CONCORD -- Although Walnut Creek's "Mac and Cheese" minus the "Mac" was impressive, it was Antioch's charred chicken and stone fruit gazpacho that won the blue ribbon at the sixth annual Contra Costa County Mayors' Healthy Cookoff July 31.
On a day when temperatures and 3-grain tempeh boiled -- even without portable hotplates -- top chefs selected and assisted by city officials from Antioch, Clayton, Concord, Danville, Martinez, Moraga, Pleasant Hill, San Pablo and Walnut Creek competed in an "Iron Chef-style" event.
Graduates of Mt. Diablo High School's Sustainable Hospitality Pathway program served as sous chefs, joining the friendly rivalry at Todos Santos Plaza in Concord and furthering the outreach of Cindy Gershen's Wellness City Challenge.
Gershen, a well-known East Bay restaurateur, teacher and healthy-eating advocate, said each team had been given the same ingredients -- chicken, tofu or tempeh, yogurt, various grains, EVO olive oil and produce and herbs from the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association.
Going from cooking station to cooking station, Gershen provided colorful commentary ("It's tempeh, instead of pasta, in the Mac and Cheese!") and significance ("Educating children is changing the way the next generation will live") as the teams feverishly baked, grilled and charred to meet the 6 o'clock deadline.
"We're trying to finish. I cut up things," Concord Mayor Tim Grayson said, describing his role. "I was the official stirrer."
Sous chef Hector Medina said the experience was both grand and fleeting, "Learning to cook changed my life, but getting everything done at once was a blur."
Under the Moraga tent, the sous chef was awol, but the atmosphere was cool. Councilman Mike Metcalf downplayed his culinary disabilities and said, "If my wife knew I was cooking anything other than boiled water, she'd lose it." Unperturbed by his assistant's humor, Saint Mary's College Chef Gabriel Kinney of Sodexo Campus Services said his menu featured "flavors that speak to summertime."
Sous Chef Carissa Urbina gave up soda after learning in Gershen's class about the amount of sugar in her daily beverage. She and Walnut Creek Mayor Kristina Lawson assisted Sunol Ridge chef Frank Jordan -- with Urbina deftly stirring the cheese sauce and Lawson offering what she called "quality control."
Judges for the competition included Will Schaub, a biologist who years ago,certified Gershen's first garden for her Sunrise Cafe & Bakery, and Kish Rajan, director of the Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development for the State of California and a former Walnut Creek City Council member.
"I've seen tremendous traction in the farm-to-fork movement and awareness of the agricultural corridor with local produce throughout (the county)," Schaub said.
"We're here to improve the economy," Rajan said. "I've followed Cindy for years and it's wonderful to see community and healthy food coming together. The best economic sector for growth in this area centers on agriculture and food production."
Rajan said he had prepared for the judging by restricting his intake earlier in the day. Judges' five-point criteria included healthiness, taste, creativity, presentation and "overall." After an hour of tasting, the Antioch team of chef Jonathan Hork of Lone Tree Golf and Event Center, Councilman Tony Tiscareno and sous chef Esperanza Ramirez were the overall winners, with top scores for presentation and creativity.
"The polenta with poblano chili peppers: that's one I'll remember," Tiscareno said, perhaps explaining the victory.
Danville's team of Esins and Rebels chef Tim Perkins, Mayor Robert Storer and sous chef Diana Aguayo captured healthiness and taste titles for their "Chicken Under a Brick" and "Quinoa Cakes." Pleasant Hill came in third with a cornucopia of produce-laden dishes created by chef Oscar El Aguila of El Aquila Mexican Cuisine, assisted by Mayor Timothy Flaherty and sous chef Christian Torres.
Pamela Singh, Executive Director of Wellness City Challenge, said having city leaders "supporting the model of eating healthy meals made with locally produced or grown ingredients" was vitally important. The three top winners will head for a showdown with three finalists from Alameda County in October.