Atlanta. Looks like Lata better get ready for a big challenge. Let the smack talk begin!

Chef Michael Hudman

(Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Hog & Hominy — Memphis, Tenn.)

Training Regimen: “I’ve got the manual, and I’m reading it over pretty intensely. My last training scheduled is the day before I leave to go down to Charleston, so I’m going full-on, super intense”

Outlook on the Competition: “You gotta be nervous getting up there, but I’m looking forward to taking the trophy from Uncle Mike. That could be the highlight of my weekend. And it’s always good to beat up on [Chris] Shepherd [from Underbelly in Houston].”

Favorite WaHo Meal: “The sausage egg and cheese biscuit. We do a biscuit at Hog & Hominy that’s called the Gut Bomb, and it reminds me a lot of the SEC biscuit. You know, we do it a little differently, but both of these biscuits make you want to take a nap.”

Smack Talk: “Waffle House and Memphis, they’re one and the same, so we’re bringing the honky-tonk up there to Chucktown. We’re gonna bring some noise, that’s for sure.”

Chef Kevin Gillespie
(Gunshow — Atlanta, Ga.)

Training Regimen: “I went and worked at a Waffle House yesterday for four hours [9 a.m. to 1 p.m.]. It was like intense on-the-job training. I learned all the marks, learned all the Waffle House jargon, and then they just threw me to the wolves, chucked me on the line with the people cooking there.”

Outlook on the Competition: “Early in my career, I had to cover the breakfast shift at the Ritz Carlton downtown on the two days when our breakfast cook was off. And he was a longtime, 20-year-plus veteran of the Waffle House, so we used a very similar system to the way the Waffle House does their orders, so it all started to come back to me yesterday.”

Favorite WaHo Meal: “I don’t know if I’m a weirdo for this, but I love their chicken. I think it’s amazing. So I get chicken and eggs scrambled with cheese. I get my hashbrowns — scattered, smothered, diced, topped, and peppered — and raisin toast … If I’m having a really fat-kid day, I’ll have the chicken and eggs breakfast and a dessert waffle.”

Smack Talk: “Waffle House people are serious as shit. Those people take their job really seriously, so no screwing around. When you get in there, we gotta do this thing. I’m gonna be serious as a heart attack about it. I’m proud of the Waffle House, I’m proud of the Atlanta-based business, and I think what they do is amazing every day.”

Chef Chris Shepherd
(Underbelly — Houston, Texas)

Training Regimen: “I actually went and worked there twice — or I should say I went there twice to check it out — and man, those guys are good cooks. Those guys don’t even move, they’ve got it down pat.”

Outlook on the Competition: “As long as you know what’s being asked of you and how to read the plate, if you will, and know how to set it up, I think it’s gonna be alright … Maybe, I don’t know. I’m actually kind of nervous about it, but it’ll be fun.”

Favorite WaHo Meal: “I had a patty melt there, and it was absolutely fantastic. I was so impressed. I was like, ‘This is freaking delicious.'”

Smack Talk: “It’s funny, Michael [Hudman] texted me, and he was like, ‘How many times have you gone to Waffle House?’ and I was like ’12.’ He was like, ‘Are you serious?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there 12 times.’ I sent a picture to him and Lata, and Lata’s like, ‘Don’t even bother.'”