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Fired up for barbecue

St. Charles contest to train cooks and judges for July event

ST. CHARLES – Spring finally has arrived, and as the weather warms across the St. Charles area, people are getting fired up about barbecue.

One reason for the fervor is the anticipation of the city’s newest festival addition,
Firin’ Up the Fox, a barbecue cooking competition that entered the summer festival season in 2012, as a side dish to the 30th anniversary of Riverfest. This year, Firin’ Up the Fox becomes the featured entrée on its own weekend, July 5-7, at the Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, and organizers are doing what they can to prepare.

In April, Chris Marks, a nationally recognized barbecue pitmaster and general manager for Ace of Hearts BBQ of Kansas City, brought his expertise to the table, teaching people from across the Tri-Cities and beyond in BBQ 101 and BBQ 102.

“I teach the right methods, the right way to get the right product and make you happy with what you’re doing,” Marks said. His course is centered on dispelling barbecue myths and helping people understand the basics to barbecuing and, in particular, smoking meat.

“You need to keep it simple. Stick to the basics,” he said.

Remote thermometers or fancy grills are unimportant to Marks, who promotes using charcoal, wood and patience when it comes to preparing the best barbecue. He advises on how to select the meat and breaks down the cooking process.

Some-29 professional teams participated in the first year of the contest, and organizers are expecting even greater play this season, from professionals, amateurs and children, all preparing their best barbecue dishes for top awards including cash prizes.

“These are sanctioned races, and the results will be a part of the national ranking for the Kansas City Barbecue Society,” Julie Farris, executive director of Pride of the Fox Inc., the group that coordinates both events.

But this year’s Firin’ Up the Fox contest needs plenty of hungry judges, too.

Enter instructor Ed Roith, a master judge for Kansas City Barbecue society, who will teach a course on how to become a certified judge on Saturday, May 11. Roith has been helping hungry barbecue lovers become certified judges for more than 26 years.

“Competitive barbecue is completely different than cooking on your backyard grill,” Roith said.

For example, some might say good ribs fall off the bone, but Roith said when it comes to competitive barbecue, meat that falls of the bone would disqualify a contestant.

Teaching folks to take and rate their bites sounds simple, but it requires knowing the ins and outs of properly cooking barbecue and, Roith said, most importantly, being able to put aside preferences and rate food on its own merits.

“I teach them the things to look for and how to keep an open mind,” Roith said. “You can’t tell someone how to taste. You have to allow good taste. You have to think, would you like it if it were served to you at a restaurant?”

From taste to appearance and tenderness, Roith teaches how to know and rate the differences between chicken, ribs and brisket in a one-day class. Following a lecture portion of the classes, participants get a hands-on chance to sample and rate food and practice their rating skills.

“Proper cooking is the most important part of judging,” Roith said.

The class is more than fun, as participants who become Kansas City Barbecue Society-certified judges can take their skills to contests across the country. In addition to teaching the course, Roith wrote the program on how to become a certified judge for the Kansas City Barbecue Society.

“With each competition, you become a better judge, and you can work toward your next certification,” Roith said.

Farris said there’s still time to register for the judge certification class, and for those who can’t make the class, there’s still a chance to cast a vote in the people’s choice taste-testing on July 5.

“If you like to cook barbecue, this is a great first step,” she said.

For Brad Zeman of St. Charles, who took the weekend cooking course with his grown sons, it was “a real education.”

Zeman said probably the biggest lesson he walked away with was to have confidence when cooking and the importance of good equipment.

He said the course had casual backyard cooks like his family, along with competitive and executive chefs.

As for the Zemans, they’re not planning to enter any contests soon, unless it’s to help taste test. 

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