The big guns of the national barbecue circuit are returning to the Fort Wayne RibFest, and the Summit City’s own “Big Rick” Jordan is ready to show them how it’s done.

Jordan and ACME Bar & Grill colleague Johnny Pentangelo will represent the 1105 E. State Blvd. restaurant June 15-18 at Headwaters Park in downtown Fort Wayne.

Returning to RibFest after about 10 years on the sidelines, the ACME will have some local competition, too. Low ‘N’ Slow of Fort Wayne prepared the People’s Choice Award-winning ribs at the 2016 festival. Timmy’s Pizza & BBQ of Garrett served the Reserve Grand Champion Critics’ Choice brisket and the Reserve Grand Champion People’s Choice ribs.

Timmy’s owners Tim and Neza Johnson will be back for more in 2017, again serving the barbecued chicken feet that premiered in 2016.

DMH Low ‘N’ Slow owner Dave Hart, longtime friend Mike Welch, and a Hart family reunion will smoke and/or roast the ribs, pulled pork, brisket and turkey legs that RibFest visitors expect to find at the first booth on their right each June.

Hart has been cooking, catering and competing for 17 years.

“A friend helps me and usually my family flies in and helps me do RibFest,” he said. “I’m kind of considered the little guy compared to the national guys. They do hundreds of cases of ribs where we do maybe 30.”

Each case contains about 19 slabs of ribs, he said.

Jordan, Pentangelo, the Johnsons and Hart will tell you a lot about their special recipes. No one will tell the exact recipe. They’re in business, after all, and this is a competition for bragging rights and a big chunk of a summer’s income.

RibFest co-director Mark Chappuis revealed that ACME would enter the fray this year.

“They’re throwing their hat in the ring to take home the trophy,” he said. “You know the ACME’s been around in Fort Wayne for 60 years or more. Their slogan is ‘Where Neighbors Meet’ and it’s a really cool little Cheers type of neighborhood bar and grill, with excellent authentic barbecue. We are delighted to have them in this year.”

Chappuis and his wife, Cindy, operate RibFest.

“We’re a little, family-run operation,” he said.

Local athletes and police and other celebrities sample and judge the food, while the public selects the People’s Choice winners. Nationally known barbecue masters return year after year to vie for the public’s approval.

Chappuis, a small-business consultant, formerly was marketing director for the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.

“I happened to go to Toledo, Ohio, one year on a conference and the entertainment that evening was a rib-burn-off, and I thought that was a terrible name, and I started looking around at literally thousands of people there and I saw these guys with multiple trophies from competitions around the country, and I started smelling all the wonderful aromas and I saw them get these big barbecue mops out and put the sauces on,” he said. “And for those of us who are carnivorous, this is about as good as it gets to see the ribs and briskets on the grill.”

“We’re definitely going to be back this year, Father’s Day weekend,” Timmy Johnson said. “We’ll do the usual stuff as far as our ribs, our pulled pork, our beef briskets. But I bring turkey legs. I’ll do some half-chickens. And then we do our baked beans and those are really good, and then we do our corn bread and a little mac and cheese and coleslaw and potato salad.”

Neza Johnson will return with the chicken feet recipe that she brought from her home in the Philippines.

“All my friends like it,” Neza said. “We’re not making money at all, but for me it’s fun to do that.”

“She talked me into trying it and I thought that isn’t bad, and actually it had some good flavor to it,” Timmy said. “It’s not a huge money-maker, but it’s unique and I like to do things a little differently. This is one of our biggest events of the year. Some of the people will be wandering over to the chicken feet and you’ve got a chance to give them a taste of pulled pork and the odds of their buying ribs are going to increase.”

Johnson uses a twist on the sauces from different regions.

“My profile is kind of a cross between a sweet and a vinegar base and then I make my own Carolina-based mustard sauce that is a really unique product, that you either love it or you hate it,” he said. ‘You’ve got a couple different flavor profiles hitting you at the same time and it’s pretty good.”

Neza Johnson also works with variations of an Asian sauce that includes tropical fruits.

“I can’t tell you the recipe,” she said. “We play with it a little bit.”

Flavor from the fire

According to Timmy Johnson, hickory produces a nice aroma and a dominant flavor profile. He said some cooks use oak for a harsher edge on brisket. Apple is mild, and the flavor is hard to detect. Cherry loses the profile quickly.

“This oven has never seen anything but hickory,” he said.

Hart, of Low ‘N’ Slow, said cherry and apple wood smoke produces the best flavors.

As for the ACME, the chefs have three woods of choice. They burn hickory, white oak and Jack Daniels maple.

“That’s rock maple locally but when you go down South that’s the only wood they use for the Jack Daniels distillery, and they burn it down and use it for charcoal and you have that nice color,” Pentangelo said.

A mountain of pork

Johnson can be seen smoking his food on many Saturday mornings beside Timmy’s Pizza & BBQ, 105 N. Randolph St., Garrett. His new smoker can hold up to 250 pork shoulders, about 10 pounds each, which he cooks for 12 to 13 hours. He sets up shop at about 18 events each year, from Kendallville to Wabash.

“A pork shoulder will make about 15 sandwiches. That’s about 4,000 sandwiches per cook that I’ll be able to generate off that, and you’d be able to do about two of those a day,” Johnson said.

Or, that new cooker will hold up to 150 slabs of ribs.

“Because of the size of the cooker that we’ve got we’re looking at some national things, traveling, merging Timmy’s with Hoosier Daddy Barbecue,” Timmy said. “One of my dream places would be Memphis in May.”

Already, Timmy’s travels a wide circuit, serving different local tastes.

“We don’t change the recipe but we have different sauces,” Neza said.

“We might manipulate the menu,” Timmy said.

“Three Rivers, that’s a turkey leg show,” Neza said.

“And at Van Wert it’s center-cut porkchops,” Timmy said.

Pricey spices

Hart, of Low ‘N’ Slow, developed his own recipe for the rub, which gets pricey. “So I got ahold of a fellow in Arkansas and I gave him my recipe and he sends it to me in 25-pound bags now for a quarter of the price,” he said. “I guess you could consider mine more of a Kansas City style, where we put on a rub before you cook them and we pull them off and set them on the grill. We usually put a little barbecue sauce on them and make them nice and shiny right before we serve them.

“We started it off as little guys, with everybody down there helping us to get started and learn how to cook and now we’re competing against them.”

Keeping up with the RibFest demand is difficult, and there’s no such thing as catching up.

“They (other rib chefs) taught me how to cook ahead and store them and keep them warm and then get them ready when you need them,” he said.

Low ‘N’ Slow cooks brisket, pulled pork and brisket, in addition to the award-winning ribs.

Johnson, of Timmy’s in Garrett, does not plan to run low on ribs.

“I’ll probably bring down about 800 slabs,” he said. “On a great weekend I probably won’t do 800, but you’d better be ready for them and you never know if the weather’s really great. And if I don’t sell out I have an event the next weekend.”

Some of the traveling rib makers have competed on television. Those crews cook their way from Pennsylvania to Texas and back.

“These guys are all national deals, so I like the idea that the boys from Indiana can throw their hats in that ring,” Johnson said.

Return to RibFest

Jordan, of ACME, has worked at the RibFest before, assisting the nationally-known Desperado’s. He had hoped to compete on behalf of his own Big Rick’s Barbecue, which he launched at State and Hobson in Fort Wayne, but the timing wasn’t right.

“So I just got my feet wet working with those guys and seeing how things worked out,” he said.

He closed Big Rick’s but brought his skills and reputation to ACME. He mentioned his RibFest ambition to ACME’s owners, and they offered their support. So he and Pentangelo, who is better known each Tuesday as “The Italian Chef,” will represent ACME at RibFest.

Jordan can be seen at the smoker beside ACME several mornings each week.

“We don’t boil or broil the ribs,” he said. “We just put them on the grill, and we use hickory wood, sometimes we use cherry or apple. We smoke our meats from the very beginning to the end and I pride myself on doing barbecue like that. A lot of people broil them or bake them, and if that’s what you like, then that’s what you like. I don’t knock them because I go to their places and eat their food, too. But I just like to do it a certain way.”

That means starting with dry rub and finishing with a sauce. The ribs stay on the smoker about four or five hours, the pork shoulders for about 10 or 12 hours.

“Our briskets we cook forever and a day,” he said.

Regional recipes

Everyone has a favorite sauce, and Jordan admits he deals with two influences.

“I like the North Carolina style, but my parents are from Alabama and my dad and my brothers were the ones that actually taught me the art of cooking,” he said. “I went in and studied it more and kind of tweaked what they were doing.”

So it’s the customer, ultimately, who chooses between the vinegar-base Carolina sauce or the sweeter sauce from even farther south.

Pentangelo can talk barbecue, too, as fluently as he talks lasagna calabrese, shrimp scampi and four-cheese tortellini. Italian food is his first love, though.

“Everything is authentic, Italian, Grandma’s recipes,” he said. And yes, Grandma was born in Sicily and Pentangelo’s father was born in Rome. Pentangelo has been with ACME for about 15 years.

He sees the RibFest as an opportunity to show off the ACME’s homemade sausages.

“We’re going to be stuffing them in natural casings and we’re going to be smoking them and bringing them to the barbecue. It’s all grass-fed meat, not hormone-injected, and it’s our fresh herbs, our oregano, parsley, and a little bay leaf goes in, and black pepper and paprika, garlic, so we grind everything and we put it in a homemade meat sausage,” he said.

“We’ll be doing our smoked wings. We’re the first ones in Fort Wayne that started smoking chicken wings, when everybody else used to fry them. We started smoking them seven years ago. It’s an original recipe.”

Jordan and Pentangelo recently served another big event, the Fort Wayne Ballet Beer & Barre BQ, May 6 at the University of Saint Francis downtown campus.

“We just had a wonderful turnout,” Jordan said.

Throwing the gauntlet

The ACME chefs have their supporters, especially among their co-workers but also in the community.

“I hope that people come down and realize that we have people here in Fort Wayne that are in it. I mean a local shop, ACME Bar and Grill, is the only actual Fort Wayne restaurant that is going to be in it. We are the second booth away from Desperado’s, and Desperado’s has been coming down there 30 years straight. We’re on the right-hand side, second booth, so we’re right in the fat of it,” Jordan said.

ACME competes for the public’s favor six days a week, he said.

“We do barbecue every day here at the ACME, Monday through Saturday, from 11 o’clock in the morning until 1 in the morning. It’s not just that we’re stepping down there to do it on a fluke. We do that in-house,” he said.

“Just come down and check us out. We understand that these guys are coming in from out of state and we’re competing against the people who are on the barbecue circuit, and it doesn’t scare me, it doesn’t scare Johnny. We’re going to do our best to compete against these guys and all I can say, honestly, is if they win it, they earned it.”

Family food and music

Chappuis said RibFest is a family-oriented event that benefits from the reputations of the national award-winning chefs. “People ask me all the time ‘What’s your demographic?’ Honestly, that’s so hard to say because good barbecue is synonymous with a good time. It’s synonymous with a type of cooking, grilling that people can relate to, that they love,” he said. “That goes across all spectrums. That’s not just teenagers or octogenarians but basically everybody but vegetarians.”

Visitors will enjoy hearing progressive, rock-blues music, he said. He described the bands as upbeat and enthusiastic.

Local high school track and field teams or marching bands typically help out selling soft drinks or with other parts of the event.

“We’ve given about $180,000 back to local high schools that have partnered with us on some of the operational issues,” Chappuis said.

“They’re all great people we work with down there. And if someone’s equipment breaks down, I’ve got my big cooker and I’d cook for those guys,” Johnson said. “And every one of those guys that Mark’s got coming in here would do the same for me.”

“Our prices are very competitive,” Chappuis said, adding small groups often share the food and the cost. “We see that a lot where two or three people or couples will come together and everybody will buy a slab and put them in the middle and everybody will just try this one or try that one.

“People love grilling out. It’s an American tradition, synonymous with fun, great taste and a good time and we just kind of multiply that by about 20-fold for our festival.”

FORT WAYNE RIBFEST

June 15-18, Headwaters Park.

Hours: Thursday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.

Admission: Thursday-Saturday, free until 5:30 p.m., regular admission $6 for adults 13 and older, $5 for seniors, $4 for students, military, fire and police; Sunday only, $3 all day, fathers admitted free.

For details, a list of vendors, and an entertainment update, visit bbqribfest.com.

Vendors set the food prices, so prices vary.

“It’s comparable to what restaurants in town charge, except this is inclusive of tax and gratuity, so it’s less expensive,” said Mark Chappuis, RibFest co-director.