California Giant Berry Farms Fifth Chef Invitational Wraps; Tom Smith, Rosalyn Darling, Kyla Oberman, and More Comment
MONTEREY, CA - Connection. Compassion. Intention. These words capture the feelings reverberating through California Giant Berry Farms’ fifth Chef Invitational, as foodservice chefs came together to highlight the integral nature of berries on the plate—and the collaborative nature necessary to get fresh produce at the center of the plate.
The chef who took home the Top Chef honor was none other than Steven Halliday of Gordon Food Service.
But before we break down the competition, let's dive into the meat of the event that came before. The day before the competition, the five chefs met at Second Harvest, a food bank in Watsonville, California, where Chef Rosalyn Darling taught Culinary Compassion™. Ideas ricocheted throughout the room, as the chefs spoke on everything from AI to consumer segmentation. After the initial class was taught, the chefs broke into teams to create concept dishes utilizing the ideas they’d just been taught. With two hours of cook time, each team created two dishes. The results were awe-inspiring for a foodie like me, who sat back and watched the flurry of activity as smells like roasted garlic, citrus, and grilled peppers filled the air.
It was an experience that Tom Smith, Director of Sales, was particularly proud of.
“Every year, we want to build on the experiences from the year before. Our foodservice chefs give so much, and we wanted to gift them something back,” Tom explained to me. “The biggest change this year was the addition of the Culinary Compassion session, which was followed by a kitchen session where the chefs implemented those ideas. Chef Rosalyn Darling is someone I’ve had the opportunity to work with in the past, and I’ve always been really impressed to see the way she speaks about food. She communicates her knowledge in a way that the chefs understand conceptually, and they know immediately that she’s got the authority to speak on what she’s speaking on. I think one of the greatest things about this group of chefs is seeing them work together and collaborate to create dishes utilizing our berries. It was the perfect example of seeing Culinary Compassion in practice.”
Chef Rosalyn’s session created a collaborative space in which ideas sprouted, and it was obvious to me that the chefs in attendance were deeply inspired.
“It was incredible working with so many talented chefs and infusing this idea of how we can be compassionate about the consumers that we serve,” remarked Chef Rosalyn. “What is the love language that we can deliver by understanding what is happening in the consumer’s world and then translating that into a dish that will feed them not just physically but emotionally and mentally, and that’s what Culinary Compassion is all about. We’re tapping into macro trends, understanding the consumer social mood, and then designing, using the human senses, to create comfort and celebration, and they rocked it. It was a great group of chefs, and I’m very honored to be a part of this team.”
The next day, chefs and attendees gathered for the finale. Excitement was palpable, as the rush of knives chopping and grills searing filled the room. For months, we waited for the chance to celebrate and honor the chefs who poured their hearts and souls into these dishes—and the wait was more than worth it.
The first to present to the judges’ table was David McGurn, Corporate Executive Chef, Performance Foodservice - Springfield, and the People’s Choice winner for the competition. He served Congee with Brûlée Berries and Quick Berry Pickles—a deceptively simple dish that the judges adored.
Katie Bulger presented next, and she had her faithful supporters cheering as she presented her dish, all of whom delightfully labeled themselves as Katie's Groupies on their name tags. The Division Chef for Performance Foodservice - Milwaukee presented Blackberry Brown Butter Sea Bass with Strawberry Chimichurri.
Jereme Nemeth went next, presenting to the judges his dish of Blackberry Fennel Scallops with Blueberry Risotto. The Culinary Consultant at Sysco Eastern Shores Region also had his share of supporters cheering him on.
Steven Halliday, Culinary Specialist for Gordon Food Service, showcased his dish, Red Thai Berry Chicken Curry with Blueberry Lemon Rice.
Upon his win, Steven had this to say.
"I'm numb," he said with a smile on his face, as many congratulations rained upon him. "This is a great feeling. I'm proud to represent our company, Markon, Gordon Food Service, as well as California Giant Berry Farms."
Last to present, but certainly not least, was Dontre’al Haigler, Product Development/Innovation Chef at Denny’s. His dish was Fruity Fried Octopus with Blueberry Sticky Rice.
With the event's success, I had to hear from Kyla Oberman on the importance of Chef Invitational in bringing berries to the forefront.
"We are looking for chefs throughout the industry to realize that fresh berries are a staple ingredient item to any and all recipes," the Director of Marketing told me as we milled the reception of the event. "California Giant hopes that chefs will increase consumption and utilization of berries, and that's why we have this challenge so that chefs will use recipes that use berries in a different application that we might not have thought of. These chefs had the opportunity to go to tours, learn about all of the detail and hard work that goes into the berry that they will then make into a high-quality dish. We want to create that enthusiasm that they then bring home with them to create bigger and better dishes utilizing berries."
Celebrating and honoring chefs that pour their souls into making produce integral to their dishes was beautiful to watch, and I know I’m not alone in believing this event is a true testimony to the intelligent innovation shining in our industry.