Chef hopes to turn Paxton into mecca for barbecuers with second annual cookoff

PAXTON — Benjamin Grice has always had a spirit of adventure, having had numerous changes of addresses while pursuing a career as a chef.

The Paxton native is hoping his most recent adventure will help his hometown with an event next month and perhaps give local chef-wannabes a chance to try their skills.

Last fall, Grice and Dave Mabrey co-sponsored a Swine ‘N Dine BBQ at Mabrey’s house with 12 competitors. This year, the event is moving to the downtown area with hopes of drawing a few dozen more.

The second annual Swine ‘N Dine BBQ will be part of the Paxton Prairie Days on Saturday, Sept. 21. The barbeque cook-off will take place in the 100 block of North Market Street. Entry fee for the event is $30, and cash prizes and trophies will be given to the grand champion and reserve champion.

A former chef in Boston, Grice, who recently became chef in dining services at the University of Illinois, had competed for Chris Engelbrecht in the Kansas City Barbecue Society contest and thought he could duplicate the experience locally. Some out-of-state people have started the registration process for September’s event, and Grice already has some of his chef colleagues from the UI lined up as celebrity judges.

“It’s become a good hobby for me, and having this competition as an open invite is to have the community try something new,” Grice said. “I think this can be a festival that Paxton can look forward to and have it grow and grow. 

“The byproduct of having locals come together and compete in this is that it brings attention to the business district and drives revenue, showing Paxton in its best light. And I think it’ll be great for other communities to see Paxton enjoying this kind of festival.”

Grice said the first local barbecue cookoff was small but successful.

“We had 22 teams inquire within a week of creating the event,” he said. “We had it on Dave Mabrey’s property because it was an experiment and we wanted to see if locals would be interested. All sorts of people — who had no previous relationships with each other — bonded over the event and seemed to want to keep the event going.

“The original idea was to grow the competition so that we could have it downtown and include Paxton and surrounding areas. For this year, we initially had planned on having it at Pells Park, but when we talked to (Mayor) Bill Ingold, he let us know about the antique show with Paxton Prairie Days, so we decided to share it with the antique vendors on Main Street and work toward a more well-rounded event.”

For more information on the Swine ‘n Dine BBQ, including the rules for the event, visit the Swine ‘N Dine Facebook page or receive a registration packet at the Paxton IGA office.

How Grice became a chef
Grice grew up in Paxton and didn’t entertain thoughts of being a chef initially, although he did work with well-known Paxtonite Mama Ferrara at “No Better Pizza” when he was 16. However, mass media was more of a pull during his high school years, as he worked at WPXN-Radio as a deejay before heading to North Central College in Naperville on a speech team scholarship.

After a year on the speech team, Grice left North Central and began working in a number of venues, eventually receiving an education at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona. He became an executive chef for a large Marriott property in Scottsdale and then moved across the country to join Michael Schlow, a celebrity chef, in Boston.

“I did everything, but I was always working in restaurants,” Grice said. “When I visited the (culinary) school, I spoke one-on-one with Donald Trump’s chef, Anthony Damiano. I called my mom and told her what I was doing and signed up for culinary school the next day. I was working at FedEx, making good money, but decided to get paid $7 an hour to make salads with no benefits, so I had to make this work.”

Indeed, he did. Grice has had the chance to cook for the Clinton and Bush families at private functions during his time on the East Coast. Grice also had the opportunity to travel to Italy and cook in various regions.

In 2006, he returned to Central Illinois and found work helping the Vineyard Church in Champaign design its food service department. During that time, he met his future wife, Sadie, a teacher currently working in Rantoul, and by 2007 they were married and Grice was becoming known as Chef Benjamin, running a catering business in and around Champaign.

Back to Paxton
After another stint in Boston working as a chef, Grice and his wife returned to Paxton when the first of their two children was born. He served as culinary instructor, creating culinary classes at Parkland College in Champaign, before heading to the University of Illinois and serving as a catering supervisor before taking his current position.

If organizing a BBQ event wasn’t ambitious enough, Grice and his colleagues at the University of Illinois cooked 7,500 pounds of salsa last Friday for a freshman orientation event at Memorial Stadium and set a Guiness World Record.

“I think what led me to barbecue was the fact that cooking on a live fire is different every time,” Grice said. “The point of competition is to dial in your method to produce consistent results. The challenge of it intrigues me and it is a challenge. You can get as good as you want cooking at a restaurant, but to throw some meat over a log fire is exciting — you can lose yourself in it and it’s very relaxing.”


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kfzmeister wrote on August 29, 2013 at 1:08 am

What a great event for Paxton. Way to go Ben!

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jeffrocker wrote on June 04, 2016 at 5:06 pm

I really do admire this idea of his. It will inspire many more people to try out something unique like this in future within the limitation that they have. It would be so much fun. I can already see that. dish network channels