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Rib Tasters' Conduct Questioned : Possible Conflicts of Interest Raised in Competition

September 26, 1985|CAROLE SUGARMAN | The Washington Post

Call it a tempest in a teapot or a classic case of sour grapes. Call it disorganized or a few coincidences. In the aftermath of the recent third annual National Rib Cook-Off in Cleveland, participants are calling the contest results and judging procedures all of the above. And that's not to mention what they're calling each other.

The imbroglio temporarily puts questions of conflict of interest out of the political arena and into the barbecue pit. The contest organizer, who was not a judge, was a paid consultant to the winner before the event, and one of the 30 judges is negotiating a limited partnership with the winner.

And then there are the judging criteria--which were changed after the contestants arrived--and the judges--about a third of whom were different from the first day of judging to the second--and the judging procedure itself, half of which was not conducted blindly. In the end, though, the judges selected the winner from among 21 finalists in a blind process.

Said organizer Gary Jacob: "The judging was well-organized, well-orchestrated and in its final analysis, quite objective." Out of the three years the contest has been held, "this was the most coordinated judging we had to date," Jacob said.

One Entrant From Down Under

The cook-off, which this year involved 48 restaurants from 27 states, plus an entrant from Australia, aims to choose the best ribs in the nation. In addition, awards were given for the best sauce, the best baby back ribs, the best spare ribs and the best ribs in Ohio.

The ribs were judged on plate presentation and/or appearance, quality and/or tenderness, best sauce and/or seasoning and best overall taste. Two categories--originality of recipe and authenticity of recipe--were eliminated when the judges arrived because the judges felt they were repetitive and unclear, said Jacob.

According to some of the contestants, judges and observers, it was a fun and friendly affair--a chance for the good ole boys of barbecue to do some back slapping and rib tasting. So it was for Cleveland residents, who were invited on the four days before the judging to a massive rib feast, paying a $2 entrance fee, plus a charge for each slab. After that, a panel of about 30 judges spent two days making the big decisions.

Contestants paid from $1,500 to $1,700 to enter the contest, a fee that Jacob said paid for the participants' tents, tables, chairs, electricity, refrigeration, security, general supervision and "loads and loads of advertising and publicity." Jacob said the contestants' fees are about one-fifth of his annual budget, much of which comes from the sponsors of the event, which this year included Budweiser, Kingsford Charcoal and Pepsi. Jacob will not divulge how much he nets from the event, only saying that "we're real proud of what we make."

Admission Fee

Besides the admission fee, entrants pay their expenses getting to the contest and putting up staff for the week. The winner is awarded $10,000 and a title that can pull a lot of weight when it comes to selling ribs. Business doubled for last year's winner, Calhoun's in Knoxville, Tenn., according to owner Michael Chase, and he built a new parking lot and added a room to the restaurant.

This year, the title of best ribs went to Rudolph's, a rib restaurant in Minneapolis, which carried off the title three years ago at the first national cook-off. And therein lies the first beef.

Chase of Calhoun's is claiming too-close-for-comfort circumstances regarding Rudolph's. Chase has retained an attorney and said he wants to get his entrance fee back and some of his expenses. "I just feel like I got used," Chase said.

Jacob dismisses Chase's contentions as "adolescent behavior," "sour grapes" and without merit. Jacob said he is "reasonably amused at the charges of wrongdoing," because he doesn't believe "any of the accusations are being based on fact."

Jacob said that if he were one of the restaurateurs, he would "certainly say there was the appearance of wrongdoing," but that he would have tried to substantiate the circumstances before making accusations. In the meantime, Jacob has sent a three-page letter of explanation, which he said addresses the accusations, to each of the restaurateurs.

Judging Format Criticized

Bone-to-pick No. 2 involves the organization and format of the judging, which judge Steve Michaelides, editor of Restaurant Hospitality, said "has to be done more professionally." A $10,000 prize "is nothing to sneeze at," said Michaelides.

Head judge John Mariani said that if he were running the contest, he'd fine-tune the judging procedures and change some of the rules.

On the other hand, Jane Snow, food writer at the Akron Beacon Journal and a judge at the event, said the judging was "very well run." It was "probably the best system it could be," Snow said.

Anyway, here are the players, the circumstances and their cases:

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