All eyes turned to the judge—several hundred in the audience, three other judges, the announcer, a two-camera video crew, and two very nervous amateur chefs. The celebrity judge put down her fork politely, and said, calmly and seriously, to a hushed audience: “It had a
nice texture, and the garlic gave it just the right bite.”
This brought sudden sighs of relief from the anxious contestants.
Alexis Higgins, the judge, is a 13-year-old eighth-grader at St. Mary’s School in Gilroy. The bright-faced girl with neatly done braids, braces and a soft, confident voice held her own Friday at the Challenge Butter main stage at the 40th Annual Gilroy Garlic Festival.
After all, she has held her own on similar stages for several years, beginning in 2013, when she made it into the second round of chef Gordon Ramsey’s Master Chef Jr. show as an 8-year-old. Hometown Garlic Festival appearances would follow
This competition was a charity cook-off for first responders, which the AMR Ambulance EMT crew would go on to win for the second year in a row. The team won a $3,000 check for the Alzheimer’s Association. As the chefs from local fire agencies and the U.S. Army worked feverishly chopping, blending and sauteing their dishes, Alexis sauntered around the cutting boards and stovetops, examining ingredients and techniques with a professional’s eye — and nose.
The daughter of Jill and Scott Higgins of Gilroy said her culinary inspiration has been her grandmother, Carol Higgins. She said her favorite dishes to cook—and eat—are the Italian and Portuguese recipes of grandma.
After serving as judge, Alexis eased into a different role, as a backstage mentor to the contestants in the festival’s first-ever Great Garlic Chef Jr. competition. On Sunday she would be making her own center-stage presentation of one her favorite recipes, Chicken Piccata, with lots of garlic of course.
In the cook-off audience on the festival’s steamy first day sat David Newman, sporting a festival garlic chef’s hat. He had driven to Gilroy with his son-in-law, Gregg Cornell, and granddaughter, Alexandra, 14, all the way from Las Vegas, just to see his first-ever Gilroy Garlic Festival. “I did it for my granddaughter,” he said. “She’s a garlic nut!”
On the other side of the arena, 70-year-old Greg Baughn twirled at one end of an 18-inch white mustache, to the delight of festival fans. This was his second festival—he drove to Gilroy from near Riverside, Calif.
One of Alexis’ fans bounced around backstage, eager to begin the Great Garlic Chef Jr competition. Six-year-old Addyson Dell of Gilroy was the youngest competitor and possibly the most enthusiastic. Her favorite dish to cook? “Macaroni!” Her favorite dish to eat? “Macaroni!” With garlic of course.
Later in the afternoon, crowd-favorite Addyson won it all, with a $500 prize, much to the delight of her mom, Leslie Aponte-Dell. Addyson served up—you guessed it— garlic macaroni and cheese, with garlic chicken tenders and asparagus.