Congratulations to Maines’ Corporate Chef, Chef Jonathon Merrick, CEC, on winning the People’s Choice Award at the second annual California Giant Berry Farms Chef Invitational. Held in Monterey, CA, the Chef Invitational features six corporate chef finalists competing to impress a panel of judges and 120 guests in attendance with berry-inspired recipes. Chef Jonathon’s Blackberry-Filled Mochi Donuts with Blueberry Glaze captured the crowd’s attention, dominated the People’s Choice votes, and were sold out by the end of the contest.
There are countless ways to showcase berries, but Chef Jonathon wanted to tell a story while keeping the berries in the spotlight and respecting their natural qualities. The inspiration for this award-winning dessert stemmed from one of Chef’s childhood memories of picking wild blackberries and using them to create homemade donuts. After researching and experimenting with donuts in the kitchen, he paired two top culinary trends – mochi (a Korean-inspired treat made with rice flour) and a street-style concept to give this timeless dessert a trendy twist. Serving an Asian-inspired offering using a street-style approach made the donuts more identifiable and inviting to diners, helping Chef reinvent his nostalgic donut-making experience while captivating the hungry audience.
Chef Jonathon described the atmosphere of the competition as, “Just like the TV show, ‘Top Chef.’” He said, “It was exhilarating and surreal to step out on the patio overlooking stunning California views with multiple grilling and sautéing stations set up outside. One of the most memorable moments was splitting the first warm test donut with my sous chef, taking a bite, and giving each other a look that said, ‘We got this.’”
The unique combination of flavors, textures, and aromas weren’t the only elements about the donuts that mesmerized the crowd; they were also in complete shock when they discovered the donuts are naturally gluten-free. Chef said, “These donuts aren’t gluten-free by sacriﬁce; they’re gluten-free by nature. The ethnic donut I chose happened to use gluten-free ingredients, which gave it another alluring factor.” It was clear these gluten-free donuts weren’t lacking in flavor, as several guests enjoyed more than one sample. Diners don’t typically associate the term “gluten-free” with donuts, and this variation creates the opportunity for chefs to change the perception of gluten-free items.
Chef Jonathon plans to bring back compelling takeaways from the competition to help Maines’ customers innovate, evolve, and succeed. He said, “The idea was to utilize familiar products like berries in unconventional ways. Berries make you think of parfaits and desserts, but there are so many avenues you can take when working with them. Other competitors featured berries in barbeque sauces and taco shells, and that inspired me. I hope to collaborate with our customers to help them think of how they can transform ordinary ingredients with inventive, profitable approaches.” He also wants his donuts to inspire customers to try on-trend preparations, such as “Korean mochi street-style,” and realize how easy it can be to execute unfamiliar methods. Another critical concept is utilizing diverse approaches when presenting these prized donuts; they can be topped with ice cream and fresh berries, featured in a cone as a shareable item, paired with mocha sauce, skewered street-style, or served to-go in an eco-friendly bag.
Using minimalistic methods, highlighting the natural essences of fresh produce, and infusing trends into a timeless offering can help you deliver a nostalgic dessert that’s sure to be a true crowd favorite.