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Scot-Irish Mantecan cooks mean chile verde
Best buddies Bernie McGrath, right, and John Day, left, accept their prize as first-prize winners in the De Leon Family 2011 Chile Verde Cook-off. Others in the picture are Tim Valentine, owner of Manteca Winery where the annual family event took place, family member Charlene May, and McGraths daughter Desiree. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

Bernie McGrath will tell you he is no Iron Chef. Even with a chile verde dish that has won him plaudits plus first place “aprons” for two years in a row.

He will simply say, “I was a bachelor for a long time, so I cooked all the time.” But that was not because he had to. No one could kick him out of his kitchen even if they tried.

“I’ve always liked cooking,” said the soft-spoken and down-to-earth former tile setter with a beard and mustache that could have him pass as Santa if he wears the red hat instead of his narrow-brimmed sombrero.

He is also not picky when it comes to the type of cuisine he’ll try his hands on. As he laughingly puts it, “You can’t always have steak and potatoes.”

The former Santa Cruz resident mastered his south-of-the-border cuisine while married for nearly 30 years to a business woman was “part Mexican, part Native American.” His Colorado-born wife, Tyra, passed away two years ago. She was the owner of Tyra’s Skin Care and Body Spa located on the northwest corner of Center Street and Maple Avenue in downtown Manteca, across from the post office.

Actually, said McGrath, it was Tyra’s mother, Grandma Marie who was better known as “Grandma Honey who was the good cook.” His late wife was just as good a cook though, he clarified. But she was also his toughest critic when it came to his culinary creations, especially his Mexican dishes and, in particular, his chile verde.

He laughed as he recalled what she used to say after tasting his chile verde dish: “She’d say, ‘That’s gringo verde.’ It wasn’t hot enough for her.”

Fortunately for McGrath, he has a daughter who has the perfect taste when it comes to a winning chile verde dish. He said his daughter Desire, a graduate of Manteca High, is his “official taster.”

She was his food taster when he won first place in the 2010 De Leon Family Chile Verde Cook-off, and again at the recently completed cook-off challenge featuring the same dish earlier this month. “Thumbs up from her means it’s good; it’s just right. But when she says A-OK (with her fingers), it’s time to turn in the dish,” McGrath said laughing.

At the last cook-off, McGrath said his friend John Day and cooking team-mate advised him not to make his chile verde too spicy.

“There’s a lot of older women here; you’ll fry them,” McGrath recalled John Day reminding him.

Personallly, said McGrath, “I like it hot, but they (the De Leon family members) like it scalding!”

McGrath and his good friend John made up the winning Green Machine Team, the name emblazoned in their cook-off T-shirt. Day was the prep cook or sous chef of sorts. “I’m the cook, he’s the chopper. We both do the shopping, and we both cut the meat,” explained McGrath. But Day chops all the rest of the ingredients. The two like to keep their recipe secret, but McGrath volunteered to name, at least, the basic ingredients that they use without mentioning any specific measurements or amounts. They use pork, of course, tomatillo, garlic, mixed peppers, and spices to taste.

Although many of the cook-off contestants, all members of the seven-generation De Leon family, worked alone, McGrath and Day teamed up so as not to go beyond the limited time set for cooking which is about three hours.

And, although the cooks are only required to make enough chile verde for the judges, the Green Machine Team made 4-1/2 gallons which was enough to feed many of the guests at the event held at the historic Manteca Winery on Oak Street.

McGrath and Day were invited to the cook-off, a De Leon family tradition, because they were good friends of some members of the family. The cook-off is limited to just family members.

Since the event is mainly for camaraderie, McGrath and Day donated back half of the money that they won in the contest to the family cook-off to help with next’s year’s event.