The score stood tied, 1-1, as the lights opened on Kitchen Stadium in Turlock’s Larsa Banquet Hall Friday.
Both Turlock High School and Pitman High School had one win, but this third annual Iron Chef Turlock – a fundraiser sponsored by the Turlock Noon Rotary Club – would be the decider.
“This is the tiebreaker,” said Dale Payne, Turlock Rotary member and event organizer.
Both Turlock and Pitman fielded their culinary best, the top students from cooking programs intended to train the chefs of tomorrow. The school principals pitched in, rolling up their sleeves and getting to work – even though Pitman Principal Rod Hollars said he had no idea he could cook before arriving Friday.
“I am so impressed with myself I can’t stand it,” Hollars said as he stood munching the mushrooms of his labor.
The event has raised $25,000 to $30,000 in past years, Rotary members said, with this year’s 400 attendees expected to generate about the same amount through tickets, alcohol sales, and auction proceeds. Funds go to Rotary humanitarian programs, and to scholarships for each school.
But for most attendees, the event’s all about the cross-town cook-off. Those who make the best food, rated on appearance, taste, creativity, and adherence to a theme of farmers market home cooking, would take home the spoils – a $2,000 check for the school and the trophy, where runners-up would earn just $1,000.
From the Pitman side of the table came a three-course meal of butterflied garlic shrimp, roast chicken with mushrooms and polenta, and a strawberry crumble. Turlock fielded a cream of zucchini soup appetizer, a roasted lamb with demi-glace and sweet potatoes, and a free-form berry cheesecake.
“They by far exceeded our expectations,” Payne said. “They really put out some gourmet quality dishes.”
Drafting those menus took teams weeks of preparation. Pitman’s team test-cooked their menu at least four times, members said.
Iron Chef judges Turlock Mayor John Lazar, Stanislaus Supervisor Vito Chiesa, Bistro 234 Executive Chef LeRoy Walker, Turlock Chief of Police Rob Jackson, and chef/owner of Toscana's Stan Dimon faced a difficult task in picking a winner, with two evenly matched meals.
At one point, it looked like Pitman may have an advantage as Lazar liked his strawberry crumble desert so well he strode off the stage with desert in hand.
“John, where are you going with that?” Payne asked.
“I’m giving my table a taste of it,” he replied.
But then, just moments later, Lazar did the same with the free-form berry cheesecake – an equally delicious desert, he said.
“It’s very good,” Lazar said.
When the scores were tallied, the Turlock High Bulldogs edged out the Pitman Pride by only a few points. But it was enough for the team of Crystal Amaral, Gabbie Modica, Gerard Ricardo, and Julian Valladolid to take home the trophy to Turlock High for a second consecutive year.
“We’re just the best team around,” Amaral said.
The Pitman High team will look to build on the loss. Anthony Gauci and Deshon Thompson will both attend culinary school at Columbia College next year, as they look to make a career in the field. Emerald Chaves will graduate to pursue a future career as a counselor, while Jesus Sanchez, the Pitman team’s only junior, will try to come back and win next year.
“I’m just honored to have been chosen to compete,” Sanchez said.
Modica credited her Turlock team for the hard-work which led to victory, while the experience of Modica and Ricardo – both three-year veterans of the Iron Chef competition – played a role in their success as well.
But for Valladolid, the reason for the Bulldogs’ success was simple.
“We were bad-ass,” Valladolid said. “You can print that.”