It’s always been my secret dream to be a judge; I like to try new and exciting twists on old favorites, and as my sister will tell you, I’m quite good at being judgmental. When I heard that the BBQ Challenge needed judges, I jumped at the chance to participate.
Judging at the contest on Saturday worked like this: We judges had to take an oath led by Robert Acheatel, a certified barbecue judge, and then we were told the contestants would present their food to us, Iron Chef-style, by explaining their entry in a 45-second spiel. We would judge each entry based on presentation, taste and overall appeal. Water, saltines and antacids were available to judges.
There was a record number of entries this year (16 ribs entries, 15 for burgers, nine for poultry, six for pulled pork, and six for steaks/chops), so our work was cut out for us. There were about 15 judges spread among 3 tables; while we didn’t each eat all entries, we still ate a fair portion because each entry was cut into generous sample sizes.
Luckily for me, I was seated next to Arnie Gross, a veteran judge of the BBQ Challenge.
“You’ll want to pace yourself,” he said before we received samples of burgers, our first category to judge. “You’ll be hungry when you get the first few samples and you’ll want to dig in, but don’t do it."
Lesson learned the hard way. In preparation of the challenge, I’d eaten a plum two hours earlier. I was ready for something to eat, so I happily gobbled up the first sample. After the third entry, I only ate one or two bites after I realized a few things: 1) I still had to sample more burgers, plus ribs, poultry and steaks/chops (my group decided to skip the pulled pork division); 2) the samples were the equivalent of one-fourth of a generous-sized burger; and 3) the more I ate, the more of a mess I made.
My table dispensed with formalities fairly early on in the challenge, as we licked our fingers and rubbed our still-dirty hands on our aprons. We chatted easily between entries, all the while keeping nervous eyes on the darkening clouds overhead.
The judging itself was an eye-opening experience. My research leading up to the challenge consisted of watching a few segments of Chopped, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the actual event. I offered feedback to contestants (who were all amateurs), and got to discuss what I liked or didn’t like about each entry.
I also sampled new food, like a burger topped with guacamole and tortilla chips, burgers on pretzel rolls and ribs with blackberry sauce. To a one, each contestant was — pardon the expression — fired up and passionate about grilling. They knew how to cook, and they cared about making a great end-product.
The startling thing about judging was how often someone came by to thank us, the judges, for participating. The first time we were thanked, a few of us looked at each other in confusion and said, “But we’re not really doing anything.” We sat down and ate samples of food; the contestants were the ones standing by hot grills for hours at a time, and the BG Days volunteers ensured the event ran smoothly. Judging was by far one of the nicest ways to spend a Saturday afternoon; when you get down to it, I should really thank Chuck Posniak and Scott Desoto, who organized the event.
The awards ceremony continued the laid-back and fun atmosphere. Posniak thanked everyone for coming, and thanked sponsors for donating prizes.
The Backyard Guys, led by Tim Hoffman and Ron Hoffman, won “Best in Show” for their cleaning station and enthusiasm. Members of the team wore Hawaiian-print shirts and decorated the booth similarly.
The “People’s Choice Award” was determined based on votes of people visiting the challenge. Greg Filerman won the award.
A special award was given to Posniak in recognition of his hard work. “You really have the spirit of volunteerism,” Desoto said as he presented the plaque to Posniak.
also received a special award, thanking them for their donations and support throughout the challenge.
In the burger category, Bob Susnjara won third place, Dave Wandrey won second and Laura McNamara and Donna Hoffman won first place. While a third place prize was not announced in other categories, Posniak explained that Susnjara’s burger was so close to second place that they thought he should receive a prize.
In the steaks/chops category, David and Felicia Greenspan won second place, and Thomas Lenahan won first place.
In the poultry category, Chris McCluskey of Bartlett Boneheads won second place, and Rob Krupp and Ron Stern won first place.
In the ribs category, Steven Gelman won second place, and Eric Gordon won first place.
In the pulled pork category, Lenahan won second place, and McNamara and Hoffman won first place.
Special awards were given to Kitty Parker for her “entrepreneurial spirit” and Kerry Hooghkirk in recognition of his volunteer work over the years for Buffalo Grove.
Although it started to drizzle shortly after the awards ceremony, nothing could put a damper on the enthusiasm of the contestants.