In the early morning hours on Sept. 11, 22 “ribbers” will descend on the grove in Forest Park to fire up their smokers in hopes of earning top honors at Ribfest. The amateur pork rib cookoff, started in 2006, is returning after taking a pandemic pause in 2020.
“Ribfest will be pretty much the same as it has been in the past,” said Karen Dylewski, Ribfest organizer and director of the Howard Mohr Community Center. “I want it to be a great time — an end of summer bash where people can see their neighbors and we can showcase our town.”
Local vendors including Robinson’s Ribs, Shanahan’s and Twisted Cookie will be onsite selling food and competitors will offer rib tastings for $4. Baked potatoes will also be available for sale for festival goers looking to make a meal out of rib tastings. Beer and vodka tents will also be open on the grove while four bands provide entertainment.
Though Ribfest is a non-sanctioned event, six judges certified through the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), will assess the entries in three categories: presentation, taste and tenderness. The competition offers cash prizes to the top three entries — the top ribber is set to take home $1,000.
Don Cheval, a retired lieutenant from the Forest Park Fire Department, is a former competitor turned Ribfest judge. Cheval competed in the first 10 Ribfest competitions taking home first place honors twice and finishing second five times.
“I didn’t want to go pro so I became a judge,” said Cheval. “At first I took the judging class to find out if my barbecue sucked or not. It turns out it didn’t.”
The self-taught barbeque aficionado laments that amateur cooks are often lulled into a false sense of security that they make excellent smoked meat. Backyard cooks are used to receiving compliments all the time, but Cheval is quick to point out the standards for competition barbecue are different than some people might imagine.
“When I barbecue for myself, I often cook differently than I would in a competition,” said Cheval. “There is a misconception that heavy smoke or really spicy flavors are needed to make good barbecue. Winning barbecue often has broader appeal in the final product than amateurs might realize.”
The KCBS certification process educates judges on the hallmarks of good barbecue and provides examples of flawed entries for comparison. The process helps class participants discern the stark differences between good and bad barbecue and understand what qualities make up the best barbecue bites.
Cheval, however, took his education a step farther and became a master barbecue judge. The certification includes a written exam and the requirement he judge 100 sanctioned events. Master judges are also required to cook and assist a professional team at a sanctioned event; certification depends on a passing grade from the team members working with the potential judge.
“A lot of judges don’t cook and need an understanding of what it takes to compete at a high level,” said Cheval. “Cooking with a team gives master judges a sense of how hard it is just to compete let alone win.”
Armed with personal experience as a Forest Park Ribfest champion and KCBA master judge certification, Cheval and his fellow certified judges know what a winning rack of ribs should be. Judges first assess the appearance of all entries; Cheval says when judging presentation, he looks for a “wow” factor and a desire to eat the ribs.
From there Cheval expects rubs, clean smoke flavor and sauce to enhance the flavor of the meat and embraces a two-bite technique to assess the tenderness of every entry. He is quick to point out that meat that “falls of the bone” may be delicious but is considered overcooked by competition standards.
Contrary to popular belief rib entries are not compared to each other to determine a winner. They are judged individually against the standards of good barbecue making it possible to have multiple entries earn perfect scores.
“This is my first outing to judge since COVID and I turned down a sanctioned event to attend the Forest Park Ribfest,” said Cheval. “Forest Park is near and dear to my heart — I worked there and competed there, and I am looking forward to being part of the day.”
When asked to name the best local barbecue Cheval shared the address to his private residence in Aurora.
Ribfest will take place in the Forest Park Picnic Grove, 7824 W. Madison St., on Sept. 11 from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
In addition to hosting a vaccination event in cooperation with Cook County Public Health, the Village of Forest Park is committed to following all COVID guidelines and state-wide mandates to keep the public as safe as possible.
Ribfest always falls on the second Saturday in September. Honoring the somber significance of Sept. 11, will be on the agenda at Ribfest. Dylewski anticipates a military honor guard will help mark the occasion.