Garlic Fest ’15: First time’s a charm for cook-off champ

Gloria Bradley, who turned 84 July 22, prepares pistachio crusted chicken in a curry sauce that wowed the judges—who all said they want to use the sauce in their restaurants—at the 2015 Gilroy Garlic Festival's Great Garlic Cook-Off.

GILROY—Jodi Taffel didn’t plan on winning the Gilroy Garlic Festival’s Great Garlic Cook-Off this year, but she sure did hope to. The Altadena woman had been stalking the competition for the past five years, honing her recipe throughout many a breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And on July 25, she was crowned the winner of the cooking competition that pits eight amateur chefs against each other for her shakshuka with deep fried garlic. She served it with a bacon-infused Bloody Mary, complete with fresh stalks of celery.
“This has been on my bucket list for years. This is the one I wanted,” Taffel said of the festival cook-off. “In my house, garlic is a vegetable.”
Her boyfriend David McAlexander was ecstatic as he watched Garlic Queen Bridget Brown place the coveted garlic crown on Taffel’s head. With that, she received the grand prize of $5,000.
“I knew she was good, I just didn’t know everyone else would realize she’s that good,” he told the Dispatch.
Taffel entered her first culinary competition in 2010 and won that, too.
Hundreds of recipes are submitted each year from all over the country. Organizers whittle that list down to eight finalists, all requiring the use of Gilroy’s stinking rose.
“Gilroy is the varsity; it’s the Olympics,” McAlexander said of the contest. “This really is in the Pantheon.”
Taffel competed against seven other women who came from as far away as Virginia and Florida. Beneath a shade canopy, they prepared their dishes in an open-air kitchen surrounded by bleachers. They began prepping at 8 a.m., but had only two hours—timed by a panel of five judges—to cook their entrees.
Some finalists, like third-place winner Tresa Hargrove of Lawton, Okla., created unique dishes specifically for the competition. At a restaurant in her home state, Hargrove ate steak enchiladas with a chimichurri sauce that rocked her world. She initially wanted to make the recipe for the competition, but ended up doing something new.
“My daughter said these are actually better. She’s had it a lot these past couple of weeks,” Hargrove said with a laugh.
With temperatures nearing the 90s, the heat didn’t discourage any finalists.
“I’m from Texas. This is a nice breeze for me,” said Loanna Chiu, of Fort Worth, as she sautéed short ribs in a garlicky chocolate sauce.
“It’s like cooking at home but with a lot of friends,” added Sherri Williams, a finalist from Crestview, Fla.
Though they all were vying for the top spot, there was a sense of camaraderie between the competitors.
“We’re all friends,” Hargrove said, as she stood alongside Taffel and second-place winner Lauren Katz of Ashburn, Va., waiting for the judging panel’s ranking to come in. “If I don’t win, one of my friends will.”
1. Jodi Taffel, of Altadena, for shakshuka with deep fried garlic
2. Lauren Katz, of Ashburn, Va., for glazed garlic buttermilk fried chicken and savory waffled grits
3. Tresa Hargrove, of Lawton, Okla., for chipotle cilantro chimichurri steak on enchiladas with roasted salsa verde