Unique Spin On PB&J Reigns Supreme For the World Sandwich Champion
NASHVILLE – Lori Rukstales, reigning Sandwich champion from the 2015 World Food Championships, credits her dislike for tomatoes as a critical factor in her top scoring sandwich recipe, a recipe that would earn her a check for $10,000 and the responsibility of representing her category against the other eight food categories at the Final Table in Florida last November.
“I like to cook,” said Rukstales, who in her real work life is a programmer/analyst with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to developing programs to support children, families and the elderly in the St. Paul area near her home in Roberts, Wisconsin.
Rukstales had heard the stories of the 2013 World Food Championships experience of her friend, Caryl Wiley, and Rukstales caught the competitive bug. Knowing she needed to win a pre-qualification competition to win a spot at the international competition, Rukstales signed herself up in the River Falls (Wisconsin) Bacon Bash in September, mere weeks before the World Food Championships.
The River Falls Bacon Bash is considered a “super qualifier” for the World Food Championships, meaning that several food categories of competitors would find themselves with coveted Golden Tickets. These are the all-important entry passes to be able to compete on the world stage.
Rukstales planned to enter the Sandwich category and thought she just might have a secret recipe – one that she had invented as a child who had an aversion to uncooked tomato but loved bacon and loved the idea of a BLT. The secret of her childhood masterpiece – peanut butter. As she matured, the recipe did as well, but she sticks to its whimsical flavors of a peanut butter and jelly on toast.
Ok, so the recipe is now more complex and the flavors are more dynamic. Today there a special type of bread, wonderful blends of secret jellies and a healthy kick of jalapeño to go with a generous helping of bacon. It is not your typical PB&J.
The recipe was unique enough that it captured the judges’ nod for a top score at the Bacon Bash, setting the competition placement for Rukstales at WFC.
The opening Rounds for the Sandwich competition required two turn-in dishes. The first would be a Structured Build, where competitors would infuse the ingredient of Kansas City Steaks. The Structured Build recipe took Rukstales to the drawing board in the kitchen where a month-long taste testing would result in her competition idea. In interviews with her local newspaper, Rukstales admitted she was pretty sick of steak.
However, the Steak Sandwich upon which she finally settled incorporated shredded apples and brie and left her firmly in fourth place at the end of the first turn-in, securely in the Top 10.
Now the question was would the second Opening Round Turn-In score well enough to keep her in the Top 10. The second round was the Signature Dish where she would submit that Peanut Butter and Jelly recipe. Rukstales swept the judges scoring with a solid first place for the sandwich and a very close second place overall in the Opening Round.
The really great news for the first-time competitor was that she was moving forward to the Top 10 Round a narrow field of the top scoring sandwich competitors, the challenge was she had not really expected and would now need to develop a recipe worthy of the round. She, and husband, Bruce, headed to their rented villa, – selected because it had a kitchen – and got to work. With only a day in between the Opening and Top 10 rounds, time was everything. The result heading into the Top 10 Round in Kenmore Kitchen Arena was a chicken and waffle sandwich with an egg on it. Rukstales named it “The Mother and Child Reunion”.
What happened next is part of what makes the World Food Championships so special. First timers can upset experienced competitors. Home cooks, like Rukstales, can sweep past trained chefs. In the 2015 Sandwich competition Rukstales swept the scoring with her new recipe and found herself on the Main Stage that night with a five-foot-long check for $10,000 in her hands. She became in that moment the reigning 2015 World Sandwich Champion and would move forward to the Final Table round of competitions where she would challenge the eight other winners from the other competing categories of food.
For the Final Table, Rukstales returned to her Signature winning dish, the Peanut Butter and Jelly. In retrospect she now admits she might have picked another of her more impressive sandwich recipes for that level of the competition, but at the time felt so mentally exhausted she wanted to go with a recipe that would not require a shift of gears.
Somewhere along the way, she dropped one of her jellies and the glass container shattered. She had to find local replacement resource. Her experience was similar to that reported by many competitors. The community of cooks and chefs which included new friend Merry Graham joined her plight to find jellies. She found the Food Sport community to be generous with their time and talent.
In evaluating her experience Rukstales had a great time. She is planning on a few home improvements with her $10,000 winnings and is already turning her thoughts to what the 2016 Signature Sandwich will be. But before she moves too far ahead, she has planned a thank you to her team of co-workers who will be treated to lunch with her award-winning recipes this February. She assures that she will recruit help for making the 100 sandwiches for the potluck.
“There’s a lot more to it than just making a Sandwich,” she said. “It’s test of your cooking skills and working under pressure.”
Rukstales is busy selling the idea of Food Sport to many of her co-workers.
“There are a lot of good cooks at Wilder,” she said, mentioning that she hopes some will take up her challenge to attempt the Super Qualifier River Falls Bacon Bash next fall.Her advice to those considering the arena is to keep things simple and let the food flavors stand on their own. The odds are her next Signature Dish will not include raw tomatoes.
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