Humor and a new dish

Sam Bozzo gets a good whiff of garlic and Gene Sakahara gets a

– Who’d have guessed that two men who work in human resources
for public education would become quintessential ambassadors for
the Gilroy Garlic Festival?
GILROY – Who’d have guessed that two men who work in human resources for public education would become quintessential ambassadors for the Gilroy Garlic Festival?

However improbable it may seem, that’s just the case for Gene Sakahara and Sam Bozzo, who together make the irrepressible cooking and comedy duo called SakaBozzo.

“They could not be better ambassadors for the festival,” said Joann Kessler, the festival’s assistant executive director. “Whatever we ask them to do, they do.”

Some of those requests have included cooking demonstrations, working at the garlic queen pageant, making television and radio appearances and cooking for festival mixers, Kessler said.

They’ve also developed new dishes for the festival’s renowned Gourmet Alley, including garlic ginger chicken stir fry, which will make its debut at this year’s 25th anniversary festival.

SakaBozzo is only too happy to help the festival in any way it can.

“We feel like we’re ambassadors for the Garlic Festival,” Sakahara said. “Without the Garlic Festival, there would be no SakaBozzo.”

Sakahara, 55, who is director of teacher recruitment for the Gilroy School District, and Bozzo, 62, director of personnel for the Monterey County Office of Education, are both past presidents of the Gilroy Garlic Festival and members of Gilroy Presbyterian Church.

“It’s kind of like life’s fate,” Sakahara said of SakaBozzo’s creation. “Before the Garlic Festival, we knew each other, we went to the same church, but we didn’t do much.”

That all changed, thanks to the Garlic Festival. Bozzo, who was president of the festival in 1990, and Sakahara, who was president in 1991, developed a friendship – and an unusual greeting – during Bozzo’s tenure.

“(Sam) would yell ‘Saka’ real loud across the festival grounds, and I would yell back ‘Bozzo,'” Sakahara recalled.

“And then we would bump bellies,” Bozzo said.

So, when the two men were asked at the last minute to fill in for festival cofounder Rudy Melone who was unable to do a cooking demonstration in the fall of 1992 at Nob Hill Food’s Hecker Pass Family Adventure park, they at least had a name for their new act: SakaBozzo.

“SakaBozzo came right from the beginning from the way we used to greet each other,” Bozzo said. “We had like an hour’s notice, but we did Garlic Festival scampi and calamari.”

The two men, both of whom had enjoyed their time volunteering at the festival, had been looking for a way to continue their association with the stinking rose celebration.

“We used to joke about it, what are we going to do now? Since we both like to cook, we went with that,” Sakahara said. “It was a natural.”

After SakaBozzo’s last-minute beginnings, they were asked to do a cooking demonstration at Macy’s in Sacramento.

“They had an all-day event with celebrity chefs,” Sakahara said. “I asked, ‘How much are they paying us, Sam?’ and he answered, ‘They’re not.’ And here’s the slap in the face: they didn’t even pay parking. But they loved us.”

Bozzo recalls the event in even more detail: Macy’s didn’t even provide them with lunch.

“After cooking all this great Garlic Festival food, we ended up eating at Carl’s Jr.,” Bozzo laughed.

That event, and another at the now-defunct Gridley Rice Festival in which the men arrived to perform only to discover that they had no stove – they ended up using a Coleman camp stove – led SakaBozzo to divide the responsibilities according to their natural talents.

Bozzo often makes contacts that lead to appearances, and then Sakahara takes over, reviewing the contracts to make sure all the details – like stoves for cooking demonstrations – are in order.

“We both bring strengths (to SakaBozzo),” Sakahara said. “Sam’s a great networker and will often get us these activities. I’m the details guy.”

Their show, which debuted a few years later on the Gilroy Garlic Festival’s Cook-off Stage, features cooking and improvisational comedy.

“We follow an outline, but most of it is improv,” Sakahara said. “I’m doing an impression of Martin Yan and (Bozzo) does Julia Child.”

They also throw in a little bit of the Smothers Brothers – as in ‘Momma always loved you best’ – for good measure.

“Quick quips and things like that go with our personalities,” Sakahara said.

SakaBozzo is keeping a tight lid on what they’ll be cooking at this year’s festival, but Sakahara did offer a few hints.

“Sam’s going to do a timbale,” Sakahara said. “I’ll be doing an Italian sushi. Instead of rolling it in seaweed, I’ll roll it in something else.”

SakaBozzo’s schtick and love for Gilroy and its famous festival have taken them all over the world, including Gilroy’s sister city, Takko-Machi, Japan, and to Edmonton, Canada, for its Garlic Festival.

“We have a saying, ‘Do they like us because we’re good or because we’re cheap?'” Sakahara laughed. “I think it’s a little bit of both.”

In reality, it’s probably their genuine love of garlic, Gilroy and each other that keeps people clamoring for more of SakaBozzo.

“It’s a true friendship,” Sakahara said. “We enjoy each other’s company. We love promoting the Garlic Festival and the community.

“It’s about food, fun and friends.”