gmhTODAY 03 gmhToday July Aug 2015 - Page 36

Bob Filice Life in his father’s shadow… the garlic festival, farming, retirement B ob Filice still has the frying pan that his dad, Gilroy Garlic Festival “Godfather” Val Filice, used to cook all of the scampi and calamari at the first Garlic Festival 37 years ago. “I can remember 10,000 people showed up. It was amazing,” Bob, 63, said with a chuckle. “It was the start of the beginning. We ran out of calamari on Saturday. We had to buy more to open up on Sunday.” That was in 1979. A little over a year earlier, Bob’s dad, Rudy Melone and Don Christopher had gotten together and discussed having a Gilroy food festival in celebration of garlic. “My dad said it would never work,” Bob said. But it more than worked. With only 5,000 tickets printed, festival volunteers quickly recycled tickets and cooked overtime, serving up scampi, calamari, pepper steak sandwiches, pesto pasta, and strawberry waffles to the masses. For many years, Val Filice was the Head Chef of the Garlic Festival, contributing family recipes and his passion for cooking with garlic. “Gourmet Alley made the Garlic Festival. It trademarked the festival,” Bob said. The people I talk to go there to eat the food in Gourmet Alley. There’s a lot of great vendors there, but the main attraction is Gourmet Alley.” Born and raised in Gilroy, Bob cooked alongside his dad, and was in charge of the famed Gourmet Alley “pyro chefs” who cook up all of the garlicky dishes. He went on to step into his Dad’s role as Festival Head Chef. Val Filice died in 2007 at the age of 80. Bob’s sons, who are fourth generation Gilroyans, also grew up with the festival. His youngest son Robby still cooks in Gourmet Alley every year. Over the years, Filice recalls helping out at the Cook-Off Stage, Gourmet Alley Demonstration Stage and the Volunteer Tent. “I’ve always been involved with cooking in some aspect of the festival,” he said. “I love cooking. I really do. Cooking was always primary in my family. It goes all the way back to my grandparents. I call them chefs.” His grandparents were farmers and loved to cook. Bob remembers that during the first five years of the Garlic Festival, his grandfather sliced every single French bread loaf in half with his band saw. In 1976, Bob abandoned his college math studies and plans to be a teacher in favor of farming. Like Val, who had studied at San Jose Sate but decided to farm the family land after his father died, Bob carried on the tradition. “I didn’t graduate from college because I had dirt under my finger (nails). God has been good to me and has put me on the correct path. Farming has been very good to me.” I have pretty much grown everything you can think of over the years,” Bob said. That includes tomatoes, bell peppers and garlic. Today, he is “semi-retired” and just farms his cherry orchards located on Frazier Lake Road and Luchessa Lane in Gilroy. “I’m proud and thankful. I’ve had a lot of opportunities in life and it’s been great,” Bob said. Today, he still lives in the same house his dad designed and built in 1964 — the one he grew up in. Bob continues to cook at an Italian festival in San Jose and Reno. At one time, he had his own catering company and served as the head chef at the annual St. Mary School’s Spaghetti Dinner during the years his boys attended school there. Bob is also a member of the Gilroy Sportsman Chefs and enjoys golf and outdoor sports. He also has a love of the ocean, likening it to therapy. “The expression people say, ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ I get to the ocean and I smell everything. I smell the sea breeze, I smell the food. I become a different person on the coast.” And this year, for the first time, Bob finds himself in an unusual position the last weekend in July - he’s not in charge of any- thing at the Garlic Festival. “I have no duties that weekend. I’m free to roam,” said Bob, laughing. He is glad to see a new genera- tion of Garlic Festival chefs and volunteers stepping in. “The old fogeys of the Garlic Festival, we’re in the dust now. It’s done so well there’s no reason it can’t continue. You just have to keep the wheels oiled.” But Bob said there is still the same core group of pyro chefs who have been a fixture at the Festival for the past 15 years. “It takes a special kind of person to stand in front of that flame for six to eight hours. Especially on the days that are hot,” he said. And another ingredient remains that Bob said his dad taught him – take care of your volunteers. “Without the volunteers you will have no Festival,” he said. “That’s one very special thing about Gilroy is that people step up. They always have and I hope they always will.” Bob marvels at how much the Festival – and Gilroy – have grown and how quickly time has flown by. He said that out of all of his memories of the Garlic Festival, the first one will always be the most memorable — when it was just he and his dad did the cooking. “Every year was great because of Dad. He was the Godfather of the Festival. I felt really special. It was very unique.” 36 GILROY • MORGAN HILL • SAN MARTIN JULY / AUGUST 2015