A mom from Sechelt who says she “just loves to cook” recently returned from competing against pros in the most well-known garlic cook-off in North America at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
Stacey Clayton was interviewed by a dozen reporters while crafting her garlic dish in front of California food celebrity judges on a stage seen by nearly 50,000 people who came to the televised festival on July 27.
The annual garlic festival in Gilroy, which is about an hour and a half outside San Francisco, brought in more than 110,000 visitors between July 26 and 28.
“It was just amazing how big it was,” Clayton said, remembering the smell of garlic was so strong you could nearly taste it from of the outskirts of town.
She found out about the contest while searching online and thought one of her family’s favourite dishes fit the bill — a West Coast glazed wild salmon with Dungeness dilled crab cakes on top of wasabi garlic mashed potatoes finished with a lemon beurre blanc sauce.
She was inspired to create the mouth-watering meal after trying a similar dish with opaca fish in Hawaii.
“I thought I could do a West Coast version of it, so I tried it out and everyone in my family loved it,” Clayton said. “They always ask me to make it.”
After sending the recipe in for consideration, her dish was pitted against hundreds of others from around North America and ultimately picked as one of 30 to be cooked and tried by the selection committee.
Clayton’s recipe scored well in taste tests and she was named as one of eight final contestants to vie for a $5,000 prize and bragging rights on the festival stage.
She was the only Canadian in the contest and was up against semi-professional chefs who had been coming to the competition for years. Their experience would come in handy, she’d later learn.
Each chef was paired with an assistant and given two hours to create and plate their dish for the judges.
Clayton gave her assistant the important job of watching the clock.
When it was getting close to the end Clayton checked with her assistant to ensure she’d have 10 minutes left to plate her dishes. Her assistant assured her she had 17 minutes left when she actually had seven.
The result was a last minute scramble to get the food onto plates and before the judges so she wouldn’t be disqualified.
“I was literally throwing food onto plates. It didn’t look pretty,” Clayton said, adding the veteran competitors all had two clocks on hand to ensure timing couldn’t be confused.
Contestants were judged on flavour, texture, presentation and use of garlic and Clayton likely lost marks for presentation, although she was never told her final score. Only the top three competitors were announced, and Clayton wasn’t in the top three.
Competitors had to make enough of their dishes for audience members to taste test and many in the audience said Clayton was robbed, according to her mother-in-law Maureen Clayton, who travelled with her to the event along with her husband Gord.
Maureen said she’s proud of her daughter-in-law for holding it together under pressure and not getting upset with her assistant for the timing error that may have cost her the competition.
“It’s a competitive learning curve,” Clayton said, adding she plans to try to make it into the finals again next year. “And this time I’ll take home the win.”