San Benito Olive Festival celebrates third year highlighting cuisine

Visitors learn about the many uses for olives in festive setting
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julie carriere cooking demo.JPG
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A celebration of music, family entertainment, and gourmet flavors awaited visitors to the San Benito Olive Festival, which was held Saturday, Oct. 17 at Bolado Park in Tres Pinos. This was the third year for the Olive Festival, which featured cooking demonstrations, live music, decoration lessons, family areas such as pumpkin painting, and dozens of vendors.

“The San Benito Olive Festival was created to showcase our amazing area artisans, growers, ranchers, and farmers,” said Kathina Szeto, festival founder and board president. She noted the festival’s net proceeds would go to nonprofit organizations.

“This festival, we have wreath-making and a botanical family fun area,” Szeto added. “We want to make it so it's family friendly as well as for foodies.”

“It's a beautiful day, out here with the kids and the family,” said Shannon Thrasher, of Hollister. “It's definitely great to come out and listen to some good music and have some iced drinks.”

Thrasher watched his three daughters decorate clay pots to be used for olive plants, and noted, “This is a great venue. They get a chance to come out here and color and have some fun.”

Bea Chang directed the wreath-making area of the festival, showing visitors how to interweave olive branches into a decoration. “We wanted to show how you can incorporate olive branches into other activities,” said Chang, who also noted the centerpiece demonstrations that were happening in another area. “When you have something to touch, you remember it a little bit more,” Chang said. She noted the wreaths would keep for at least a week, and had an example of a week-old olive wreath. She called the process of weaving branches “therapeutic” and told the story of one woman who was excited to give her wreath to a friend to remember a recent trip to Italy.

The entire day was kicked up by live music that could be heard throughout the venue. Hollister local Joe Fata opened the event by singing the National Anthem, and the music continued until Mr. O’s Jazz band wrapped up the evening. 

With olives as a focus, there was an expansive vendor area to explore the many offerings. 

“This is a great opportunity to be versatile with the olive oil,” said Szeto. “And then everything else goes with it, like the the spices, apricots, preserves, the wonderful wines, and the craft beers. It's a natural, versatile ingredient. As well as the multiple health benefits, it has the ability to create other products like soaps, lotions, saddle oil, and tea.”

Szeto summarized the versatility of olives by saying, “It's the perfect blending ingredient that we can blend with anything.”

Working as emcees for the cooking demonstration area were the Sakabozzo Twins, Gene Sakahara and Sam Bozzo, who cooked with the Olive Festival during its first two years before going on to announce other cooks this year.

Bozzo said, “We're happy for the Olive Festival because we've been a part of the Gilroy Garlic Festival for the last 36 years and to see another venue, especially using olive oil and wine that comes from San Benito County, is really a neat thing.”

Sakahara added, “It’s great to see a close community like Hollister start their own venue, because it's about the sustainable foods in the area.”

When asked about cooking, Bozzo said, “I'm giving them my secret, how to cure olives, today. It's very easy. Some olives need to be cured with lye, some with water. What I've found is curing the olives with sea salt is a simple thing.”

Regarding this year’s chefs in the cooking demonstration area, Bozzo said, “We know Dorothy McNett, because she performed at the Garlic Festival for a few years. She's terrific, and she's got a great background. Looking at the backgrounds of the other chefs, they're tremendous!”

“We cook because it's about family,” said Sakahara. “It's cooking together and enjoying each other's company.” He paraphrased another chef, who said people who love to eat rarely complain about food. “That's the whole essence of cooking, is bonding.”

Two of the chefs, San Benito High School cooking teacher Julie Carriere and McNett, have culinary instruction experience at local high schools.

“The kids are getting a great education in the culinary arts,” said Bozzo.

Sakahara added, “In the old days, it used to be home ec, and now, you can't find anybody who majors in that.” He added that it was good that the rise of popularity of foodies has made it possible for the youth to get training in culinary arts from professional chefs.

Carriere brought three of her students with her. “Being new to San Benito High School, I love being able to promote our culinary program and being able to show people that we're still here and still cooking in high school,” said Carriere, who is in her second year at SBHS after having previously taught at North Monterey County High School. “We have a lot of students that want to go into culinary as a career.”

When asked about the rise in popularity of cooking and foodies, Carriere said, “Even when I was in college as a home economics major, it was all about cooking in the home and making small amounts. Over the years, it's evolved because as we all know, there are very few people that can stay home and cook for their families. So we went the other route, where it's more of a career choice, where you can go and get a career, and it'll be acceptable.”

Regarding what it’s like to teach culinary arts, Carriere said, “For the students, it's about safety. Basic knife skills can take you a long way.” Regarding her demonstration of an olive oil and cheese biscuit, she said, “Today we demonstrated the biscuit method, which doesn't just make biscuits. You can make cakes and coffee cakes and a lot of other baked products using that method. But once you have that method nailed and dialed in, you're ready to move on to other things.”

Other demonstrators included Fox’s "MasterChef Junior" contestant Alexis Higgins, Portola Hotel and Spa Executive Chef Jason Giles, Bernardus Lodge Executive Chef Cal Stamenov, and Bru Appetit Chef Carlo Overhulser.

When asked about how the festival came to be, Szeto said, “The vision came from my store [San Benito Bene], where I showcase local products. While I was in my culinary area, I was staring at all the award-winning olive oils and the growers that are here. There are so many great foodies in San Benito County, and many generations of skilled growers and artisans. It just needs to be shared.”

Of the festival’s overall intent, Szeto said, “We want this to be a festival where chefs of all ages, of all interests, and of all caliber of skill would like to come. Because its about fresh ingredients, hand-made crafts, and connecting with the growers.”

Szeto noted the importance that being able to mingle played for festival-goers. She noted the value in the ability to ask questions, such as what qualifies as extra virgin olive oil, or what the differences are between local-grown items and something that can be bought in a store. “We have the experts, and they're here,” she said. 

Szeto said of the guests, “They're all super excited to be part of it. A lot of them are returning because they have enjoyed the products they purchased and visited. It's a very enthusiastic crowd we have here.”

When asked about the festival in general, Bozzo said, “It's a great festival. They put a lot of their energy into making it great and I'm glad to see that it's in its third year, and hope that it'll continue.”

Sean Roney

Sean is a writer and photographer from California’s Central Coast. He began reporting for BenitoLink in 2015. Sean received his BA in communication from CSU Monterey Bay and he has covered news stories in San Benito, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Clara counties. He enjoys traveling California to meet interesting people as well as visit breathtaking places, and is always happy to sit down and share stories. In his free time, Sean enjoys cycling, bikepacking, and novel writing.