Future chef joins the SakaBozzo team for cooking and camaraderie

For Rayen Garcia, 11, family recipes have provided the inspiration for his favorite hobby, cooking. And it’s a hobby that’s garnered him notice from two of Gilroy’s most well-known chefs. Though Rayen will be cooking in the 2019 Gilroy Garlic Festival’s Garlic Chef Jr. competition, it’s not his first time cooking for a large audience.

Gene Sakahara and Sam Bozzo, also known as the SakaBozzo team, bill themselves as “Twins Separated at Birth.” These local culinary legends first discovered Rayen at the Sodexo Future Chefs Competition held at Gilroy High School in March. Rayen’s dish, Quinoa Enchiladas, earned him a second-place finish. But the SakaBozzo team were so taken with Rayen that they invited him to come along on some of their recent cooking adventures.

Nicole Garcia, Rayen’s mother, said, “Rayen hit it off with Sam right away because Rayen’s (Future Chefs) dish had mushrooms. They got to talking and it was decided to feature Rayen with the SakaBozzo team at the Morgan Hill Mushroom Mardi Gras.”

Rayen explained, “I’ve been able to cook with them at the Mushroom Mardi Gras and do lots of demos. Gene showed me how to make stuffed mushrooms. Before the Mardi Gras, I was invited to do an appearance with Sam at the Gilroy Health Fair.”

Not bad for a kid who just finished fifth grade at Rod Kelley Elementary. But according to Sam Bozzo, that’s par for the (main) course.

“Rayen fit in very easily and was self-confident,” Bozzo said. “I felt like I’d known him for a long time. When we were judging for the Sodexo Future Chefs Cooking Challenge at Gilroy High, he was alert, determined and prepared. When we cooked for the Gilroy Downtown Health Fair, he came prepared to cook. He was clear and articulate. And when Gene and I demonstrated at the Mushroom Mardi Gras, Rayen stepped right in and did his Quinoa Enchiladas. He was a joy to work with.”

Though Rayen is becoming more comfortable in front of large crowds, he wasn’t always confident. But he’s learning to handle the pressure in his own way.

“At Future Chefs, I was a little nervous about finishing on time, and I was sort of scared I wouldn’t place,” he admitted. “And there are a lot of people. But I just take deep breaths.”

For the Garlic Chef Jr. competition, Rayen will be cooking with seven other amateur chefs from ages 9 to 18 on the Challenge Butter Cook-Off Stage. Their competition takes place on Friday, July 26, at 2 p.m., with the winner announced at 4 p.m. In those two hours, each contestant must create one baked or grilled dish containing at least six cloves of garlic. A panel of expert judges evaluates each dish for taste, appearance, creativity and use of garlic. This year’s competition will be hosted by MasterChef Season 9 Winner Gerron Hurt. The winner will be presented a gift of value up to $500.

When the Garcia family attended the Gilroy Garlic Festival in 2018, Rayen saw the inaugural Garlic Chef Jr. competition, turned to his mom, and said, “I want to enter that next year.” Sure enough, he’ll be vying to become this year’s Garlic Chef Jr. champion. Not surprisingly, Nicole is Rayen’s choice for his sous chef. She’s taught him many favorite dishes, including his quinoa enchiladas. They like to watch shows like Chopped together. And Rayen frequently gives Nicole a hand in the kitchen with dinner prep, if he’s not cooking it himself.

“He has a good, developed palate, and can discern different flavors,” she said. “I noticed this when we were at a baby shower and Rayen could identify the ‘secret tastings’ of different baby foods.”

Over time, Rayen developed an interest in cooking, which his family supports and encourages. Rayen has fond memories of visiting his Nonna, where they’d make chef hats and bake cupcakes and cookies.

“It’s good to see him delve out on his own, explore, and experiment,” Nicole added.

From seeing SpongeBob make crabby patties to watching the likes of Bobby Flay, Guy Fieri, and Ree Drummond whip up their unique favorites, Rayen was hooked. He also likes to watch Gordon Ramsay, although Rayen is quick to add, “But he’s mean.”

But above all, Rayen’s been especially inspired by Gene and Sam. “The Mardi Gras was a big crowd,” Rayen noted. “But I like working with Sam and Gene because they’re very good at cooking, and sarcastic with each other. They have lots of knowledge to pass on, and they’re very caring. They’re part of the community, and everyone looks up to them.”

Right now, Rayen enjoys cooking his family’s traditional Puerto Rican fare, such as empanadas with beef and papa tacos, which are made with breakfast potatoes, and of course, those now famous quinoa enchiladas. But he also likes to make spaghetti, chili, and chicken alfredo.

In the future, he said, he’d hopes to learn Italian cooking because he likes the seasonings. So the Gilroy Garlic Festival will be a perfect opportunity to flex those culinary muscles. But beyond that, Rayen said, “I’m interested in becoming a chef, and I want to have my own restaurant and make barbecue.” He loves to grill meats, particularly ribs, sausage, burgers, and his favorite, Italian sausages.

When he’s not cooking, Rayen likes to play the drums and enjoys a game of basketball now and then. But the art of cooking is rooted in his family tree.

Of the Puerto Rican recipe Rayen’s making for the festival, Nicole said, “I want him to learn to make this dish so it will stay in his mind and heart forever. It’s from my grandmother, and he didn’t get to meet her. But cooking touches our heart and soul.”

Donna Lane