CONCORD -- TV and radio food and wine commentator Narsai David, celebrity chef and Oliveto Restaurant owner Robert Klein, political luminaries and officials judged Concord Mayor Dan Helix and Chef Habib Jacifi of Bravo Bistro and P-ZA Pie winners of the inaugural Mayors' Cook-off Showdown at Mt. Diablo High School.
The panel of judges was quick to mention that none of them were from Concord, because Concord has had a winning record in the Contra Costa County Mayors' Healthy Cooking Challenge.
With lightning fast knife-wielding chefs at work, steaming pots and friendly, but rival politicians from Contra Costa and Alameda County together in a crowded kitchen, there was plenty of activity the evening of Oct. 24.
Helix called Jacifi a "spitfire" and master of multi-tasking. The Concord team was assisted by Mt. Diablo High School student sous chef Eddie Ruiz, and took the title with a menu of chicken coq au vin with vegetables, spicy Mediterranean-style lentil salad, mashed potatoes and a dessert mixture of fruit, cucumber and dressing.
Helix immediately donated the $1,000 prize to the 14-school healthy eating and cooking, and certified organic on-site gardens run by Gershen in cooperation with Mt. Diablo Unified School District Food Service.
Helix praised culinary student chefs-in-training, saying that the Mt. Diablo program "helped our kids fulfill their dreams."
David described event organizer, restaurateur and teacher Cindy Gershen as a "modern missionary" about educating young people on the virtues and pleasures of cooking with healthy, organic ingredients.
"Our goal is to see this be Bay Area wide, and replicate this in all the high schools," Gershen said as awards were presented.
Gershen is founder of Wellness City Challenge, an action oriented nonprofit dedicated to mobilizing community resources to improve health through nutrition, education and physical activity.
All of the winning teams from the previous Alameda and Contra Costa County mayors' cook-offs were happy to take the competition to the inter-county level at the school's large, refurbished upscale commercial kitchen.
Pittsburg Vice Mayor Sal Evola, cooking with Chef Miguel Guillen of La Veranda Ristorante Italiano, said the competition was easier than when chefs brought all of the equipment and dealt with outdoor elements at the county competition held at a farmers market .
"But there is the ability to engage the public and demonstrate that healthy foods taste good there," Evola noted.
"It is the public display of the dishes you can create from healthy foods," said Concord Vice Mayor Tim Grayson. "You start with nothing and in a short period of time you have wonderful dishes."
Antioch Mayor Wade Harper, with Chef Jose Aguilar of Lone Tree Golf and Event Center, appreciated the convection oven for their stuffed chicken breasts and the use of ingredients, such as eggplant, that they might overlooked in the past.
Dublin Mayor and high school teacher Tim Sbranti said he encourages young people about healthy cooking and eating. Sbranti likes to barbecue at home and was instrumental in getting the Mayors' Healthy Cooking Challenge started in Alameda County
"Alamo wanted to participate in the Contra Costa cook-off last year. Since they are not incorporated, they don't have a mayor," Sbranti explained. "I filled in with Forli's, an Alamo restaurant. We decided to bring it to Alameda County. When I introduced it at the Mayors Conference, they were very enthusiastic."
Sbranti said it was a pleasure to work with Chef Jose Guevara from Johnny Garlic's this year.
Livermore Mayor John Marchand joined the cause. "It's all about healthy eating. We have a fantastic farmers market in Livermore and we are in wine country."
Chef Matt Greco of Wente Vineyards directed the cooking for the Livermore team. Marchand took a taste and said, "Nothing goes together better than fine food and wine."
Hayward Mayor Pro Tem Mark Salinas teamed up with Chef Tony Solorio of Tacos Uruapan. Salinas noted that Hayward is participating in a Healthy Cities Campaign to create policies that encourage healthy behaviors.
"We are looking at healthy choices for kids when school is not in session. We provided breakfast and lunch during summer vacation," Salinas said.
The strictly-run competition requires mayor/chef teams to select from a collection of healthy ingredients delivered by the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association. Teams may also access beans, lentils, rice bran, vinegar, spices, mixed nuts, cheeses, chicken and other Safeway Inc. staples from which to choose.
Then competitors must prepare and plate a meal within 90 minutes with no outside ingredients or equipment. Teams do not know in advance what will be available when they get to the event site.
The panel of judges also included Damian Alarcon, field representative for Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez; Cliff Glickman, chief of staff for Supervisor Karen Mitchoff; Gary Pokorny, executive director of the Contra Costa Mayors Conference; Wil Schaub, agricultural biologist from Contra Costa County; and Dr. Preston Maring of Kaiser Permanente.
The judges' decision was based on presentation, taste, creativity, healthiness and nutritional balance.
Event sponsors also included Garaventa Enterprises, Hilton Hotel (which donated a two-night stay for the winning chef), Republic Services and Livermore Disposal.
Reach Dana Guzzetti at email@example.com or call 925-202-9292.