A pyro chef ignites a flame at the Garlic Festival, held yearly in Gilroy, Calif., one of the leading garlic-producing areas in the country. Two of the pyro chefs will be setting fires at the Hawaii Garlic Festival this weekend.


The pyro chefs from Gilroy,
Calif., specialize in garlic and
flames that reach for the sky

By Betty Shimabukuro

Jon Vickroy is a pyro chef. Not a pyromaniac, although you've got to wonder. For three days out of every year -- and these are very hot days at the end of July in Gilroy, Calif. -- Vickroy puts all his skin and hair at risk as he plays with fire. We're talking leaping flames, 6 to 10 feet high. "It's kinda scary, but actually we know what we're doing," Vickroy says.

The 25 pyro chefs serve up thousands of portions of shrimp scampi and sautéed calamari at the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. Two of them, Vickroy and partner Ken Frye, will be demonstrating their high-octane technique at this weekend's Hawaii Garlic Festival.

To be a pyro chef is to be able to take the heat and stay in the kitchen.

"The outside temperature is usually running in high 90s or 100 degrees," Vickroy says. "Add on a wall of flame and the heat's intense. Smokin' hot."

The pyro chefs are all volunteers and most have been at their craft for 15 years straight. They come from throughout California and all walks of life. Vickroy is a deputy probation officer; fellow chefs include farmers, golf pros, even a priest. They're in it for the camaraderie, for the attention, for the public good (the festival raises money for various charities).

"Being crazy is definitely a requirement," Vickroy adds.

He and Frye will be flaming up calamari at the Hawaii fest, using heavy, 22-inch skillets and a specially made stove with high-pressure gas valves, all shipped here last week.

Oil is made very hot in a thin layer in the skillets, then the sliced, tenderized pieces of calamari are added. As Vickroy explains the chemistry of the process, the moisture in the calamari hits the hot oil, causing the oil to steam, then a shake of the pan puts the steam in contact with air, which creates an explosion. "You get a nice flame," he says. "You get a big flame."

Through expert shaking of the pan, experienced chefs can make those flames leap up to 10 feet high.

And that's the show that draws so many people to their cooking station, Vickroy says. Once the flames die out, the cooking begins.

"We add a nice big scoop of garlic and then we give it a nice drink of wine."

Spices, pesto and a marinara sauce also go into the skillet, then it's all finished with herbs and lemon juice.

Each batch, which begins with 3 pounds of calamari and 8 to 12 ounces of garlic, takes just three minutes to cook. This year in Gilroy, 6,900 portions were sold. The chefs generally work 11-hour shifts for all three days of the festival, Vickroy says.

"That's the other crazy part about us."

For all the heat and fire involved, injuries are few -- mostly oil burns, Vickroy says, although Frye once took some oil in the eye.

"That was a little scary."

There's never been any property damage, either. Vickroy credits that to careful training and a respect for the medium. He remembers his own first flame as being "pretty inept," but he was trained by his brother, who's been with the festival since the beginning, 25 years ago.

"By later that day I was making the big flames. They call me a natural flamer."


Hawaii Garlic Festival

The kick-off event for the Great Aloha Run is a benefit for several charities:

When: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Place: Waikiki Shell
Admission: $5 (children and seniors free)
Call: 528-7388
Transportation: Waikiki Trolley will provide free rides to the Shell along a route beginning at the Renaissance Ilikai Hotel.


Food: Garlic-flavored dishes prepared by the pyro chefs, as well as by chefs at several local restaurants
Cooking demonstrations: Featuring Kevin Tate of Kevin's Rib Crib, Troy Teruya of Catch of the Day, Iva Kinimaka of Iva's Komplete Katering. Mark Ellman of Maui Taco and Ceferino Madule of the Pacific Club will compete in a cook-off.
Entertainment: More than 50 musical acts, plus extreme sports demonstrations and a Keiki Pavilion

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