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Garlic Festival shooting takes place a day after local gourmet takes top prize

COURTESY PHOTO: MONICA CARPENTER - Gary Exner won the Gilroy Garlic Festival Great Garlic Cook-Off for his strawberry tart with garlic shiso cream and yuzu glaze.

Growing up, Wilsonville resident Gary Exner and his family picked berries during fishing trips in the Seattle area so that his mother could bake them into delectable fruit pies.

So while celebrity chef Tom Colicchio raved about the crust on Exner's strawberry tart dish during the Gilroy Garlic Festival Garlic Cook Off in California last week, Exner thought of his mother, who died of cancer about a decade ago.

"It meant a lot. She was known as a piemaker. I didn't think of that going in but when he said that, it hit home," he said.

Exner won the contest and the accompanying $3,000 prize for his strawberry tart with garlic shiso (an Asian mint plant) cream and yuzu (a citrus fruit) glaze at the annual festival in Gilroy, Calif. Saturday, July 27. The next day, a gunman cut through a security fence and shot and killed three people at the event.

Exner was likely on the plane when the shooting took place and did not hear about it until he landed.

"My wife's sister had actually called going 'Are you okay?' We were on the airplane and hadn't heard a thing," Exner said. "That put a little damper on it. It was a big accomplishment but at the same time there's a degree of, it takes a little bit of the joy out of it having this happen at the event."

Exner, who has lived in Wilsonville for about 10 years and is the president of the Oregon Electrical Vehicle Association nonprofit, has enjoyed cooking since his youth and now enters recipes in various contests across the Northwest such as the Flock & Fiber Festival lamb cooking contest.

Ironically, his wife is gluten free (she hasn't tried the crust on the strawberry tart) and they prefer a simple yogurt for dessert and lighter dishes like fish curry for dinner. However, Exner concocts richer recipes for contests.

Exner said he has submitted recipes for placement in the Gilroy Garlic Festival, which attracted 80,000 attendees in 2018, five times before this year to no avail. In a previous entry, he submitted almost the same recipe as the one that was victorious but as a panna cotta, a cold custard, instead of a tart.

"The sweet, savory combination works well for people and it's something that's a little unusual," he said. "I like to experiment with different spices and flavors from around the world."

The recipe was rejected though because the judges who tested it said they could not set the panna cotta.

"When I did it, it worked. When they did it, it didn't and I don't know why," Exner said.

With that experience in mind, Exner decided to switch to a dessert that would be easier to execute.

"I wanted to use the same flavors in a little bit different profile. I thought about going ice cream but then I thought a tart would work and I sampled it and it worked really well. It's easier to get a pastry cream to set up than it is a panna cotta," he said.

As he tested it out with neighbors, they encouraged him to add more garlic and he ended up doubling his allotment (20 cloves) for the final recipe. This time, when the judges tested the recipe, the tart thickened and Exner was selected to take part in the festival.

To prepare for the festival and the unfamiliar environment of cooking in a park surrounded by many distractions, Exner practiced the recipe in his neighbor's kitchen.

"They have a 1-year-old and dogs (were) licking my kneecaps," Exner said. "That was probably one of the keys to my success — going somewhere unfamiliar and doing one more run through."

Exner brought his pots, pans and other utensils on the airplane and then kept his dough frozen in a cooler, as specified in his recipe. However, he bought his ingredients at local shops near Gilroy while the festival provided a stove, oven, sink, outlet and, of course, garlic.

The festival is located in Christmas Hill Park and Exner was instructed to create eight replicas of the recipe with the help of a sous chef. Exner was a little disappointed that when he took the tarts out of the oven after 10 minutes, the crusts were cooked more than he preferred.

Exner was the last contestant to present his recipe and the judges indicated that up until that point, they had a clear winner. However, they changed their minds after tasting Exner's unique dessert and awarded him first place.

Instead of ruining his chances, the crust may have sealed his victory.

"When I judge food I always go to technique first and I gotta say for an amatuer Gary's crust was the best crust I've ever had," Colicchio said at the competition.

Exner threw up his arms in delight when Colicchio announced him as the winner.

"It was a happy moment," Exner said.

Typically, the festival highlights the winners on its website and in press releases, but did not do so this year in light of the shooting.

"Their focus is obviously somewhere else at this point," Exner said.

Exner said that considering how many attendees were at the festival, he took solace in the fact that the shooting did not claim more victims. And he thought that the festival took the necessary precautions to try to prevent such an incident.

"I believe they did a really good job down there," he said. "I don't know how you prevent that kind of thing."

Exner plans to enter more contests and is considering applying for Sutter Home's Build A Better Burger contest, which has a $25,000 prize, in California. For now, though, he will continue to cook meals for his wife at his home in Park at Merryfield.

"It's (cooking) fun, creative and it's something I'm good at and enjoy doing," he said.

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