CONCORD -- The aroma of gourmet cooking, farmers market and live music by Hotel California made the fifth annual Mayors' Healthy Cooking Challenge more like a food festival than a friendly, but intense intercity competition.
Concord Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister appeared happy to announce that Concord's Mayor Dan Helix and Bravo Bistro took home the coveted first-place trophy at the July 18 event at Todos Santos Plaza.
Runner-up in the event was Antioch Mayor Wade Harper, working with Chef Jonathan Hork of the Lone Tree Golf and Event Center. And taking third was Pittsburg Vice Mayor Sal Evola with Chef Miguel Guillen of La Veranda Ristorante Italiano.
The winner and runners-up will have a showdown in October against the top finishers in the inaugural Alameda County cooking challenge to be held this week.
Helix thanked Bravo Bistro chef/owner Habib el Jacifi and his brother Youssef el Jacifi. The el Jacifi brothers also own Fiore in Concord, and plan to open P-za Pie in Dana Plaza in August.
"Bravo Bistro is my favorite," Helix said enthusiastically. "I always take people there."
Each mayor recruited a local restaurateur and the team spontaneously created a delicious, healthy meal from a basket full of fresh ingredients provided by the event sponsor, Wellness City Challenge.
Raising awareness about the link between farm-fresh natural food and good health is a primary reason for the popular event, according to Cindy Gershen, Wellness City Challenge founder and president.
"Everybody in America is struggling with food and health," she said. "We hope if we can change the food, we can change the future. You change how you feel, and how you interact with other people and within our community."
Excitement was in the air as each chef chose ingredients from a basket filled with cracked wheat, quinoa, onions, squash, peppers, tomatoes, garbanzo, and other beans, vegetables and fruit, with chicken as the meat.
Chefs and mayors surreptitiously eyed the competition's choices and strategized how to make their own dish stand out.
Pleasant Hill Mayor Michael Harris declared the event "delightful." "We are the defending champs. It is a lot of fun."
Walnut Creek Councilwoman Loella Haskew was there with Esin's Chef Carlos Campos, who whipped up a quinoa salad with tomatoes, bell peppers and onions to accent his grilled chicken.
Chefs were allowed to bring their own spices and cooking equipment, and have the assistance of the mayor or elected representative and a sous chef.
After his creation was on display for the judges, Chef Youssef El Jacifi discretely opened an ornately decorated tin box, nearly empty of saffron.
"It is my secret," he whispered.
Cooking for Pleasant Hill, caterer Lesley Stiles said, "I serve a vegetable-based cuisine, so it is not hard (to choose ingredients).
John Evans, executive chef at Oakhurst Country Club, likes to lay out all of the ingredients and see what first appeals to him.
"I saw all the nice fruit and thought of a fruit salad and marinated grilled chicken," Evans explained. "I like unpretentious, clean flavors."
Vividly colored flowers graced the Martinez table and Mayor Rob Schroder told everyone how happy he was to have the Main Street restaurant, Barrel Aged, doing the cooking.
Judges Gary Pokorny, Bob Klein (Oliveto Restaurant and Café owner in Oakland), Matt Hohenstreet and Rochelle Riggins (Concord Hilton Hotel) considered creativity and taste.
Anna Fisher, Miranda Gavino and Danielle Bianca focused on presentation and taste, and healthiness and taste were the categories judged by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, and Will Schaub.
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Bravo Bistro chef/owner Habib el Jacifi and Concord Mayor Dan Helix take the fifth annual Mayors' Healthy Cooking Challenge with chicken cordon bleu -- a chicken breast marinated with herbs and a touch of light cream saffron sauce; Moroccan style couscous with dried cranberries, dates, beans and herbs; grilled eggplant Sicilia with roasted bell peppers and Venetian style sauteed mushrooms; and a fruit salad with mint and cilantro chiffonade with a fresh orange squeezed marinade.