Gilroy resident Carlos Pineda defends his title in Garlic Festival Showdown

Published in the August 8 – 21, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life

By Clairey Yang

Photo courtesy Gilroy Garlic Festival * Rebekah Children’s Services chef Carlos Pineda, right, took home the $3,000 prize for winning the 2018 Garlic Showdown, successfully defending the title he won last year. With him is sous chef Andrew Briggs.

Celebrity chef Michael Symon cracked jokes and told tales of his culinary adventures to entertain Gilroy Garlic Festival food fans watching professional chefs battle it out at this year’s Garlic Showdown

The four chefs had exactly one hour to prepare dishes using dried and fresh prunes and plums — and, of course, loads of garlic — in an “Iron Chef”-style competition that took place on the Challenge Butter Cook-Off Stage Sunday, July 29.

Last year’s Garlic Showdown champion, Carlos Pineda, successfully defended his title. He was challenged by Miriam Vega, the chef and owner of Morgan Hill’s La Nina Perdida – Tastes of Mexico restaurant, Annie Smith, a celebrity chef specializing in California Asian fusion who has appeared in several TV shows including “Cutthroat Kitchen,” and Jason Ryczek, the executive chef of seafood eatery Farallon in San Francisco.

As host of the competition, Symon bantered with the judges, the chefs and the garlic fans to help ease the tension as the minutes counted down. He asked Bill Christopher, CEO of garlic producer Christopher Ranch, what he’d be looking for when judging the dishes prepared by the professional chefs.

Photo by Marty Cheek * Gloria Melone and her son, John, demonstrate their garlicky chicken lollipops recipe Sunday, July 29, at the 2018 Gilroy Garlic Festival.

“For me it’s all about the flavors. Presentation is great but to me it’s all about the flavors and how they combine them and how they create the dish,” the Gilroy farmer said. “With the plums and the prunes, they’ve got quite a challenge, so it’s going to be interesting to see how they make that work.”

Symon confirmed Christopher’s criteria.

“I’m with you. I think presentation is important. It doesn’t matter how good something looks if it doesn’t taste great. That is the key,” he said. “In ‘Iron Chef,’ I always look at the person across from me and they do all the bells and whistles and foams and stars and dust. And I’m thinking, if mine tastes better, I’m going to win.”

Symon has competed in 42 “Iron Chef” cooking contests and has won 34. He told the Garlic Showdown audience that from his experiences on the show, he’s learned that the mid-point is when he has a hunch if he’ll succeed in his decisions on how to bring his ingredients together.

“That’s when you really need to know how you’re going to finish. You’ve got to double-taste, you’ve got to go through everything,” he said. “The half-way point is when you’re going to know if you’re going to succeed or fail in this competition. Right now is when these guys know if the dish they picked is a mistake or it’s going to get them to the finish line.”

Many competition chefs make the big mistake of forgetting to season their dishes. The most important ingredient to include is salt, he said.

“Without salt, you can’t make good food,” he said. “So I hope all the chefs right now as they’re cooking, they’re remembering to season, and checking their seasoning and checking it twice, because that really makes a difference.”

Symon spoke fondly about his wife, Liz Shanahan, whom he met when both were working in a restaurant 30 years ago.

“She’s a great cook. She’s also a sommelier, so she’s blessed with a really good palette,” he said. “My wife is vegetarian, which is God’s little joke on me. It’s like, ‘We’re going to make you really good at cooking meat, but the women you fall in love with will never eat it.’”

The celebrity chef took questions from the audience. One woman asked: “Our older daughter wants to be a Master Chef. What advice would you give her?”

Symon considers himself a traditionalist in the art of cooking. The advice he gives to young chefs is to work in the best kitchens they can at as young age that they can — and not to rush the process of their training.

“People get out of culinary school and they want to be a chef but they’re not ready to be a chef,” he said. “You’ve got to cook and learn. Don’t rush it. It’ll happen.”

Symon’s entertaining of the crowd made time go by quickly. Suddenly, the 60 minutes were nearly up.

“OK you guys, we’ve got 30 seconds left on the clock,” he announced. “So if you don’t have food on the plate now, you’re basically in big, big trouble.”

He inspected the contest dishes being hurriedly given last second garnishes. “Alright! The food is looking fantastic. We’ve got the shrimp. We’ve got the stuffed chilies. Looks like everyone is finishing on time. OK, you guys, we’ve got 10 seconds. Anything that’s on the plate has got to be on the plate now.”

The crowd helped him with the final countdown. “We’ve got five, four, three, two, one. Hands up! OK, I’m impressed. Judges, you’re going to be very happy to eat.” And the crowd cheered.

In addition to Bill Christopher, the four judges included Gloria Melone, a chef and wife of festival co-founder Rudy Melone, Ken Christopher, the executive vice-president at Christopher Ranch, and Mike Zukowski, the 2017 Gilroy Garlic Festival president.

After they took their time savoring each dish presented to them and considering the creativity and quality of the cooking, they made their decision. The crowd applauded when Symon announced that Gilroy’s Carlos Pineda won for the second consecutive year.

The judges were impressed with Shrimp Chimichurri with prunes and plum concoction Pineda and his 19-year-old sous chef, Andrew Briggs, prepared.

The chef is the program manager at the Culinary Academy and Kneaded Catering Company at Gilroy’s Rebekah Children’s Services. The program enables disadvantaged youths ages 15 to 25 to gain hands-on culinary skills in the nonprofit’s commercial kitchen.

He plans to donate the prize money to support the program.

Having the opportunity to compete with other professional chefs that come from different backgrounds, cultures and levels of expertise will always be fun, Pineda said.

“It’s always a chance to learn new ideas, techniques, styles and see what other chefs can do with the same ingredients you have been given,” he said. “It’s just another level of education and one is never done learning. It’s like a saying that one of my past students once taught me “learning is food for the soul.”