Sometimes the simplest of dishes elevated in a unique way far outweigh a more complex extravagant entrée, as was the case at Saturday’s 2013 Great Garlic Cookoff.
Colorado’s Karen Harris won over the judges by serving up her rendition of an old favorite, entitled “Carnival Style Fish Sticks with Lemony Jalapeno Mayonnaise and Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Slaw.”
Harris, battling on the Cookoff Stage with seven other culinary competitors from places as far away as Canada and Florida to neighboring Morgan Hill and down south in Long Beach, was crowned the new champion - edging out runner-up, local Bryan Moiles and his “Chardonnay, Dijon, Garlic and Herb Basted Rotisserie Leg of Lamb served with Roasted Garlic Tapenade and Quinoa Tabouli.”
“I’m so surprised. I’m just flabbergasted,” said Harris, who traveled from Castle Rock, Colorado for her third attempt at the coveted Great Garlic Cook-off crown. “It’s helped me to relax. It’s such a great competition. It’s serious, but really fun.”
The “fun” started more than hour before visitors were allowed to enter Christmas Hill Park for the 35th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, as the eight finalists began preparing their dishes in 10-minute intervals with a two-hour time limit.
Harris said she lived in England for a while, fell in love with the British’s fish and chips and fused that traditional meal with America’s corn dogs to come up with her culinary concoction. She also wanted to bring a dish that fit in nicely with the garlic-themed bonanza, and used a light tempura batter for an added crunch.
“Her creativity, use of product...the best presentation, it was just an excellent dish,” said Majid Bahriny, who will use Harris’ recipe on his garlic menu at his two Mama Mia Italiano Ristorante locations in Gilroy and Morgan Hill. “It was something that is simple, something for people to make at home that didn’t take all day in the kitchen.”
Bahriny — who also pointed out that “bar food is in” – shared the judge’s table with Head Chef Evelyn Miliate, of Raley’s Family of Fine Stores; Adam Sanchez, owner of The Milias Restaurant in downtown Gilroy; Executive Chef Jay Minzer, a private chef in New York; and Executive Chef Luca Rutigliano, of CordeValle resort in San Martin.
“Right off the bat, the presentation was very, very creative. If food looks good, it usually tastes better,” said Sanchez, who was impressed with Harris’ use of the clear baking wrapper with a newspaper print on it, “The Daily Telegraph,” inside of a simple cardboard basket. “It was really, really well put together.”
Master of Ceremonies Dan Green, television anchor for KSBW Action News 8, together with Kate Callaghan, KSBW’s morning news anchor, and Wendy Brodie, of the “Art of Food” television show, detailed every step of the event hopping from competitor to competitor as they prepared their dishes.
In the end, Harris was the one Garlic Queen Olivia Echeverria honored with the coveted Great Garlic Cookoff crown - something contestants covet even more than the $5,000 grand prize.
“This is really the creme de la creme of cooking competitions,” said competitor Mary Edwards, of Long Beach, who cooked up a “Scampi Style Seafood Bisque with Garlic & Herb Bread Sticks” for the judging panel. “This is the coveted crown. We don’t come for the money. It’s all about the crown.”
Last year, the crown belonged to 2012 champion Laureen Pittman, of Riverside, who won with her “Crispy Pork Belly with Carmelized Onion and Fig Agrodolce with Creamy Polenta.”
“We don’t offer the biggest prize money,” explained Gilroy Garlic Festival President Dennis Harrigan. “But it’s very prestigious if you’re crowned the champion.”
Moiles, the only male and South County native of the eight finalists, dazzled the audience by using a rotisserie to rotate his 5.5 pound leg of lamb inside a black barbecue as he continuously basted it with a Chardonnay, garlic and herb soaked brush.
“Gotta keep it local,” said Moiles as he showed off the Frantoio Olive Oil bottle from Jeff Martin’s olive orchard off Monterey Street in San Martin. “I do most of the cooking at home...I’m the token male up here and the local guy.”
Third-place winner Kristine Snyder was far from local, flying in Thursday night from Kihei, Hawaii to prepare her “Mahi-Mahi Laulau with Shiitake Risotto, Candied Garlic & Coconut Cream,” wrapped in tea leaves she brought on the plane with her.
“Everybody knows about the Garlic Festival in Hawaii,” said the home cook, who had submitted various recipes for several years but was never chosen as a finaiist until now. “I was in complete shock (to be chosen).”
Celebrity chef Gene Sakahara, a past President of the Gilroy Garlic Festival and former Rod Kelley Elementary School principal, watched on the giant Cook-off stage, recalling the event from past years. Sakaraha, who's name is usually said in the same breath along with his culinary partner Sam Bozzo (the two are known as the Sakabozzo twins), said the first garlic Cook-off was held offsite at Gavilan College before eventually moving to a much smaller venue at Christmas Hill Park in the late 80s.
“Rightfully so, being one of the premier food festivals in the world, we needed to highlight the food even more,” said Sakahara, pointing to the two jumbo screens that were installed to give a better vantage point for the audience members. “It was fun but intense being a judge and being on stage (competing in various cooking events).”
From “Afrikaner Butternut Tart with Pan Roasted Chickpeas and Sweet Chili Citrus Drizzle” served up by Robin Kessler, of Sarasota, Florida, to “Monviso & Espresso Rubbed Steaks with Maitre d’Hotle Butter and Smoky Tarragon & Garlic-Braised Pearl Onions,” each contestant brought their own style and flair to the annual competition.
“I can’t tell you how amazing this set-up is,” said Carla Hall, co-host of ABC’s “The Chew." Hall is scheduled to give a demonstration on the Cook-off stage on Sunday. “What’s really hard is that you have your soul on a plate...But you are all winners because you’re here.”