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They earn laurels at World Food Championships

Lori Ruckstales, Roberts, cooks at the World Food Championships, held earlier this month in Florida, where she took first place in the Sandwich division. Ruckstales earned her way to the WFC by taking first place in the Bacon Bash's sandwich competition. (Submitted photos)1 / 3
Camera crews were everywhere at the World Food Championships. Lori Rucksales, shown, said she enjoyed that aspect of the competition.2 / 3
From left are Terry McKay, Angel Zimmerman, Mandy laMere, Kristina Waller, Katie Hintz, and in back is Thekla Madsen.  Waller, Hintz and Madsen were judges, the others acted as captains and volunteers.3 / 3

For many area people as well as from those far away, the September River Falls Bacon Bash was a chance to some fun, and savor some bacon.

For local couple Peggy Hansen and Terry Quinn, it was the event that gave them the “golden ticket” to an experience they’ll remember forever: The World Food Championships.

Held in Kissimmee, Fla., this year, the fourth annual World Food Championships (WFC) included more than 500 worldwide competitors.

Eight teams from the River Falls area traveled to Florida for the competition. Quinn and Hansen were two such competitors.

Hansen, who developed a love of cooking as a young adult, qualified for the World Food Championships in the bacon category at the Bacon Bash with her dish “Spicy Bacon Shrimp and Grits.” 

Quinn took second place in the Chili category with a recipe made using NAN’s margarita mix, which Hansen and Quinn make and sell.

“It was an experience that I will talk about for the rest of my life,” Hansen said.

Each competitor at the World Food Championships (WFC) could enter into one category as “head chef.” But, they could have others working as assistants with them.

Hansen and Quinn supported each other in their respective categories at the Bacon Bash, and in the WFC.

“I’ve realized from being down there ... behind every chef there’s probably an even better sous chef supporting them,” Quinn said. “As far as the husband-wife team...I kinda think that's made our relationship stronger.”

Hansen said there were a few stressful moments, especially as they were cooking under a time limit and she was “down to the wire” trying to finish some of her dishes.

“We were down to like 30 seconds,” Hansen said, but she made it in the time limits. “It was a huge sense of relief. It was a sense of accomplishment.”

Hansen didn’t make it into the top 10 in the bacon category, but Quinn placed in the top 10 in the chili category, which gives him an automatic pass or “Golden Ticket” to next year's WFC competition.

Quinn and Hansen said it wasn’t  Quinn’s “signature dish” -- the chili he brought to the Bacon Bash -- that brought him into the top 10, but a chili made with what Hansen calls “spurkey meatballs.”

Chili competitors were challenged at the championships, to create a chili using Hormel chili, without beans, so Quinn and Hansen decided to use as many Hormel products as possible, including Spam.

They served the chili in a beer stein, with half-pint glasses.

“I think that was really a hit with the crowd as well as the judges,” Quinn said. “We moved up five places and that’s what brought us into the top 10.”

Damon Holter, a member of the Bacon Bash committee, who also competed in the World Food Championships this year, also helped plan the Bacon Bash food competition. He said he changed the chili competition at the Bacon Bash, judging competitors on creative presentation, rather than having them serve the chili in plain styrofoam cups--how chili is traditionally served in competitions.

Holter said the World Food Championships representatives liked the chili presentation so much, they incorporated Holter’s idea into the World Food Championships chili competition.

Lori Ruckstales of Roberts, was named World Sandwich Champion at the World Food Championships. She won a $10,000 cash prize, which she said will go to home improvements.

When they were announcing the winners of the sandwich competition, Ruckstales said she didn’t think she’d placed very high when she didn’t hear her name by the time the third place winner had been announced.

“The winner from last year, she got second, and I didn’t think there was any way I could unseat her, and sure enough, I did,” Ruckstales said.

She said she was thrilled. “I had no idea I could do that.”

But, Ruckstales said, it takes more than just good cooking skills to win.

“I am a decent cook, but one of the tests of this competition is that it’s not all about cooking. It’s about planning, it’s about having great ideas, it’s about practicing and being able to deliver something under extreme pressure,” Ruckstales said.

Ruckstales won her “golden ticket” at the Bacon Bash with a sandwich she called “Grown-Up PB&J.” The sandwich included bacon, peanut butter, Tobasco brand pepper jelly, and Smucker’s grape jelly.

“I used to eat bacon and peanut butter on toast as a kid,” Ruckstales said. “This year, I decided to enter the sandwich, so I started with that as a possible idea, and I just kind of thought what would be good with that, and I added the jelly, and it still didn’t seem dressed up enough. So then, I added the jalapenos, and that just seemed to be a real winning combination.”

Ruckstales said she enjoyed the chance to be creative at the Bacon Bash, and to travel to Florida and test her cooking skills against other talented cooks from around the world.

At the World Food Championships, competitors made their “signature dish,” for example, Ruckstales’s “Grown-Up PB&J,” but they were also asked to make a “structured build,” a dish that met specific requirements for each category. Ruckstales had to make a steak sandwich. She created a sandwich she called “The Wisconsin Apple Orchard Steak Sandwich” with steak, apples, bri, and bacon.

“Everything’s better with bacon,” Ruckstales said.

Ruckstlaes said cooking has been a lifelong hobby for her.

“I’ve just always cooked,” she said. “My parents both cook. They’re both excellent cooks. And if you want to eat it, you gotta make it.”

But, for Ruckstales, the best part of the World Food Championships wasn’t necessarily the cooking itself. She enjoyed seeing the many cameras that were present at the competition.

“I was really curious about what went on behind the scenes of these cooking TV shows,” Ruckstales said. “It was really exciting to witness that, meet all of the competitiors, hear their stories, just see how everything plays in together, the sponsors, and how the kitchen is set up, and the film crew was so nice.”

Ruckstales aid she’s very glad she went.

As a first place winner, she got to move on to compete for the grand prize of $100,000, but she did not win it.

Ruckstales did, in addition to her first place in sandwich prize money, also receive a golden ticket to return to the World Food Championships next year, which she said she’d like to do.

Ruckstales said she was very gratful to everyone who contributed to the Bacon Bash, especially those involved in organizing the cooking competition, and coordinating with the World Food Championships.

Holter and his wife Lu, competed in the World Food Championships for the third time this year. Holter, who owns Croix Valley Foods in River Falls, didn’t make the top 10 at the World Food Championships this year, but he did get to take part in a special steak cooking challenge. He said the steak challenge will become a new category next year, and he has a “golden ticket” to compete in the new category next year.

Holter said he really enjoyed the competition this year.

“This year, I think the best part was there were so many friends that were there,” he said. “Just being able to have so many like-minded people all in one place.”

Holter, Ruckstales, Quinn and Hansen all said the World Food Championships is a step above just a cooking competition -- they said it’s a “food sport.”

“This is the largest event in food sport through the world,” Holter said. “Multiple rounds of competition from people who have all qualified to be there because they won another cooking competition somewhere else. They’re not just pulling people off the street. Everyone there is a champion to start with.”

The competition was held outside, under a large tent canopy, which was filled with cooking stations, lights and cameras, as the championships were filmed for a television show, and this year “chefferees” wearing pinstripe referee outfits emceed the event.

This year the Bacon Bash was a “super qualifier” for the World Food Championships. Everyone who got a first, second or third place in the Bacon Bash’s bacon, chili, sandwich and dessert categories received a “golden ticket” to the World Food Championships.

World Food Championships CEO Mike McCloud said he thought the Bacon Bash worked very well with the World Food Championships.

"The Bacon Bash was a wonderful springboard for the competitors who arrived at the 2015 World Food Championships. Lori Rukstales, with her incredible peanut butter and jelly sandwich ended up at the Final Table having placed first in the top 10 contenders in the World Sandwich category," said McCloud. "Lori comes home with $10,000 in cash for her sandwich entry," he continued.

McCloud noted that the River Falls crew was also found at the WFC in volunteer roles and as judges in some of the eight other categories of the food sport event.”

“As a result of hosting a successful super qualifier for the World Food Championships at the 2015 Bacon Bash, there is mutual interest in hosting this event again next year in River Falls,” said Judy Berg, Chamber of Commerce tourism sales marketing manager.  “However, additional review and analysis will be required before negotiations begin with the World Food Championships organization, so more to come.”

Other Bacon Bash competitors who made it into the top 10 in their categories at the World Food Championships include:

  • Cullen Case, Hudson, and John Lang, Bloomington, Minn., from team Case of Ribs placed third in the world in the Chili category. Case of Ribs also competed in the Sandwich category.
  • Elizabeth and Kelly Trumpold, Duluth, Minn. placed eighth overall in the Bacon category. The Trumpold’s also finished sixth place in Chili, qualifying to compete from a local contest in Duluth.
  • Terry Quinn and Peggy Hanson from team NAN’s, Hudson, placed eighth overall in the Chili category. Team NAN’s also competed in the Bacon category.
  • Stephan Nass and the team from Vintage Brewing Company, Madison, finished sixth in the Sandwich category. AJ Hurst from team Vintage Brewing Company also competed in Bacon as a returning Top 10 competitor from the 2014 World Food Championships. TJ Thering from team Vintage Brewing Company also competed in the Dessert category.

Other competitors at the 2015 Bacon Bash include Gladys Earl from Menomonie who competed in the Dessert category.  Returning competitors include Damon and Lu Holter from Hudson, who competed in the Sandwich and Pasta categories, respectively.  Damon also finished sixth in the world in the Kansas City Steak Challenge.  

“When thinking of Wisconsin, culinary skills don’t always land on the same list as beer, cheese and the Green Bay Packers,” said Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Blasius. “Seeing the River Falls Bacon Bash competitors go ‘hog wild’ at the World Food Championship was outstanding.

“Seeing these individuals compete so successfully at such a highly competitive international event was really an outstanding representation of the culinary talents that can be found throughout our region.”

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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