Chefs Find Magic In Berries On The Menu

Whether sweet or savory, desserts or beverages, there is gold in creating dishes that delight and tantalize.

By Elissa Elan

If the old adage – good things come in small packages – is true, then berries are cornering that market, and restaurant operations are using them to their advantage year-round. Whether it is blueberries, strawberries, blackberries or something more exotic, chefs love experimenting with these tiny fruits, and they are beloved by diners, too.

The reason: berries are healthful, low in calories and high in flavor. They are also extremely versatile. Mostly known as dessert or breakfast options or ingredients, berries today are showing up on more menus in a variety of dayparts and applications, such as smoothies, salads, as a sweet pairing with savory lunch or dinner entree items, and even in beverages.

Kevin Schooley, executive director of the Ontario-based North American Strawberry Growers Association, says one of the big reasons for berries’ increased popularity among chefs is not only versatility, but also because these vitamin-packed morsels are easily identifiable by adults and children alike.

“People often think of berries as a dessert-type of item, but a lot of chefs are starting to incorporate them into different facets of the meal,” he says. “They are a known entity, so that makes them appealing to diners. Historically, we’ve seen them used in the breakfast segment, paired with waffles and pancakes and those sorts of foods, but now we’re seeing a bit more innovation with chutneys and sauces served with lunch and dinner entrée items.”

In addition, he notes the health halo associated with berries is another reason why the fruits are hotter than ever with the public.

“We are seeing more and more information coming out that supports the theory that consumption of berries is associated with numerous health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, plus they taste so good,” he says. “It’s a double bonus that they have all of those attributes.”

Schooley also says chefs are attracted to berries because they are easy to work with and often have a decent shelf life.

“Of course, different berries have different shelf lives. Strawberries have a longer one, and blueberries have an even more extended one, but raspberries are slightly more perishable. That gives people an opportunity to experience a little more versatility,” he says.

And, he adds, the fact that many berries are locally sourced at a time when chefs and consumers are seeking local, seasonal fruits and vegetables is another big draw.

“People often think of berries, especially strawberries, as one of the first fruits of summer,” he says. “Good chefs are looking at what is popular at local markets and using them to create delicious additions to their menus that are popular with guests.”

Victoria De Bruin, marketing manager of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, based in Folsom, CA, says blueberries are consumers’ preferred berry because of the health halo they add to even the most decadent of menu items.

“Our research shows that they are aware of the health benefits associated with the fruit.”

The council’s recent research shows:

  • 57 percent of Americans know of specific health benefits associated with blueberries
  • 65 percent think menu items or snacks containing blueberries are healthier or better for them than similar items that do not contain blueberries, and
  • 52 percent think a menu item with blueberries is more appealing.

David Banks, chef-owner of Banks Seafood Kitchen and Raw Bar in Wilmington, DE, says he is a big fan of using blueberries as a staple in several of the savory menu items he creates. One recent special was a handmade flatbread topped with fresh-made lemon Ricotta, blueberries from Maine and red mustard greens.

“I’m a big blueberry fan,” he admits. “I like their versatility. I also love to balance salt, sour and sweet together. The blueberries and cheese go well together; they create a great umami flavor, have wonderful eye appeal, and taste good. The idea is to create a great combination of flavors and textures.”

Banks notes he uses different berries in a variety of his dishes, especially the savory ones. He turns overripe raspberries and blackberries into vinaigrettes and gastriques that go great with fish, duck and poultry. He also adds dried berries to the salads he creates and the breads he bakes.

“Maybe it’s a bit of curiosity mixed with a little boredom, but I’m always looking for a different zing,” he says. “We will do anything to evoke three-letter, little words: yum and wow. That is my mantra and why I am always looking for different flavor profiles. I love berries because they are bright, flavorful and work well in other things besides pastry.”

Berry Fresh Café, a Port St Lucie- Fl-based, three-unit operation that specializes in fresh, seasonal food items, is offering Strawberry, Mango Balsamic, Goat Cheese & Avocado Toast on its breakfast, brunch and lunch menu. It consists of avocado mash on multigrain toast, with goat cheese crumbles, fresh strawberries and mango pieces, and balsamic glaze. It is topped with two basted eggs.

Owner-operator Mitch Timoteo also prepares items like mango and mixed berry grilled bread pudding French toast, which consists of handmade mixed-berry bread pudding topped with country cream, mango pieces, fresh mixed berries, whipped cream and powdered sugar.

But independent restaurants are not the only ones experimenting with putting berries in entrée menu items. National chains are getting in on the act, too.

Bennigan’s, the casual-dining chain based in Dallas, just introduced a summer menu that includes a berry summer salad made with fresh garden spring mix, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries, that is topped with goat cheese crumbles and sweet glazed pecans. The salad is tossed in a house-made sweet pepper vinaigrette. The chain offers a Hawaiian chicken option as an add-on at a small upcharge.

“Bennigan’s commitment to continuous menu innovation is resulting in truly unique and craveable offerings,” says Paul Mangiamele, its chairman and chief executive. “Our in-house innovation team has created new seasonal dishes that are relevant to both our longtime loyal guests and new guests, including Millennials, who are discovering our fresh, chef-driven food and handcrafted cocktails.”

Red Lobster, the casual-dining chain based in Orlando, FL, also is getting in on the berry act this summer. The chain is offering a summer power bowl featuring a choice of grilled shrimp, crispy shrimp, grilled salmon or grilled chicken, paired with quinoa rice, edamame, seasonal berries and sliced almonds.

“Our new seasonal Power Bowls really deliver on flavor and variety — giving our guests the choice of something sweet or savory and a choice of their favorite protein to build the perfect lunch,” says Dustin Hilinski, Red Lobster’s executive chef and director of culinary. “There’s really something for everyone.”

Fast-casual Corner Bakery Café, the Dallas-based chain owned and operated by CBC Restaurant Corp., has some new berry-focused items on its summer menu as well. At breakfast, guests can indulge in Berries & Cream Pancakes — four buttermilk pancakes topped with mixed berries and whipped cream. During the lunch daypart, diners can partake in the Berry Pecan Salad, which consists of grilled chicken, strawberries, blueberries, Bleu cheese and candied pecans on a bed of mixed greens. It is topped with strawberry vinaigrette.

“We are always looking to use new ingredients that are in peak season in order to offer guests a variety of fresh and naturally delicious dishes,” says Donna Josephson, the company’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

Wendy’s, the fast-food giant based in Dublin, OH, is offering its Berry Burst Chicken Salad through Sept. 2, Labor Day. The salad, available in full- or half-size portions, features strawberries, blueberries, Feta cheese, and all-white-meat grilled chicken on a bed of lettuce. It is dressed with raspberry vinaigrette and topped with toasted almonds.

“Our salad fans value fresh, quality ingredients, and great-tasting flavor, said Carl Loredo, Wendy’s vice president of brand and advertising, and “neither of these should be sacrificed just because you’re eating on-the-run.”

“We’re always looking for different flavor profiles that work well in lots of different ways,” says Banks. Berries, now, are so consistently good, and when you add seasonality to the mix, it tells the story really well. It’s spectacular when it’s just right.”