Maine Wild Blueberry Chefs Challenge

Is there a better time to visit Maine than late July—the start of wild blueberry season? It’s a thrill when we first start seeing the tiny berries at farmers’ markets, alongside the rest of the season’s bounty. Last week, the Wild Blueberry Association of North America brought a select group of food service chefs from around the country to Maine to experience one of the best resources our state has to offer. The ten chefs were treated to dinner at Vinland and Scales, a lobster boat trip on Casco Bay, and a visit to wild blueberry barrens in Dresden. David Levi, chef/owner of Vinland and Trattoria Fanny, helped plan the event. At Vinland, Levi uses only products sourced locally on the menu. “Vinland is small scale,” he says. “I want to help promote these products to the larger economy. An event like this leverages the opportunity to get wild blueberries on as many menus around the country as we can. I love and use wild blueberries year-round, and I want to see other people develop an appreciation for this very special product.”

As a fitting end to the chefs’ three-day visit, organizers held the Eating on the Wild Side Chefs Challenge at Fork Food Lab in Portland. The challenge was arranged similarly to the Food Network show Chopped. Levi worked with Betta Stothart of Ethos Marketing to put together a crate of Maine products for the chefs to use, including wild blueberries (fresh and frozen), yogurt whey, Kate’s Homemade Butter, Ocean’s Balance kelp puree, wild ginger, blue oyster mushrooms, lovage, duck eggs, Abenaki flint cornmeal, Maine sea salt, microgreens, and, of course, a Maine lobster. “Many of these are the same products I use on a regular basis,” Levi says.

The chefs, paired into teams of two, have 90 minutes to create a dish that “shows the versatility and deliciousness of wild blueberries,” Levi tells them. It’s fascinating to watch each team take a different approach to the task. Chefs Charles Hayes and Christian Hallowell spend quite a bit of time talking over their plan before ever touching an ingredient. “We want to take each ingredient and bring out its best flavor,” Hallowell, executive chef for Delta Air Lines at Gategroup tells me. “The wild blueberry should be the star of the plate.” Other pairs get their hands on the food immediately. I ask Neil Doherty, senior director of culinary development of Sysco, if he has worked with lobster before. With an Irish accent and a big smile, he replies that he’s very familiar with lobster from Ireland, and this is similar. Doherty, paired with Jay Hanson of the Cheesecake Factory, explains how he will cook it in a makeshift sous-vide style with butter and ginger. Nico Sanchez, executive chef of Firebird Restaurant Group in Dallas, was rolling out dough for arepas, using the cornmeal and seaweed. He was working with chef Tom Gumpel, vice president of culinary innovation for Panera Bread.

While the chefs are slicing, dicing, blending, and poaching, I chat with Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission, the state commodity board that provides funding for the marketing and promotion of wild blueberries. “These chefs are all at very high levels in food service,” she says. “We’d love to see them start utilizing wild blueberries in their operations. We have the supply; we need to increase the demand. This is a Maine product that should be used all over the world, in all types of cuisine.”

As the clock starts to run down, chefs begin plating their creations. Chef Jason Cotton of the Portland-based Olympia Companies is “reconstructing” a lobster, using mushrooms for the tail and cornmeal cakes and lobster meat for the body, with dots of blueberry puree. Levi calls time, and the chefs presented their plates for the judges, which include Levi, Josh Berry, executive chef of Union at the Press Hotel, and myself. “It’s fun seeing chefs who are not from Maine using Maine products,” says Berry, as plates are laid in front of us. Every dish we taste is creative and well prepared, using a huge variety of techniques. But it is Sanchez and Gumpel’s entry that takes first place. Their lobster is prepared two ways—poached with wild blueberries and seaweed for added flavor and grilled for smokiness. They grilled the long strands of kelp as well and mixed it with the mushrooms underneath the poached duck egg. Breaking the yolk provided a savory sauce for all the ingredients, also softening the arepa. Wild blueberries were used in a vinaigrette on the microgreens, treating them like an ingredient, not merely a garnish.

In the end, Maine wild blueberries were the biggest winner. The event helped get the word out about one of our state’s greatest natural resources that should be enjoyed far beyond our corner of the country.

Wild Blueberry Association of North America

Fork Food Lab