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Center Street chef reigns supreme at culinary contest
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Chefs Mario Lara (Memo’s Cocina & Tequila Bar), Abraham Leon (Loza Wine & Crepes), Ira Berry (Center Street Grill) and Robert Provencio (Deadwood Social/Ten Pin Fun Center) pose for a photo after Berry was named best cook in town at the inaugural Turlock Top Chef Competition benefitting the Turlock Gospel Mission (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

The first-ever Turlock Top Chef was named Saturday night after a cutthroat competition that saw plenty of chopping, baking and sautéing — all for the benefit of the Turlock Gospel Mission.

Four of Turlock’s top culinary masters put their skills to the test during the inaugural event at the Assyrian American Civic Club, which treated guests to dinner, music and a silent auction to raise funds for the Turlock nonprofit that provides services to the city’s homeless.

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Chef Ira Berry of Center Street Grill won the competition with a delicious ribeye entree (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Chef Abraham Leon from Loza Wine & Crepes, Chef Mario Lara from Memo’s Cocina & Tequila Bar, Chef Ira Berry from Center Street Grill and Chef Robert Provencio from the Deadwood Social inside Ten Pin Fun Center went head-to-head during the competition, with each completing an entrée and dessert for a four-judge panel.

“We’ve been really working on trying to find a signature event that the mission can do as a fundraiser. It’s something that’s fun for the community and something that we can bring a group of people together for and just have a great time,” TGM executive director Christian Curby said. “Many of the services that we provide connect to food in some way…This is an easy connection to the work the mission does.”

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Chef Mario Lara slices and dices vegetables during the Top Chef Competition (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

The four competing chefs were given an hour and 45 minutes to cook and were required to use both mushrooms and cauliflower in their entrée as well as cinnamon in their dessert. Combined with $10 votes sold throughout the week by each chef at their respective restaurants, the contestants were also scored on the execution, presentation, originality and taste of their dishes.

The panel included Robert West, a culinary specialist at Sysco Food Services, Turlock City Councilmember Nicole Larson, Olivia Soto of Turlock Restaurant Week and Curby. A special guest judge seat was also auctioned off to David Rose, a local CPA who was delighted to taste the food as well.

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Chef Robert Provencio chops up cauliflower for his Top Chef dish (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Ultimately, it was Berry who was crowned Turlock Top Chef thanks a ribeye entrée and poached apple dessert. Berry complimented his steak with a cauliflower mash, bacon-wrapped asparagus and a sautéed mushroom topping and his poached apple dessert topped with mascarpone cheese and cinnamon was a favorite of the judges.

“It speaks to your skill,” Larson said of Berry’s ribeye. “It’s a fantastic dish.”

Soto praised Berry’s dessert — an effort he originally intended to be a pastry, but scaled back to a simpler dish once he saw the small size of the ovens.

“The apples had a nice crunch to it,” Soto said.

“It’s kind of a little bit of a shock to be honest with you…there’s great chefs here, great cooks and a lot of hard work,” Berry said of taking home the trophy. “Winning is secondary to me…it’s for a great cause and people had a great time. But obviously, winning doesn’t suck.”

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Chef Abraham Leon prepares a cream sauce for his salmon entree (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Berry was up against some stiff competition from his fellow chefs, including a pork scallopini from Provencio, a creamy salmon and veggie dish courtesy of Lara and pan-seared salmon over zoodles from Leon. Provencio also included a made-from-scratch shortbread biscuit for dessert that was topped with cinnamon, pecans and fresh raspberries, while Lara made a cake-style crepe stuffed with vanilla pudding, walnuts and apples topped with caramelized apple and bacon.

Leon showed off his baking skills by making a brown butter pumpkin cake with a creamy, crunchy caramel and a cinnamon-whipped topping.

“They all did a good job. It’s a tough thing and it’s stressful. The last time I was this stressed was when I was in ‘Hamlet’ in high school and had to go on stage in front of everybody and remember all my lines,” Berry said. “We’re not used to cooking with this kind of equipment and in this kind of environment.”

Attendees of the event had the chance to walk from cooking station to cooking station, watching the cooks as they worked. The proceeds from the night will aid the work of TGM, including the shelter, the day center and the Women’s Restoration Program.

For next year’s participating chefs, Berry had wise words of advice.

“I think the biggest thing is just enjoy it…and keep it simple,” he said.