Chefs prepare for a culinary war at Allegheny Coors Light Rib Cook Off
Most folks can appreciate some good-natured ribbing. There’ll be lots of it this weekend at the 16th annual Allegheny Coors Light Rib Cook Off as ribrateurs pit their sauces and rubs against each other in a meaty competition.
To most of the chefs – who come from as far away as Texas and South Carolina to vie for “Best Ribs” and “Crowd Pleaser” honors – rib cooking is serious business. To some, it’s their full-time occupation. When the trophies and titles are dished out at various stops on the rib circuit, winning them is good for business.
Still, with names such as Fatdaddy’s House of Bones, Porky & Beans and Pigfoot BBQ Co., one would think they can’t help but maintain a good sense of humor about their work.
When asked why they think their ribs deserve the awards, most chefs tend to give the same reply as Jeff Stasko, marketing manager for Damon’s of Pleasant Hills, one of the Rib Cook Off contenders. “They’re the best,” Stasko says. “It’s our sauce. And the St. Louis ribs we use are much more tender than baby backs. The meat falls right off the bone.”
Damon’s heads to the South Park contest on the heels of a major catering assignment last week. Stasko’s restaurant was charged with serving the Steelers racks of ribs at their training camp in Latrobe. “If you can make all those football players and coaches happy, you have to be good,” he says.
C.L. Hallam of Monongahela just returned from Minneapolis, where his Hawg Heaven ribs earned him a “Best Ribs” trophy and $1,000 cash prize at a Rockin’ Rib Festival there. “In the last seven years, I’ve won 50 awards for my ribs,” he says.
Hallam and his wife, Sandy, travel from May through September to rib competitions in central and East Coast states. “We’ve gone up against some of the finest cookers in the U.S.,” he says. “Some of these fellas have a lot more time in cooking than I do.”
His ribs business has given him a chance to meet “some of the nicest people around everywhere we go.” Cruising from Wisconsin and Ohio to Iowa and North Carolina, Hallam also enjoys serving his customers at home. “The people in Pittsburgh know good barbecue and come out and support this event,” he says.
Rib lovers tend to have regional tastes, he says, and knowing their preferences can give ribrateurs an edge in competitions. In North Carolina, for example, “they like a little more vinegar in their barbecue sauce,” he says, while Minnesota folks prefer a sweeter sauce. Back home in Pittsburgh, “they like their sauces kinda tangy,” he says, adding that his hottest “911 Sauce” is a real crowd pleaser. “It’s so hot, it’ll make you cry,” he says.
At the Rib Cook Off, Hallam and his crew also will be offering pulled pork and chicken sandwiches, half-chickens, cole slaw and his “mean beans” baked beans. Customer satisfaction, he says, is his first priority in preparing the festival fare.
“We have a three-bone rib sampler,” he says. “People like that the best. When people buy a sampler, and we see them coming back for a half- or full rack of ribs, we know we’re doing OK. That’s very important to us.”
Hallam’s ribs are created in a time-consuming process that involves as much as five hours of cooking, “very low and very slow at 220 degrees,” he says, and letting them sit in a dry marinade for as much as 48 hours. The ribs – 700 pounds of them at one time – are cooked in a hickory-wood smoker before being placed on a 700-degree grill to sear them. Barbecue sauce is brushed on and caramelized before the ribs are placed on a carving board and served.
Brian Alderette of Bethel Park says his Brian’s Hardwood Hogs are cooked on a grill using hardwood, not coals. “My process is a lot different than the others,” he says. He prefers baby back ribs and uses his own smoky mild sauce to flavor them.
A former high school chemistry teacher, Alderette stays home with his two children while his wife works outside the home. He started cooking when he was teaching and had summers off.
“People like my food,” says Alderette, who won first-place honors for his sauce and second place for his ribs earlier this season in a Memorial Day weekend ribs festival in Washington County.
“It’s so much work, but it’s fun,” he says of the Rib Cook Off. “A lot of planning goes into it. You have to have the right people to help and enough food. If you run out of food – which I’ve done before – you’re done.”
Another local entry in the Rib Cook Off is Jim Mazzarini, owner of Texas Roadhouse in Greensburg. Mazzarini is attending the Allegheny County ribs festival for the first time after having recently won first-place awards at similar events in Washington and Westmoreland counties.
He didn’t plan on competing at South Park until he racked up the two other contest wins. “I’m going for a hat trick now,” he says. “This is the big one.”
Mazzarini says his baby-back pork ribs are cooked to perfection and flavored with their own blend of seasoning and Texas Roadhouse Barbecue Sauce. “All of our food is prepared from scratch,” he says. “The ribs are so tender, they fall off the bone.” He says he is very excited about the potential of another victory, and “we have 2,500 slabs of ribs ready to go.”
Last year’s first-place “Crowd Pleaser” award went to Pigfoot BBQ Co. of West Salem, Ohio. Jerry Gibson returns this weekend to defend Pigfoot’s title. Gibson considers himself a professional ribrateur, traveling to 23 cities this year with his two teams of rib cookers. His ribs have won “Best Ribs” honors five different years at the Allegheny County festival.
Gibson says it takes a lot of work and expense to operate his ribs business, but it’s also a fun occupation. “You have to pay your dues to where the people look forward to seeing you,” he says. “They only get to see you four days a year.”
Returning for his second appearance at the Rib Cook Off will be Willie Mollett, owner of Fatdaddy’s House of Bones in Mansfield, Ohio. Mollett says he concentrates on catering and ribs festivals from St. Louis to Fargo, N.D. “We slow cook the ribs using cherry wood and finish them off with our own Wildwood County barbecue sauce,” he says. He also is especially proud of his “Ohio-style” beef brisket, which he defines simply as “real tasty.”
“Everybody says they serve Tennessee-style or Texas-style,” he says. “We’re from Ohio, so we say ours is Ohio-style.”
Mollett especially enjoys winning Rib Cook Off honors. “The cash prizes are OK, but winning gives you a title – and a trophy and banner you can carry around with you. That means a lot,” he says.
The annual Labor Day weekend cook off is the major fund-raiser for Mon Yough Riverfront Entertainment and Cultural Council, a McKeesport-based group that provides free cultural programming at McKeesport Riverfront Park and 18 other economically challenged communities in the Mon Valley.
Organizer Sharron Stepanovich says that the Rib Cook Off includes a variety of activities for families and children, ranging from pig races and a crafts fair to a fleatique, sports cafe, circus performances, petting zoo, puppet parade, miniature golf, face painting and more. It’s also a great place to relax and enjoy some home cooking, she says.
“It’s really a food event,” Stepanovich says. “Our ribs are the best in the country.”
|Allegheny Coors Light Rib Cook Off|
|Allegheny Coors Light Rib Cook Off Music|
5:30 to 7 p.m.: Double Deuce
7:30 to 9 p.m.: Chandler
9:30 to 11 p.m.: Corbin/Hanner
2 to 3:30 p.m.: Kardaz
4 to 5:30 p.m.: The Elmonics
6:30 to 8 p.m.: Fathertime
9 to 10:30 p.m.: The Four Tops
2 to 3:30 p.m.: The Bridge
4 to 5:30 p.m.: The Smick Brothers
6:30 to 8 p.m.: 8th Street Rox
9 to 10:30 p.m.: Three Dog Night
1 to 2 p.m.: 3 Car Garage
2:30 to 3:30 p.m.: Voodoo Babies
4 to 5:30 p.m.: Buzz Poets
6:30 to 8 p.m.: Pittsburgh Rock ‘N Roll All Stars featuring Donnie Iris, B.E. Taylor, Norm Nardini and Joe Grushecky.