Cooking competitions fire up Marty O'Brien's creative spirit.
Whether it's his own 20-year-old annual rib fest, his friend's equally established chili cook-off or his mother's occasional challenge, Marty is willing to toss his toque in the ring and choose his weapons.
Smoker? Barbecue grill? Cast-iron skillet at 10 paces?
"There's always the possibility of winning," he says, "and I'm always interested in my competitor's finished product."
Marty has won two of his ribfests and two chili cook-offs, plus the eggplant parmesan challenge his mother issued to him and his two sisters.
He was inspired to establish his own Ribfest in 1989, a year after he competed in the Mike Royko Ribfest in Chicago.
"What turned me off . . . one of the judges tries my ribs and then he smokes a cigarette," says Marty, of Lombard. "How's that for cleansing your palate?"
Needless to say, whoever judges Marty's Ribfest is not allowed to smoke, at least until after the judging. No one can use bottled sauce and the winner becomes next year's judge.
"The winner basically gets bragging rights for the year," says Marty, who also provides a pig-themed prize that he picks up from the "World's Longest Yardsale," a 654-mile long event that stretches from Ohio to Alabama.
The Ribfest draws roughly half a dozen contestants and more than 20 "tasters," people who show up just to eat.
Marty generally uses baby back ribs, and he always smokes them instead of grilling. He prefers applewood chips, set aside from his tree-trimming assignments with the Schaumburg Park District, where he works on the parks crew.
Other than the annual competitions, Marty only started cooking on a more regular basis eight years ago when he married his wife, Christy Waltersdorff, pastor of York Center Church of the Brethren, Lombard.
Now he cooks once or twice a week, for some holidays and he entertains friends.
"I have a bad habit of being a showoff," he confesses. "My wife does most of the cooking," but when friends come over, "sometimes I'll encourage the myth that I do most of it, to her chagrin."
Glad we can set the record straight.
Aside from smoking ribs, Marty is "a grill fanatic," cooking all year long on a "behemoth grill" his wife calls "the Hummer."
It's a Weber 600 series with six burners, a rotisserie and a smoker box.
"I didn't mean to get one so large," he says. "I ordered the 400 series, but they didn't have one so they upgraded me at no charge."
For cooking indoors he favors cast-iron because it retains heat, cooks evenly and is durable.
"I have a couple dozen pieces in most sizes," he says. "I get them mostly from flea markets."
He uses them for all of today's prizewinning recipes: the barbecue sauce from his 2003 Ribfest win, his five-bean chili recipe and the eggplant Parmesan.
No prizes for trying them, but they may be just the inspiration you need to launch your own cook-off.