Updated 2009-08-27 18:28:42 ID=475:1

© 2009 The Romantic Table
©2009 The Romantic Table, 2009 Paso Robles Olive Festival Cook-off Judges 2009-08-26 21:15:14:187
©2009 The Romantic Table

2009 Paso Robles Olive Festival Cook-off Judges seated, (L-R) Matthew Riley, Bob Roos, Susan McGourty, Frank Mecham. Festival Co-Chair Sam Conaty standing.

Judging the Olive Festival Chef Cook-off


What looked like an easy, fun job of deciding which Chef was the best, turned out to be harder and more thought provoking than this judge had previously thought!

This year I was asked to be a judge in the Celebrity Chef Cook-Off at the Paso Robles Olive Festival. I was looking forward to it and didn't lose much sleep over it.

The cook-off is an " Iron Chef" styled format cooking contest. The rules were that each chef had to prepare three courses, and use olive or olive oil in at least two of the three courses. For fun, there were also "Secret Ingredients" which had to be use used somewhere in the preparation also. The three secret ingredients were frog legs, Gummy Bears and Chinese fortune cookies. The chefs had an hour and a half to finish.

©2009 The Romantic Table ,Chef Giancarlo Cucumo of Giancarlos Ristorante , Morro Bay, CA 2009-08-26 20:13:22:188
©2009 The Romantic Table

Chef Giancarlo Cucumo of Giancarlos Ristorante , Morro Bay, Ca
This year's contest was between two highly respected chefs from Morro Bay. Giancarlo Cucumo (assisted by Sous Chef Nick Menezes) from Giancarlos Ristorante Mediterraneo and Neil Smith (assisted by Sous Chef Darrell Janes) from Windows on the Water. The chefs were well matched with each other. That's what made my job hard!

Chef Giancarlo, born and raised in Italy, was classically trained in one of Italy's premier cooking schools. His style is classic Italian. Here in the U.S. Chef Giancarlo started several successful Italian Restaurants. His latest is Giancarlos Ristorante in Morro Bay.

Chef Neil came up the cooking ranks the hard way. He started out learning the restaurant trade at age fourteen. He worked in several restaurants of various cooking styles in Colorado before being lured to California. Here he apprenticed under several big name chefs, and workied through the ranks to become Executive Chef at Windows on the Water. His style is fusion.

©2009 The Romantic Table, Chef Neil Smith of Windows On the Water, Morro Bay, CA 2009-08-26 20:10:59:189
©2009 The Romantic Table

Chef Neil Smith of Windows On the Water, Morro Bay, CA
While the chefs were busy cooking up a storm, Phil Riccomini, the master of ceremonies and head of the Paso Robles Culinary Academy was entertaining and peppering the audience with cooking jokes and trivia, as well as giving the chefs "a hard time" though it was all in fun.

I watched each chef, accompanied by their sous chefs deliberating and working together like well-oiled machines. Though this was just a "fun event", it was very intense!

The really hard part came when the food was brought to the judges' table. Chef Giancarlo was first to present his dishes. Chef Giancarlo presented a salad of a poached pear and Spring Mix greens with caramelized raisins with a Gummy Bear glaze, Gummy Bear stuffed olives and crumbled fortune cookies. Chef Neil up next, served a salad of mixed greens, white peach, mandarin orange and tomato with a light lemon vinaigrette, a dollop of olive jam and crumbled fortune cookies.

©2009 The Romantic Table, Chef Giancarlo's main entree, oven roasted frog's legs with a delightful crepe with sundried tomatoes and olives 2009-08-26 20:51:25:190
©2009 The Romantic Table

Chef Giancarlo's main entree, oven roasted frog's legs with a delightful crepe with sundried tomatoes and olives
Chef Giancarlo Chef misinterpreting the directions, next presented TWO courses: a primi pasta course --a very mild Puttanesca, followed by the secondi main entree, oven roasted frog's legs with a delightful crepe with sundried tomatoes and olives. We judged what we personally thought was the best of the the two courses. For me that was easy --I loved that crepe!

Chef Neil then presented his main course, a more complex medley of a sauteed frog leg with a compote of fruit, minced Gummy Bears, sun-dried tomatoes and lightly steamed asparagus on a savarin of raisin infused rice.

For his finale, Chef Giancarlo elected to do a dessert of a warm zabionne over Gummy Bears served in a wine glass. The zabionne was made over direct heat. This is the culinary equivalent of a high wire act over no net! Kudos to the Chef, the zabionne was light and fluffy and perfectly cooked.

©2009 The Romantic Table, Chef Neil's main course, a  medley of a sauteed frog leg with a compote of fruit, minced Gummy Bears, sun-dried tomatoes and lightly steamed asparagus on a savarin of raisin infused rice 2009-08-26 21:30:21:191
©2009 The Romantic Table

Chef Neil's main course, a medley of a sauteed frog leg with a compote of fruit, minced Gummy Bears, sun-dried tomatoes and lightly steamed asparagus on a savarin of raisin infused rice
Chef Neil finished with a milieu of white peach, Creme Anglaise, blackberries, strawberry, and whipped cream sprinkled with fortune cookie dust. A light and very flavorful combination. Doing a Creme Angalise aka English Cream in that makeshift environment was no easy feat either! Kudos to the Chef for that!

Now the deliberation. The problem was we were short on time and we had to give scores on several criteria such as on presentation, texture, flavor, creativity and use of olives just to name a few. This is when I realized how hard this job was!

It was really a challenge to judge between the two services. Both chefs are accomplished and acknowledged as two of the best in the county! Chef Giancarlo prepared his dishes the classical way, Chef Neil used more an infusion of world styles to make his dishes. Different styles yes, but two very evenly matched competitors.

But, we were under pressure to get the "show wrapped up" so the next event could take place. I reluctantly turned in my score card without knowing really how many points I had scored each chef. In my mind it could have gone either way. I left it to the "tally-masters" to figure out the winner.

In the end, one measly point separated the chefs scores in the total of the scores of the four judges! That is as close as it can get. On THIS day and THIS menu Chef Giancarlo won --but on another day, another time it could just as easily go the other way! Both Chefs are outstanding.

The real winners were the audience who got a chance to see two masters at their craft. Now you need to experience what I got to taste for yourself! Check out Chef Giancarlo at Giancarlos Ristorante Mediterraneo in Morro Bay (805-772-9200), and Chef Neil at Windows on the Water, Morro Bay (805-772-0677).

I know I am going back for more!




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A tip from Sue!

Cooking with onions and garlic

When your recipe calls for both sauted onions and garlic, saute the onions first - they take longer to soften. Then when the onions are almost softened, add the garlic.The garlic doesn't need very long to become fragrant - and you don't want to burn your garlic and turn it bitter!