Amateur cooks and barbecue aficionados will be among many other locals in the Forest Park Picnic Grove at the village’s ninth annual Ribfest Saturday. Fall is arriving in Forest Park just on ‘cue.
From 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. at the Forest Park Grove at 7820 W. Madison St., the Ribfest will also feature burgers, loaded baked potatoes, tacos and fried Snickers among other festival food favorites. However, the main highlight of the event is the judging of the best barbecue ribs.
While Forest Park’s Ribfest may not be as widely known as other national rib and barbecue festivals, annual contestant and retired Forest Park fireman Don Cheval promises that fest goers will have nothing short of a good time.
“It’s a great community event,” he said. “A lot of people come out from the public. It’s one of the rare contests that people walking into the venue can purchase samples of the ribs.”
Cheval has competed in the Ribfest for the last eight years and began his journey making ribs during his days as a fireman for the village. Since his fellow firefighters always enjoyed his ribs, he wanted to share his talents with others as soon as Forest Park began its own barbecue festival.
“I used to barbecue at the firehouse and then I got involved with the Kansas City Barbeque Society as a judge, so I tell everybody I wanted to find out if my barbecue sucked or not,” he said.
“When you’re cooking for the guys (firemen), they all like your food because you’re cooking!”
Cheval has only missed winning either first or second place one time during all his years of participating in the Ribfest. While his barbecue skills come from humble beginnings, every year he learns more about ribs from studying how to improve his winning methods.
“I’ve [learned by] cooking them, from the Internet, from judging [and] reading books. I’m just an amateur guy. You’ve got to read stuff on how to do it and practice.”
Cheval explained barbecuing ribs truly comes down to a perfect balance between timing and taste. His ribs take about five hours to cook and he makes sure when he competes, he gets his pit fired up around 6 a.m. with plenty of time to get the ribs cooked and ready for fest goers by the time noon rolls around.
While there are several veteran barbecuers at Forest Park’s Ribfest, the village welcomes new participants to share their talents and take a crack at placing in the contest. One of this year’s rookies includes Forest Park resident (and Review columnist) Alan Brouilette.
Brouilette may be new to barbecue competition, but he is in no way oblivious to what it takes to be a successful barbecuer.
“I wrote an article on competition barbecue for a magazine a couple of years ago and caught the bug,” he said, explaining how he knows so much about ribs.
“After that, [it’s] practice, practice, practice. At this point, I’m spoiled so badly that I don’t eat barbecue in restaurants anymore.”
Brouilette will be joined at the fest by his own competition barbecue team and is excited to compete on what he calls “our home field.”
“After a certain age, there are only so many team sports you can participate in and this is one of them,” he said.
Head barbecue judge and Forest Parker Nancy Robinson agrees with Cheval and Brouilette that the sense of community is what makes the Forest Park Ribfest one of the best around. Robinson comes year after year to the Ribfest with experience with the Kansas City Barbeque Society as a judge since 1996 and a master judge since 2003. Robinson travels several times a year across the United States judging barbecue contests, and while she has tried some of the best barbecue foods out there, she says participating in Forest Park’s Ribfest is the closest thing to family.
“It’s the closest I can be to eating in my house rather than flying to New Jersey or Vegas for a contest,” Robinson said. “It’s really great to have good barbecue so close.”
Robinson’s expertise on ribs and barbecue began when she attended a barbecue contest with a friend 18 years ago in Shannon, Ill. Robinson was asked to judge when the contest could not round up enough judges. Since judging that first contest, Robinson has taken classes to learn about the standards of judging barbecued foods and became certified with the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
“They spend all day training you on different meats and how it should come out to be perfect,” Robinson said about her experience in learning about how to select the best of the best.
Robinson’s favorite part of judging barbecue contests year after year is that she always seems to run into friends that she has met through her travels.
“It’s like a family,” she says about the world of barbecue contests. “It’s really kind of a neat feeling.”