Meaty racks of ribs and juicy quarter chickens sizzle on the hot grill as grillmasters, sweating from the open flames, use giant brushes to apply a generous coating of BBQ sauce.
As the staff at Boss Hog’s BBQ hustle to feed the hungry masses, they find the time for a roaring chant: “I don’t know what I’ve been told. Boss’s sauce is mighty bold.”
Welcome to Esquimalt Ribfest. Bring your appetite and your stretchy pants.
Despite the showers and grey skies, thousands of people gathered in Esquimalt’s Bullen Park for perhaps the only event where it’s socially acceptable to walk around covered in BBQ sauce.
Because there’s no graceful way to eat ribs and no matter how many paper towels you grab, it won’t be enough. Pro tip: Bring a bag full of wet naps.
Tom Diavolitsis, the boss at London, Ont.-based Boss Hog’s, knows how to please a crowd.
“It starts with consistency and years of experience. We’ve found our recipe and stuck to it. It’s a flavour that appeals to everybody,” he said.
When asked what’s the secret to his sauce, Diavolitsis says: “The secret is pretty simple. It’s the rub, the love and the God above.”
It’s clear he’s not going to easily give up his award-winning ribs recipe, which has won the People’s Choice award at the Esquimalt event five years running.
But he hints that it’s a balance of flavours. Not too bold, not too sweet.
Diavolitsis has been working in kitchens since his first dishwashing job at age 12. He opened up a diner at 18, then worked as a chef in fine dining restaurants before launching Boss Hog’s, which travels to rib festivals across the country.
Esquimalt’s Ribfest is one of the last of the ribbing season,” Diavolitsis said, which has left his 15-member team pretty tired of the 14-hour days. In addition to drawing in the crowds, the chants also keep the staff energized, he said.
Ken Côte and Meaghan Todd, of Langford, classify themselves as Ribfest enthusiasts. They take the first bite of their rack of ribs from Grizzly BBQ, the only Island ribber among the six.
“It’s smoky and it’s sweet,” said Côte, as a glob of BBQ sauce lingered in his full beard.
“This one is amazing. This is definitely an 8.5 out of 10,” said Todd.
Oliver Briggs of Saanich started Grizzly BBQ two years ago, after nine years of working for other Ribfest teams.
“Over nine years you learn all the secrets from the people you’re working with and I decided to do it myself,” he said.
Travelling across the country serving people ribs isn’t the worst job in the world, the 27-year-old said. “Every week in a different town. It’s a great way to see Canada.”
Richard and Jill Finlay and their friends approached Ribfest with a certain strategy. Everyone fan out, buy a rack from each of the six ribbers, try them all and then vote for the best.
The couple’s one-year-old son Cole was gnawing on a rib, utterly content in his stroller.
“These ones are from Prairie [Smoke and Spice] and they’re absolutely delicious,” said Richard Finlay. “I think I’ll vote for these ones.”
Judges will announce this year’s winners on Sunday.
Donations at the entrance support the Esquimalt Firefighters Charitable Fund and this year, Ribfest was also raising money for an all-weather playing field in Esquimalt.
Ribfest continues today at Bullen Park, off Lyall Street behind Esquimalt Plaza, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Car parking is limited; bus routes 15 and 26 have stops nearby.