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Judges devoted to their work at Sparks festival

by the Associated Press

SPARKS — When restaurateur Alan Zeman describes what he looks for as a judge at the annual rib cook-off here, it makes you want to reach for a bib.

“The flavor penetrates through the bone,” he says. “It has a little crust on the outside. The meat falls off the bone when you eat it, but not when you pick it up.”

Zeman, who owns Fuego restaurant in Tucson, Ariz., is a veteran judge at the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off. On Sunday, he and 18 others — 10 of them food specialists — will declare this year’s winner from the 24 contestants.

Meanwhile, some 300,000 people will make their own decisions as they sample the entrants’ product.

Like the restaurants vying for the top prize at the 15th annual cook-off, the judges come from around the country.

Some want eye appeal, others crispness. Still others are looking for the subtle flavors. For Michael Della Piazza, it’s a gut feeling.

“Man, I know when I get one I like,” said Della Piazza, the general manager of Sanborn Sourdough Bakery in Las Vegas and a former chef who is judging his fourth cook-off.

Of the 19 judges, seven are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, and five are food writers. The rest of the panel consists of media personalities and individuals with sponsorship ties to the cook-off.

Jack Prescott is a senior vice president for U.S. Bank in Northern Nevada, one of the cook-off’s sponsors. Prescott didn’t graduate from the culinary institute. But, when it comes to ribs, he knows what he likes.

“It’s just how it hits me, the overall experience,” Prescott said. “Taste is the largest thing.

Prescott is judging his fourth cook-off and he learned a few things during the first three.

“You change plates each time so you don’t mix sauces,” he said. “You wipe your hands each time.”

Judges drink water and chew bread between samples to rid their mouths of the taste of old ribs.

“It’s not cold water, it’s room temperature water,” said Tony Seta, co-owner of Master Chef Seta & Co. in Roswell, Ga. “You don’t want your mouth real cold when you taste the next thing.”

Seta, a restaurant consultant, said that when he’s judging, he tastes. He doesn’t eat.

“You want to make sure the first person you judge and the last person you judge are equal,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “I don’t really eat it. I taste it and spit it out.”

There’s no talking during the solemn process on Sunday in the banquet room at John Ascuaga’s Nugget.

And there’s no rib sampling beforehand.

“They aren’t allowed to go out on the street and eat ribs until after the judging,” said Vinnie Oakes, the Nugget’s executive vice president of food and beverage. “They can go out and listen to the entertainment, but they can’t touch a rib.”

On Saturday night the Nugget prepares them a gourmet dinner, with a different wine for every course. Just no ribs.

“After the judging, I pig out,” Della Piazza said. “I’m a barbecue fan.”