Published on GilroyLife.Com on August 3, 2018

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.

Last year’s Garlic Showdown champion, Carlos Pineda, successfully defended his title at the 2018 Gilroy Garlic Festival. The judges were impressed with the Shrimp Chimichurri with Prunes and Plum concoction the Gilroy chef and his 19-year-old sous chef, Andrew Briggs, prepared for the prestigious contest made up of professionals in the culinary industry.

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. Pineda heads the Culinary Academy at Rebekah Children’s Services, a nonprofit that helps youths in the South Valley. 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.

The competition was hosted Sunday, July 29, by the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” champion, Michael Symon. He told Briggs, “If it’s true that you are only 19, then you have a bright future in this industry.”

Gilroy Life discussed with Pineda and Briggs their culinary adventure with the Garlic Showdown:

This is the second year in a row that you won the Garlic Festival Showdown. What were your thoughts when you found out you won again?

Pineda: Leading up to the showdown I was quite nervous but I had a lot more things to worry about that week, I was focusing on pouring beer for the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, setting up mist tents for the Gilroy Sunrise Rotary Club, judging the Champions for Charity competition on Friday, along with my daily work obligations. Once Sunday morning came around I was able to sit with Andrew Briggs (my sous chef) and somewhat strategize and if we win again…we donate the money to the Rebekah Children’s Services Culinary Academy but if we don’t it’s completely OK.

The richness of all this comes from the fact that I was able to bring another past graduate from the Culinary Academy and experience this with him. This opportunity is a chance to motivate, empower and allow him to show his skillset and passion. Knowing that we won again was just another reassurance that no matter what obstacles come your way, there’s always going to be someone there to guide you.

You’re giving the prize money to your culinary school. Why is it important for you to share the wealth with your students.

Pineda: Having the chance to show my culinary expertise with my students is more than just a job, it’s a chance to give them the foundation to become successful adults. There’s times where I find myself here at the age of 29 where I could really use the $3,000, but I think to myself there’s always someone else who needs it more than me. I’ve seen the worst of the worst these youth could go through and it’s enough to reassure myself that there was no doubt in donating it back.

This community gives a lot to non-profits and the Garlic Festival Association gives a lot to non-profits. And this is the time I am able to share the earnings for the second time in a row with a non-profit that I stand firmly behind and believe in their mission statement. Being born and raised in Gilroy and through all my involvement I have learned that paying it forward will always come back around.

 Why is it fun for you to compete with other professional chefs at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

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

Andrew, what did you think of being part of the Garlic Showdown competition?

Briggs: When Chef Carlos and I won for the dishes we had worked so hard on, the first thought I had was surprise. It made me feel like I had a chance of holding my own with some of the best chefs in the business. I think that all of our competitors were very skilled, so it was a wonderful feeling to have felt that my hard work allowed me to be in the same category as such hard working professionals. I also thought of everyone who supported me over the course of my career and their ability to touch my life by sharing their food and giving me the opportunity to learn from them.

Why is it important for young people like yourself to learn cooking skills?

Briggs: When I think of all the mentors I’ve had over the years and the time, effort, and money they put into teaching me, I feel honored to do the same. Overall, I think it was the only choice we had because we try to teach these students that you have to be dedicated to your ideals and live by them. We used to have a saying when I first started working at Kneaded bakery. It was a saying that came from my fellow students who found their family in the people who stood by them, instead of those who should have stood by them. They used to say “Everybody Eats” meaning that when you come to this program you become part of our family, and we make sure that you’re fed and taken care of. A two-word phrase that changed my outlook on what family means forever.

What are your thoughts on cooking on a professional level of competition?

Briggs: Having the opportunity to compete with chefs from different backgrounds with such a high caliber of skill was quite an honor. I think that the title of “Chef” is elusive and intimidating for all those who know what it means. Once you’ve made it to that level, you have a certain level of adaptability that puts you above a home cook or even a line cook. You learn how to move in a professional kitchen environment and think on your feet. The occupation takes a huge level of dedication and time and will never be perfected. Food is always growing and changing and it was a pleasure to cook alongside individuals who have made it their lives’ work to interpret and develop a way to convey what the limitless world of food has to offer.