Cal Dining chefs go for the glory in Gilroy’s first Garlic Bowl competition

Take two Cal Dining executive chefs. Add three to four heads of garlic. Toss in a few sharp knives and a big dash of blue-and-gold spirit. Mix well, and, if all goes well, celebrate a big win for Berkeley in the first annual Gilroy Garlic Bowl.

The intercollegiate competition, pitting UC Berkeley against San Jose State and Fresno State, is a new event for Gilroy Garlic Festival, in its 35th year. The Garlic Bowl, set for Friday at 2 p.m., will be the opening salvo in a weekend of massive garlic consumption and entertainment in the name of promoting California’s garlic industry.

Cal Dining’s Ida Shen, director of culinary and catering operations, and Mary Ferrer, executive chef for Café 3, have been prepping for weeks in their spare time, refining their recipes and trying out the results on their families.

Ida Shen, Mary Ferrer

Cal Dining executive chefs Ida Shen and Mary Ferrer taste the garlic calamari at a pre-festival event.

Just days before Friday’s big event, the team sat down with the NewsCenter and spilled the secrets that they hope will bring Cal Dining — and all of Berkeley — glory.

Under contest rules, they had to concoct two dishes, and each had to contain at least six cloves of garlic.

Their first inspiration: a toum. This Lebanese/Syrian emulsified sauce — which Shen described alternately as a mousse, a rouille and an eggless aioli — will be the crown atop a piece of halibut that’s plated on a mound of vegetable hash moistened with a nage.

The toum is an homage to the one served at Wally’s Café, a tiny Lebanese spot in Emeryville. Wally Mattar, its chef, wouldn’t give them his recipe, so the Cal Dining team invented its own.

It starts with an entire cup of chopped garlic — “we won’t use it all,” claims Shen — that’s whizzed around in a food processor with 4-5 cups of canola oil, lemon juice and salt until it thickens. It makes a lot, but Shen and Ferrer point out that it’s good on just about everything (and may just show up on a campus café menu sometime).

Their second secret: a garlicky dessert.  “We’re taking a chance, I guess,” says Shen, who, as a former pastry chef, knows just how unusual the pungent allium is as part of a sweet treat.

They described their “St. Joseph’s pastry” as, basically, garlic-infused cream puffs. The puffs start as a pate a choux with a garlic-water base. Then, after they’re baked, the puffs are filled with a creamy blend of ricotta, orange zest, sugar, whipping cream and finely grated garlic. Sliced garlic also will show up in an almond brittle that’s chopped and sprinkled over the puffs, and served on the side.

“You can definitely taste the garlic in the brittle,” say the chefs.

Practice pastries have won favor with Shen’s kids, she says. And she took some to a party where one person, commenting “this is very different,” scarfed down three.

At Ferrer’s house, it’s all halibut. “They’re going to be eating fish for weeks,” she says.

On Friday, they’ll have an hour to prepare both dishes in front of an audience, before the judges start tasting. If they win, Shen and Ferrer say they would make their recipes public.

Both of them have past competitions under their toques. Last year, Ferrer won the National Association of College and University Food Services regional competition with her Duo of Flounder, and went on to the nationals in Boston. Both chefs entered local contests when they were students at the California Culinary Academy — but say the press of work doesn’t leave them much time to compete nowadays.

Berkeley was invited to take part in the Garlic Bowl. “We like to have events that show off our chefs and their talents,” says Patrice Thomas, customer and public relations manager for Cal Dining. Thomas designed a blue chef’s jacket with “Cal Dining” in gold letters for Shen and Ferrer to wear.

She and a crew from the Cal Dining main office plan to take Friday off and head down to Gilroy to cheer their team on.

Discount tickets for the festival are available to the entire UC Berkeley community on the Garlic Festival ticket website (promo code “Bears”).