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Don Cheval is no stranger to the stage at Forest Park’s Rib Fest.
The retired lieutenant of the Forest Park Fire Department has placed four out of the five times he has competed in the annual BBQ contest – which includes the first place title he took home Saturday night at the village’s annual amateur cook-off.
“This year I knuckled down,” Cheval, 54, said. “There was some stiff competition out there.”
To go along with his ribs — cooked in a bullet smoker — he went with a sweet and tangy sauce as his base. It was created after years of input from friends, family and the firefighters he cooked for while working at the firehouse.
“It’s all back to cooking for the guys,” said Cheval, now an Aurora resident. “You got a whole group of guys and you got to get to the point where everybody likes it. My rub and my sauce, all that came out of the firehouse. I’d put it in different bowls and have the guys try it.”
To Cheval, barbequing has become something of an art form.
“You’re controlling the temperature of the fire, the amount of smoke, the flavors and the type of wood you use,” he said. “The wood really is an ingredient. It adds to the flavor.”
His attention to detail apparently paid off as judges awarded him the $750 first place prize out of 22 contestants. The judges – including a few who were certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, as well as professional chefs – also handed out second prize to John Spielman from Westmont and third prize to Tim Clendenning from Hanover Park.
Monica and Jim Angelo, of Forest Park Ribs, did not place this year, but still said the event was a blast.
“We had a great time,” Monica Angelo, 35, said. “It’s so much fun to do; we’re very happy. It’s something we’ll do again and again and again.”
The couple from Forest Park set up shop at 6 a.m. on Saturday and began grilling about 180 pounds of baby-back ribs from Wichita Packing Company, where Monica Angelo, a third generation “butcher,” also works as an office manager.
It was the fourth year the Angelo’s competed in the annual festival. Last year they took home third place after experimenting with a large smoker instead of the charcoal patio grill they’ve used in the past.
As for the recipe of their special sauce, well, that’s top secret.
“The sauce is a really good quality barbeque sauce that we just fancy up,” she said. “Beyond that, I can’t say.”
Whatever was in it, it left one mother at the fest snatching a rib right from her daughter’s hand — it was the last piece of meat to come off the Angelo’s grill.
On the contrary, Mayor Anthony Calderone walked away that night without eating a single rib.
“I can’t sample all 22, so I didn’t have one rib,” he said. “I’ve learned this over the last few years. I don’t want to offend anybody.”
As the emcee announcing the winners, he also said he didn’t want anyone to “feel that the process is tainted.”
Ribs or no ribs, an estimated four thousand people were streaming in and out of the fest throughout the day and into the evening.
Karen Dylewski, director of the Howard Mohr Community Center, which organized the fest, said that it grows a little bigger each year, and this was the fifth one.
“It’s just a great event for the area and for Forest Park – and it’s always good when you win,” Cheval said. “It just gives you validation that what you’re cooking is good, and that people appreciate it.”