California Giant Berry Farms' Second Annual Chef Invitational a Success
- by Melissa De Leon
MONTEREY, CA - With more than double the attendance from its debut last year, as well as more participants bringing tasty plates to compete with, the annual Chef Invitational by California Giant Berry looks to be our industry’s next burgeoning success.
“We had more chefs in the finalist line-up, more of our distributor partners and customer representatives in attendance, more local sponsors as well as many local chefs, restaurateurs, and Cal Giant staff that showed up to support the second annual Chef Invitational,” Tom Smith, Director of Foodservice for California Giant Berry Farms, shares with me. “While we had over 50 recipes submitted by seven distributor partners, ultimately our Chef finalists represented Markon, Renaissance Food Group, Sysco, and Fresh Concepts.”
The competition returned to the Tehama Golf Club in Monterey, CA, on June 25. Chef finalists were selected from multiple roles in partner companies, from Culinary Development to both Corporate and Restaurant Chefs, to participate in the three-day event ending with a chef cook-off.
The competition itself came down to:
- Chef Israel Ortiz - Harrah’s Resort/Fresh Concepts
- Chef Travis Peters - Shamrock Foodservice/Markon
- Chef Jonathon Merrick – Maines Paper & Food Service/Markon
- Chef Adrian Day-Murchison – Renaissance Food Group
- Chef Patty Long – Renaissance Food Group
- Chef Christian Kearns – Sysco
But there was so much that went down before the cooking even began!
“We had several exciting additions to this year’s Chef Invitational. We added an event called the ‘Foodie Forum,’ and Tony Baker, a seasoned professional chef, businessman, local and industry celebrity, emceed our event. Also new this year, Richard Alfaro of Alfaro Family Wines and Vineyard hosted the chefs at his winery for an afternoon tasting of different varieties of all the berries we grow – strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries,” Tom explains.
Prior to the tour, many of the chefs didn’t know there were multiple varieties, much less know that there were significant differences in flavor, acid, texture, sugar content, and appearance.
“Once the group tasted each of the varieties, Richard, Winemaker and Owner, presented his pairings of wine for each variety of berry based on the notes and flavor profiles from both the berry variety and the delicious wines from his vineyard. It was a huge hit with the chefs and something very much out of the box for them. It has inspired them to focus on the flavor profile of each berry and really focus on utilizing those flavors when pairing with food items when they return to their home kitchens,” Tom says.
He added that having the chefs in the fields with Cal Giant’s growers, tasting the berries fresh, and seeing firsthand the hard work that goes into growing and producing high-quality fresh berries was his favorite part of the experience.
“I also loved having the teens from Teen Kitchen Project serving as sous chefs for our chef finalists. This is an organization we support through our philanthropy program, so it was a great experience for the teens to see another side of California Giant and learn from professional chefs who genuinely appreciated their help,” he adds.
RFG's VP of Business Development, Kim St George, came out the team's two chef participants—the only two female chefs of the competition!
“I was thoroughly impressed with the second annual Cal Giant Invitational event! The chefs’ creations using Cal Giant berries were not only full of taste, flavor, texture, and originality, but the caliber of their masterpieces were second to none," Kim shared. "Renaissance Food Group was honored and extremely proud to have two of our corporate chefs represent our company in the finals. Chef Adrian Day-Murchison and Chef Patty Long’s talents were on display and they rose to the occasion with their innovative and complex recipes. Cal Giant should be commended for sponsoring a top-notch event that brought culinary experience to the Monterey Bay while showcasing their high quality berries!”
The panel of speakers was a lineup that encompassed all aspects of the foodservice industry, receiving incredible feedback from our chef finalists, sponsors, customers, and Cal Giant staff in attendance. Among the participants were:
- Chef Tony Baker from Montrio Bistro and owner of Baker’s Bacon
- Denis Boaro of Basil Seasonal Dining and Gusto Handcrafted Pasta and Pizza
- Chef Luis Reyes from Sysco West Coast FL and the first annual CGCI Top Chef
- Ashley Walterhouse of Fitmitten Kitchen
- People’s Choice (selected by the guests in attendance): Chef Jonathan Merrick from Maines Paper & Food Service, a Markon Cooperative member, was selected for his Korean Street Food Style Blackberry and Blueberry filled Mochi Donut.
- Top Chef (selected by a judges panel made up of chefs, influencers, and local restaurateurs): Chef Travis Peters of The Parish in Tucson, AZ, representing Shamrock Foods, a Markon Cooperative member, was selected as Top Chef for his Blueberry Sweet Tea Quail in Raspberry BBQ sauce, served over Blackberry and Blueberry Brussel Sprouts and garnished with Strawberry Infused Oil and Toasted Pecans.
While there must always be a winner, Tom assures me all of the dishes presented by finalist chefs were amazing and all were incredibly innovative in their use of berries. So, who's hungry for what next year has in store? I know I am!