Flame is created by moisture in the calamari as it hits the hot olive oil
Published in the July 19 – August 1, 2017 issue of Gilroy Life
By Andrea “Andi” Joseph
When you see an exploding ball of flames, it’s typically a cause for alarm. But at Gilroy’s annual Garlic Festival, it simply means you’ve made your way to Gourmet Alley where the Pyro Chefs are cooking up scampi and calamari.
Festival-goers are often drawn to the flame-ups created by the chefs and crowds gather to watch them perform. But what does it take to create those incredible garlicky fireballs?
Head calamari and scampi chef Steve Janisch, who has lived in Gilroy for 40 years, said there’s an art and some hot science to producing a great flame-up.
“The flame is created by the moisture in the calamari as it hits the screaming hot olive oil in the pan,” he said. “Letting the oil get just hot enough, but not burning it and placing – not throwing – the calamari in the pan just right. Then it’s magic.”
A flame-up occurs when water from the calamari touches the oil. According to physics.stackexchange.com, oil boils at a higher temperature and is denser than water. When the water hits the oil, it sinks to the bottom, boiling quickly and vaporizing. The gas is less dense than the oil and expands, forcing it upward, creating a fine mist-fountain of oil and steam. The larger surface area coupled with the oxygenated oil causes it to ignite into a fireball.
And with 37 years experience cooking at the festival – 26 of those as head chef – Janisch has created many of those fireballs. He said safety is paramount while cooking among the flames.
“I am proud to say that through all these years we have had very few injuries; a few burns – or badges of courage, as I like to call them,” he said.
He added that while it takes some practice to make a good flame-up, he’s more interested in the final product.
“I will say that cooking the dish as Val Filice intended is the key,” Janisch said, referring to one of the festival’s founders. It was Bobby Filice, Val’s son, who asked Janisch to get involved in the festival years ago. “The flavor of the dish and the quality of the cooking is what I strive for. It only takes about three to four minutes tops once the squid goes in the pan to finishing it off.”
Someone who has extensive experience not only crafting flame-ups in Gourmet Alley, but who grew up watching some of the best, is Janisch’s daughter Ashley Schaffner.
Schaffner – currently the only female Pyro Chef – said it took some convincing for her dad to let her play with fire.
“When I was in high school, I started asking when I could get behind the flames,” she said. “Once I was in my early 20s, the Daddio finally caved in – with one condition. I had to be able to cook with a full size pan and be able to handle myself on the line.”
The 29-year-old did just that, and though she currently lives in Santa Monica, she is excited to cook at her seventh Garlic Festival and continue to show that women can produce incredible flame-ups.
“There are certain things that are hard for me to do – those scampi pans are un-liftable once full,” Schaffner said. “But it is invigorating because I can show that women can be just as cool behind the flames. It’s not for the faint of heart and it’s hot, smelly, and full of sarcasm. But it’s such a blast!”
And each year when she returns to Southern California, she said, “It doesn’t hurt to have some badass stories to tell friends and coworkers.”
Both Pyro Chefs agreed that aside from cooking delicious dishes for festival attendees, one of the most enjoyable parts is performing flame-ups for the crowds. The camaraderie among the chefs and the overall enthusiasm at the festival keep them coming back year after year.
“We get to be rock stars for three days,” Janisch said. “We get music there and the crowd gets into the show – they love it and we enjoy them. It’s a great community event that helps the charities involved do great work throughout the year.”
His daughter agreed.
“It’s not just exhilarating to play with fire, but it’s so much fun being a part of the Pyro family,” Schaffner said. “We are a bunch of crazies who put our arm hair and eyebrows on the line to make two of the tastiest dishes at festival, and we also get to provide a show for everyone on the other side of the fence.”
There have been changes to food preparations and the festival through the years, and Janisch said the evolution has been positive, including upgraded cooking equipment, new technology and adjustments to the Gourmet Alley set up.
“But the past can’t be overlooked,” he said. “I remember the early years we would defrost the five pound frozen blocks of squid at Brownell School and then the folks from the senior center would peel, butterfly and de-vein them.”
Even as the years pass and the festival adds modern touches and upgrades, the Pyro Chefs continue to do what they do best: create amazing flame-ups that cause the crowds to ooh and ahh.
“It’s truly addicting,” Schaffner said. “It probably stems from my love of the festival from growing up in it. And I get to spend quality time with my Pops. It is honestly my favorite weekend of the year because I get an experience that only a few people in this world get to have.”
Check out Janisch, Schaffner and all the Pyro Chefs as they bring the heat in Gourmet Alley during the 39th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 28, 29 and 30 at Christmas Hill Park in Gilroy.
The heart of the festival is a huge outdoor kitchen where Pyro Chefs put on a show while preparing calamari and scampi in huge iron skillets. Other Gourmet Alley dishes include deep fried garlic shrimp, pepper steak sandwiches, Italian sausage sandwiches, pasta con pesto, stuffed mushrooms, garlic bread, garlic fries and more. For information, visit gilroygarlicfestival.com.