Gearing up for his biggest competition of the year, Larry "Duce" Raymond of Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue is hoping to reclaim the title of best ribs.
"Obviously we are going for first place," he said. "We were gonna repeat (winning) last year, and we came up with second."
Raymond said he's using the same recipe, just tweaking a few of the spices. His sweet ribs have tantalized the judges' taste buds for the last four years and have placed twice in the ribs category.
"It gives you a memory of in the backyard when you were cooking with your family," he said about his ribs.
Sweet Baby Ray's, based in Wood Dale, produces and bottles barbecue sauce that's a top-seller in grocery stores nationwide.
But Raymond knows grabbing that title won't be easy. Raymond will have to beat out stiff competitors at Naperville's Ribfest. Prizes are awarded to the top three competitors in both the ribs and sauce categories.
Among the competition is Joe Alexander, or "Rasta Joe." He isn't a rookie in competition, as he has been serving up savory ribs across the nation since 1988.
"This is a hobby turned into a full-time job. People play golf every day. Well, I cook," Alexander said.
To get the perfect ribs, he uses cherry wood and a sauce manufactured in Melrose Park. He puts a rub on his meat and smokes it for three to four and a half hours. He then puts it on the grill and adds his barbecue sauce, which is caramelized.
Alexander said there isn't a secret to his ribs other than to make sure the consistency is right. He simply takes a bite out of one to see if they taste good.
One of the veteran judges for the contest is Naperville Mayor George Pradel. About four years ago, he became a certified as rib tasting judge by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. There, he learned how ribs should be presented, taste and smell.
"If it falls apart in your mouth, then that's the good stuff," Pradel said.
He said during the competition, the judges will not talk to one another, nor will they know whose ribs they are eating. All entries are referred to by a number.
He added that though the contest is heated, he enjoys seeing the camaraderie among the vendors. Some competitors travel across the nation together, and he noticed that when one of them wins, they are happy for each other.
Raymond agreed and said he's hoping to place among the passionate rib vendors.
"It's just a great experience for me as a barbecue chef that I get to go out there and compete with them," he added. "These guys may not be classically trained, but their whole heart and soul is in it."