Cooking up sizzling family fun for Ave Maria's Donahue Academy

Festival goers enjoy their rib eye steaks at last year's Sunshine State Cook-Off in Ave Maria. 
  
 Submitted photo

Photo by Randy Hale

Festival goers enjoy their rib eye steaks at last year's Sunshine State Cook-Off in Ave Maria. Submitted photo

A member of the Florida Knights of Columbus grills his steaks in the cook-off competition at last year's event in Ave Maria. 
  
 Submitted photo

Photo by Randy Hale

A member of the Florida Knights of Columbus grills his steaks in the cook-off competition at last year's event in Ave Maria. Submitted photo

As students grudgingly head back to class following the holiday break, organizers of the Third Annual Sunshine Steak Cook-Off are preparing and hoping for a record-breaking turnout of steak aficionados.

Grill teams from near and far will be searing up hundreds of steaks at the event on Jan. 26 in Ave Maria to compete for $1,750 in prize money, trophies and bragging rights in being named the cook of the best steak in Florida.

For $18, ticket holders will receive a boneless 16-ounce rib eye steak, with sides such as a baked potato, bread, salad and a drink. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Rhodora J. Donahue Academy in Ave Maria.

In addition to the food, there will be plenty of activities for the younger crowds at this family fest, with games and bounce houses in the center of the town, close to Ave Maria's oratory. The event has also attracted a fairly famous entertainer, local singer-songwriter Casey Weston, who made it to the finals on the first season of "The Voice" on NBC.

"This is the largest steak competition east of the Mississippi River, and where else can you get an entire steak dinner for only $18?"said Thomas Smith, chairman of this year's main fundraiser for the school. This year's event will provide scholarships to students in need from Immokalee to attend classes at the school.

"In our first year, there were 440 steaks cooked at this event, and last year, we cooked 1,100 steaks. This year, we're hoping to cook over 2,000 steaks," explained Smith, of how this event draws scores of competitors from as far away as Texas and Missouri to fire up their grills for a tremendous cause.

For Tim Moore, a past competitor in the cook-off, there is a lot of priming and pre-planning involved for his team, Knights of the Holy Grill.

"We have three team members, and we purchased a large grill this year that's about 6 feet long made by a metal worker in Immokalee," Moore said."Our top goal is to beat a gentleman named Darryl Klein, but we think this goal should be pretty easy to reach. It's a modest goal, but it's important to us."

Combining just the right flavors of spices and mixing up the right seasonings, so as not to overwhelm each steak, is what competitors will be aiming to do for individual judges. Each steak is judged based on different categories from flavor, to overall presentation. Some teams will be cooking up to 20 steaks, while others will be cooking more than 200 steaks at a time.

"I was a judge last year, and I am going to cook in it this year,"said Laurel Becknel, who is traveling from Arkansas to compete this year. "I plan on cooking up 50 steaks this year. I started cooking in competitions at the Magnolia Blossom Steak Cook-Off in Magnolia, Arkansas. I've always placed in the top 10, but I've never won. I hope this time will be different."

Becknel even shared a rare secret to perfecting a succulent steak on the grill.

"I use a minimal amount of seasoning, and I really like the meat flavor to stand out. I'll be cooking alongside my wife Jane, and we are representing the Knights of Columbus No. 12473. For us, it's a really worthwhile event, and I like cooking more than judging," Becknel said with a chuckle.

For more information about the cook-off, log onto the event website at sssscookoff.com or contact chairman Smith at (239) 280-2535.

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