Last year’s Forest Park’s Ribfest first prize winner, John Spielman of Wesmont, has plenty of cooking experience: He’s been a sous chef at country clubs, hotels and dinner theaters.
But it was a trip to Memphis that taught him to how to smoke meats.
Spielman’s barbeque vision quest started in Austin, Tex., where Texas “Q” is an all-encompassing lifestyle. He loved the smell, loved the flavor, but was not yet initiated to the secrets of smoking meat “slow and low.”
“I taught cooking classes, but no chef barbeques. They just don’t do that,” he said.
Then about seven years ago, his wife booked a three-day trip for him to the Memphis in May World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest.
“It’s madness down there, about 90,000 people walking around,” he said.
Spielman exited a taxi and roamed the fest, eyeing the competition — 258 teams in all — until he spied a tent run by some local Illinois boys from Naperville.
“I went into the tent and introduced myself.” As sous chef, he could prep anything. “Because I know how to cook, I was their personal ‘do-boy.'”
Some of the events of that festival are blurry, he admits because of the general consumption of Jack Daniels and Grey Goose vodka. “It was crazy,” he admits. “And money was no object.”
But three days later, he emerged from the tent with secret knowledge and power.
“They had taught me everything about barbeque and ribs. It was such a cool thing. I learned how to tell when they’re done, how to sauce them, make rubs, everything,” Spielman added.
Now he practices with backyard barbeque.
“I could throw a piece of meat in the smoker and just watch the smoke roll off of there for 10 hours,” he said. “That’s my gig. I love it.”
Armed with barbeque enlightenment, a week after returning home, Spielman entered his ribs in a local Westmont amateur rib contest — and won first place.
“The following year I won first place again,” he said.
He has also come in first or among the top three for several times in Forest Park’s Ribfest.
“These people in Forest Park are awesome,” he said. “[Ribfest is] just run so smoothly and so well. Even the guys who pick up the garbage, they don’t get any recognition, but they are fantastic.”
On Saturday, Sept. 14, Spielman said he’ll get up around 4 a.m. to get ready.
“I’ve already got everything I need stacked up in the middle of my garage,” he said. “I sit down a week before and plan it out. I always keep things simple.”
He’ll transport his 300-pound Backwoods smoker to the Forest Park Picnic Grove, 7824 Madison St., on a motorcycle trailer.
Electricity and propane cooking are not allowed at the fest. Spielman uses charcoal — lit with newspaper, never lighter fluid — and a mixture of hickory, cherry and apple woods.
“I don’t use mesquite,” he said. “It’s a strong, oily wood and you really gotta watch it.”
“I make all my own rubs maybe two or three days beforehand,” he said. This year’s sauce was made in a 5-gallon batch earlier in the year.
“I think it’s a killer. I love my sauce. I get people asking to buy my sauce all the time,” he said.
Contestants must finish their entries within a 10-minute time window.
“Barbeque’s done when it’s done,” Spielman said. “Spare ribs take six hours and baby backs take five.” To hit the right timing, he adjusts the heat and flame to control cooking time. “You gotta baby those things,” he noted.
Ribs are presented to be judged in individual servings as a blind tasting. Judges don’t know whose ribs are whose. They are scored on their individual merits, not against each other.
Spielman presents his reddish, amber-colored ribs nestled in a bed of parsley in their clam-shell box.
“My ribs are beautiful,” he said matter-of-factly. “They have a nice caramel-colored gloss.”
He takes pride in a clean-cut product. “Never tear ribs,” he said. A final spritzer of apple juice gives the ribs a glossy shine.
Customers can also buy commercially prepared barbeque from Robinson’s Ribs as well as pizza, burgers and other party food. Partygoers will enjoy kid’s activities and live music performed by Caliente, Mr. Big Stuff, Generation, and Evolution.
Around 5 p.m. the Ribfest awards begin. Spielman hopes to be up on stage. First prize winners receive $750 with $500 for second and $250 for third. The best-decorated stand can win $100.
Forest Park’s fest also allows chefs to sell samples of their ribs for $3 for two ribs — which is unusual for a rib festival. Last year, Spielman said he was overloaded with requests after a radio DJ reportedly announced over the air that Tent No. 10 had the best ribs at the Forest Park Ribfest.
“I don’t personally sell the ribs; my son helps and I have a friend who comes,” Spielman said. “I concentrate on cooking.” He’ll bring 4-5 cases of ribs to prepare and sell, “maybe 16-20 racks in each case,” he said.
Spielman displays his trophies at his tent but otherwise keeps the décor sparse. “I just put down a tablecloth,” he said.
While he still loves the smell of barbeque — “I want to make mesquite cologne for the man who has everything” — Spielman said he doesn’t eat much barbeque himself anymore. “Smoked meats are really bad for people with high blood pressure,” he said ruefully.
But he loves watching people enjoy his ribs — and he loves winning.
“I try to be calm, humble and keep it simple. That’s my whole philosophy,” he said.
“Would you spend your last ten bucks on my ribs? If the answer is yes, then I know I’ve done my job.”