SUGAR GROVE – A huge, metal corn "trophy" hung around Barret Ekle's neck Saturday, as the 23-year-old future culinary student received applause and congratulations at John Shields Elementary School on Saturday afternoon.
Ekle emerged as the winner of the first Chopped Cooking Contest at the Sugar Grove Corn Boil festival, one of the highlights of a packed second day of the festival, which takes place near the school, at 85 S. Main St., Sugar Grove. Competition such as Chopped and another cooking contest took place inside the school.
The festival runs through Sunday. Visit www.sugargrovecornboil.org for details.
Ekle's was one of 10 entries in Chopped, in which contestants gathered Saturday morning at Jewel to receive five ingredients that had to be included in the submitted meal – skirt steak, oranges, elephant garlic, Yukon potatoes and beets. Other ingredients could be used, but participants were judged on how well they used the five that were mandatory.
Ekle made "a very simple skirt steak," fresh-squeezed orange juice, potato salad and red velvet cupcakes.
"It's obviously a compliment," he said after winning the event.
A lively crowd of a few dozen people crowded the multipurpose room of the school for the event, pleasing organizers. Contestants took home the ingredients in the morning and brought them, ready to be judged, to the school in the afternoon. Three judges sampled each creation.
While that event was going on inside the school, the rest of the festival was rocking on an unseasonably cool day, with highs in the mid-60s and windy conditions for parts of the event. There was a long – but fast-moving – line for tickets to carnival rides, which were full with youths and teens. On the main stage, set up on the north end of the festival, the Waubonsee Steel Drums played Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," as the first featured performers of the day.
In the Kids Zone, youths lined up for free carnival-style games, such as buckets, a catapult game and a ring toss. Those successful – and quite a few who almost were – walked away with prizes. That area, too, had a stage, with events such as an ice cream eating contest and performances by "Those Funny Little People" and Ronald McDonald.
Craig Martin walked out of the ice cream contest with a smile, wearing a first-place medallion. Martin worse a shirt that read Crossfit Sugar Grove, one of several promoting the new business opening at 760 Heartland Drive in the village. Martin, whose wife, Rebecca, is the owner of the gym, stressed that he worked out earlier in the day, which helped him justify eating four small cups of Colonial ice cream to come away as the winner. He said he hoped to one day tackle the Colonial's signature "kitchen sink."
"I love ice cream," he said. "I could eat it every day."
There were vendors and crafters on the south end, and lines of food vendors on the north end. The food vendor line led to the area in which corn – and brats and hot dogs – were being served.
Earlier in the day, the traditional Corn Boil cooking contest brought out contestants who prepared entries in three categories – light affair, main affair and baked affair. Among them was Jonathan Hanks, who said he just moved to Sugar Grove last week from Houston. Originally from Louisiana, his shrimp and grits dish was a hit and took first place. He said he was thrilled to do so well in the event.
"It's a big deal here, obviously," said Hanks, who said he was ready to enjoy the rest of the festival.
Another contestant, Shirley Emory, a 12-year Sugar Grove resident, came away with two second-place awards – for her heavenly corn pudding and "Christy's Very Chocolate Bacon Cake." She had two first-place finishes last year, but she was happy to even just be there on Saturday.
"I've waited all year for this," she said.
After the traditional contest, organizers began preparations for Chopped. The entries were sponsored, and the field was made up of a diverse group of participants.
Ekle, the winner, soon will enter cooking school. Among other entries were Alyssa and Sammie McCannon, sisters who are 15 and 11 years old, respectively.
Another 15-year-old, Abby McSkimming, said she is hoping to one day attend culinary school. She created a dish of orange-marinated skirt steak on homemade garlic bread, presented in a sandwich. There also were homemade potato chips and beet chips. She said the competition was a perfect fit for her.
"I thought it would be fun to do," McSkimming said.
In second place was Laura Perry. The third-place finisher was the team of Sugar Grove resident Mary Elliott and her brother, Doug Nerge. They attracted attention with their presentation of their dish in a large maguey leaf. Elliott pointed out that they were part Puerto Rican, and they wanted to highlight that in their entry. They used leftover beets to tie-dye their aprons.
The whole scene brought a smile to the face of Dave Ritchey, who, along with Darren Staub, put the event together. He said he could tell that it generated enthusiasm when entrants collected their ingredients in the morning at Jewel.
"We could see it in their faces," he said.