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Local chefs vie for top honors in fair cooking contests
Annual competition a tradition for Turlock family, youth cook
food contests pic2
Jesse Henrich of Turlock proudly holds his second place ribbon, displaying his award-winning ribs.

Everyone knows the Stanislaus County Fair has food galore. The cotton candy, corn dogs, and caramel apples vendors clog the aisles, while fresh fruits, veggies, and preserves are displayed prominently in exhibit halls.

 But not everyone knows that the Stanislaus County Fair plays host to a slew of cooking competitions during its 10-day run, ranging from apple pies to cookies and cheesy treats. The Journal attended two of these competitions, finding out what it takes to bring home a blue ribbon.  RIBS

Want to know what makes a good rib? Ask Mark Chadwick of Modesto, a five-year judge of the rib competition at the Stanislaus County Fair.


It’s not all that complicated, when it comes down to it, he said.


“You want the marinade or the rub not to overwhelm the flavor of the meat,” Chadwick said.


You don’t even have to use a specific kind of rib. Beef and lamb are a-okay, but most competitors go for the always-delicious pork, according to Chadwick.


Beyond that, it’s all gravy, Chadwick said. Well, not gravy in particular, but Memphis, North Carolina, and Asian-spiced marinades and rubs.


“Lots of things work, and lots of flavors are good,” Chadwick said.


In his own cooking, Chadwick goes for another geographical style of barbeque – the vinegary Kansas City style, which he describes as “not too sweet, and not too spicy.”


Sitting in the stands as Chadwick and fellow judge Cathy Adams of Hilmar chowed down was competitor Jesse Henrich, whose whole family enters just about every cooking competition at the Stanislaus County Fair – for the free fair tickets on the day of the competition, he joked.


“We’re born and raised in Turlock and we’re all in the culinary field,” Jesse Henrich said.


“Bragging rights, that’s what it is,” chimed in Jesse’s brother Chris Henrich, also a competitor.


The two launched into detailed descriptions of their rib concoctions, Jesse with his vinegar-based marinade and Chris with ribs he’s smoked for six hours in anticipation of this moment.


While that may seem like a long time to spend on something he won’t even get to eat himself, it’s what it takes to win, Chris Henrich said.


“I got first place last year, so hopefully I’ll do it again,” Chris Henrich said.


For competitor Kevin Van Dewark of Hilmar, in his second year of rib cooking at the fair, it isn’t a familial rivalry that drives him to compete. But family is certainly involved.


“My wife told me I was doing it,” Van Dewark said.


His wife, Shauna Van Dewark, can’t get enough of his spicy, smoky ribs, he said. But the judges weren’t so kind in his first go-round.


“We didn’t place,” Kevin Van Dewark said. “We were kind of rushed and we didn’t do well. We’re definitely pleased with the result this year.”


Unfortunately for Van Dewark, the judges weren’t quite as pleased with his effort, as he failed to medal. But that’s okay, Van Dewark said, as he already claimed a Best-in-Show for his homebrewed cream stout beer and has two more shots at gold: the pending competitions in cake and ice cream.


When all was said and done, third place ribs went to Joan Wilkens, who was not present to claim her prize.


Second went to Jesse Henrich, besting his brother Chris Henrich who did not place this year.


But in first? The matriarch of the Henrich clan, Annie Henrich, of course.


Who was it who said that mother always knows best?


“I get a real sugar buzz by the end of this thing,” said Timm LaVelle of Turlock, wearing an oversized button stating “Official Fudge Judge.”


But who wouldn’t, sampling the 14 entrants in the Junior Fantastic Fudge contest?


The smell of sugar and cocoa was overwhelming, even from viewing seats 10 feet away.


“Somebody has to judge the hard ones,” said LaVelle with a laugh.


LaVelle is a real fudge aficionado. He can instantly list off the necessary ingredients in good, old-fashioned fudge: cocoa, sugar, corn syrup, and a little milk.


While the ingredients are simple, the best fudge lies in the intricacies of making it, LaVelle said.


“If it’s not done right, it doesn’t produce good fudge,” he said.


If it wasn’t for LaVelle, there wouldn’t be a fudge contest at the Stanislaus County Fair. About five years ago he asked why there wasn’t a fudge competition, and was told there was no sponsor for it. So he decided to step up to the plate – literally – in exchange for being named judge.


Conditions weren’t the best for Friday’s fudge contest, with warm weather making some fudges a bit soft and sticky. But after much deliberation – and a second and third taste of some entrants – LaVelle came to his decision.


Honorable mention went to Taylor Kosky, with a unique peanut butter fudge.


Fifth place was Elizabeth McCoy, with a holiday-themed peppermint fudge.


Claiming fourth through first were all traditional, nutty fudges.


Trisha Smith took fourth. Third went to Emely Fernandes –  “a good use of nuts,” LaVelle said. Second was Christopher Pack – “an extreme use of nuts,” LaVelle said, clearly better than just a good use. And first overall was Serra Miguel, with “lots of walnut action,” according to LaVelle.

 But while all the top fudges were nutty, it was the chocolaty goodness that set Miguel’s entry apart.

“It’s all about the fudge,” LaVelle said.


Miguel, 15, of Hilmar, knows how to make good fudge. She’s been doing it, “like every year,” for the past five years. And in those five years, she’s won first place all but one time.


Miguel loves cooking and is enamored with TV chef shows.


“I kinda want to be a cook,” Miguel said.

 She’s off to a good start, at the Stanislaus County Fair.To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.