Cal Fire captain Herb Alpers was in quite a bind leading into Friday’s inaugural Champions for Charity first responders cook-off at the 2016 Gilroy Garlic Festival.
Only days away from the competition, which pitted four first responder tandems from different agencies against one another in a three-course elimination format, Alpers needed to find a new partner. His fellow fire captain Anthony Anastasi was forced to bow out due the all-hands-on-deck scenario brought on by the 35,000-plus acre Soberanos fire burning in Monterey County.
So, at the last minute, Alpers leaned on a retired firefighter Tom Evans to join him on the festival’s Cook-off Stage to battle for the $3,000 top prize to be donated to the charity of their choosing.
The makeshift Cal Fire duo found instant chemistry in the kitchen and pulled off a victory for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the recipient of the charitable donation made by the Gilroy Garlic Festival Foundation on their behalf.
“It was a little more pressure than I’m used to cooking in the firehouse. We had to think quick on our feet,” said Alpers, a 20-year veteran of Cal Fire who remained calm cooking on stage in front of a live audience. “We were so busy cooking and keeping track of time that we didn’t realize our surroundings. All I could focus on was the task at hand.”
Two hours earlier, Gene Sakahara and Sam Bozzo, the famed “SakaBozzo” duo of local retired administrators and past Garlic Festival presidents, donned the same Cook-off stage for their final cooking demonstration along with their grandsons.
The first responder teams were tested with a surprise basket of ingredients for each of the two rounds, cooking an entree in the opener and a dessert in the finale. It was originally supposed to be a three round competition, including an appetizer, but the Gilroy Fire Department cookoff team was forced to withdraw due to the fire as well.
The two other competing teams were paramedics Peggy Brapp and TC Warford from Santa Clara County EMS (playing for nonprofit “19 For Life”) and fire engineer Vince Grewohl and fire fighter Bill Olguin from the Hollister Fire Department (playing for Chamberlain’s Children Center).
“When I’m on duty, I cook 90 percent of the time. I love Italian food, but I cook a little bit of everything (at the fire station),” shared Olguin prior to the first round basket being revealed. “Usually it’s what’s on sale; we all chip in for dinner; and there’s a lot of experimenting.”
In the opening round, which teams had a half hour to make into tasty dish, the ingredients revealed in the basket (just like on the Food Network’s “Chopped” program) were chicken thighs, pickled garlic, artichokes and hot sauce. While Cal Fire and Hollister Fire made their own concoctions of sautéed chicken with pasta, County EMS produced a Greek lemon chicken with artichokes.
“I feel like Gordon Ramsey but not as mean,” said celebrity judge Alexis Higgins, a contestant on Season 3 of Fox’s Master Chef Jr. show, as she tasted the three entrees. “Everyone had real creative dishes and you could really taste the garlic.”
The three-judge panel, which also included executive chefs Danae McLaughlin from Harker Schools in San Jose and Benjamin Brown from The Lodge at Pebble Beach, used a points system to determine which teams advanced and the eventual champion.
“It was really close and we just hate doing this,” said McLaughlin before Hollister Fire’s duo was eliminated in the entree round.
In the 20-minute championship dessert round, the secret basket ingredients chosen were lady fingers, blood orange cranberry punch, bacon and, of course, more garlic.
The victorious Cal Fire squad served up a lady finger, custard, fresh fruit, candy bacon parfait, while Cal EMS made a concoction they called “Bloody fingers” with a Greek yogurt, tart dipping sauce.
“I was really pleased with the balance of bacon and garlic in both dishes,” McLaughlin said. “Both pulled off incredible desserts.”
In the end, Cal Fire’s dessert was the winning dish in the inaugural Champions For Charity event.