Cook-Off stage bigger, better than ever

Out with the old and in with what the people want. Keeping the
crowds pleased is one of the guiding principals for this year’s
Gilroy Garlic Festival.
Out with the old and in with what the people want.

Keeping the crowds pleased is one of the guiding principals for this year’s Gilroy Garlic Festival. And people want food, whether it’s eating it, watching it be prepared or taking it home with them, said Greg Bozzo, president of this year’s festival.

Instead of spoon feeding the crowd with the lengthy, speech-laden opening ceremonies that traditionally dominate the Cook-Off stage first thing Friday morning, this year’s Garlic Festival will ladle up a Master Chef Challenge between “The Vickroy Boys” – Gilroy locals Pat and Jon Vickroy – and business partners Adam Sanchez and Ann Zyburra first thing. An abbreviated opening ceremony will take place at the iconic garlic bulb near the festival’s entrance.

“This year we’re jumping right in,” Bozzo said. “That’s what the festival goers want.”

Not only will attendees have more cooking performances to entertain them, they’ll have more room to relax and a better view with the help of an expanded seating area – at 3,800 square feet, more than double the size last year – and film crews that will project the on-stage action onto two 10-feet by 13-feet overhead screens.

“The screens make viewing the recipes and cooks so much easier,” Bozzo said. “There was such a demand for the Cook-Off stage that we had to increase the seating. It was an easy decision.”

This year’s Cook-Off stage will seat 1,648, compared to last year’s 968. As the acts gained more popularity, festival organizers noticed attendees jockeying for space and even the last rows of bleachers filling up in past years. Introducing more screens will make the shows “much more viewer friendly,” Bozzo said.

With back-to-back lineups of amateur chefs from across the nation, local personalities and celebrity chefs, Bozzo hopes this year’s festival will have something for everyone.

Local favorites will dominate on the first day of the festival with the “Daygo Brothers” – Gilroyans Dave Bozzo and Don DeLorenzo – squaring off against chefs from Maurizio’s Italian Restaurant in Morgan Hill in the City vs. City Challenge. The beloved SakaBozzo cooking team of Gene Sakahara and Sam Bozzo will take to the stage and team up with former San Francisco 49er Eric Wright for a show guaranteed to make attendees’ sides shake with laughter.

The Great Garlic Cook-Off contest takes the stage at 10 a.m. Saturday with winners announced at 12:15 p.m., followed by a steady stream of celebrity chefs from across the country. One of the most anticipated shows of the festival, the Garlic Showdown, in which four professional chefs compete for $5,000, kicks off Sunday at high noon. This year’s contestants include Mattin Noblia, owner of Iluna Basque in San Francisco who competed in Bravo’s Top Chef Las Vegas; returning Showdown champ Ryan Scott, a San Francisco chef who competed in Top Chef Chicago; Jerry Regester of C Restaurant in Monterey; and Jesse Llapitan of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The winner will be crowned at 2 p.m. Local and national celebrity chefs round out the day.

New to the Cook-Off stage this year is a local wine pairing for many of the dishes that come off the line, Bozzo said.

“I don’t know if it gets more local than our wines,” he said. “We feel like we’re not only reaching out to what people are interested in – food and wine – but we’re also promoting our wineries at the same time.”

Vic Vanni, co-owner of Solis Winery on Hecker Pass Highway and president of the Wineries of Santa Clara Valley, has been attending the Garlic Festival for 25 years and said he’s excited that the wines are taking a more visible role this year.

“It’s a great venue for us as the wineries to be able to show off our wines to a number of new potential customers,” Vanni said. “It’s always an introduction for new customers because there are so many people from out of town that aren’t familiar with the wines of this area. For us, it’s a fresh way to get people to come and see what we have to offer.”

Tim Slater, proprietor of Sarah’s Vineyard on Hecker Pass, will be pouring his wines at the festival and said that any type of cross marketing is good for business. Often, he will suggest specific wine pairings in his tasting room, like pinot noir with lamb or a robust red with shortribs. What he often finds is that visitors to his winery are surprised to learn that Gilroy is home to some stellar vineyards.

“Even Gilroy residents have no idea that there are great wineries in their own back yard,” Slater said.

Though Gilroy is better known for its garlic than its wine, Slater said he believes it could be “the next Paso Robles.”

Another focus of the 2010 Festival will be on using local ingredients.

“People want to know where their ingredients are coming from,” Bozzo said.

With pasta from San Francisco, Monterey Bay squid, wild shrimp from Florida – which might seem far but is a lot closer than the festival’s former supplier, China – olive oil from Corning, Monterey Mushrooms in Morgan Hill and plenty of Christopher Ranch garlic, the wines won’t be the only local stars of the Cook-Off stage.