Neil Doherty’s cooking career began as a humble kitchen helper at a neo-Gothic castle perched in a quaint farming community in the West of Ireland. Later, he transitioned to a market farm in England where he upped his game. Eventually, Doherty moved to America and cooked his way across the country as executive chef in hotels, restaurants, and start up kitchens. He finally landed in Houston and went to work for Sysco Corporation.
Today, as Sysco’s Corporate Executive Chef and Senior Director of Culinary Development, Doherty is instrumental in leading the enterprise’s culinary strategy and for providing product and culinary training expertise to Sysco’s international entities as well, including Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and his home country of Ireland. In his role, Chef Doherty consults with restaurant brands big and small, in the U.S. and abroad. He is also a frequent traveler to farming operations around the globe, where he immerses himself in terroir and developing a greater understanding of the mechanics of our global food system.
To stay current on techniques, trends and flavors, Doherty works with chefs from around the world. He believes in continued education to increase his knowledge and perfect his craft. When we spoke, Doherty had just returned from a Culinary Institute of America/Almond Board immersion for 10 foodservice chefs. Last summer, he was part of an elite group of foodservice chefs who travelled to Maine for an “Eating on the Wild Side” immersion, which included harvesting wild seaweed and hand-raking Wild Blueberries on a hilltop Wild Blueberry barren.
The Power of Wild
“Wild is starting to sink in for people, it’s not just a trend anymore,” says Doherty. “Fifteen years ago, you could not give Keta Salmon away. People thought it was too fishy and too oily. Now, they are selling it by the boatload because it’s wild and affordable.”
Wild and, yes, affordable. Doherty launches into a little diatribe about the price of organic. As a foodservice professional, he’s constantly educating chefs on trends and where the industry is going. He’s also responsible for developing Sysco’s cutting-edge platforms, trade show appearances, Foodie magazine, and much more. It takes skill to put all of the pieces together – superior ingredients, outrageously good recipes, extraordinary presentations, keeping up with the latest food fashions, and containing costs.
“If organic were more affordable, more people would buy organic. I’ll be brutally honest, if I’m looking for lemons, I'm getting regular lemons,” Doherty said.
But wild foods have a way of transcending the conversation.
“Wild has a really unique cache, and the value of featuring ‘wild’ on a menu – I think when people see that, it raises their eyebrows, and they want a part of it,” says Doherty. It speaks to craft, handmade, origin food.
Asked to dig deeper, Doherty offers a broad explanation that ranges from the influence of Millennials, who are “opening our eyes” to variety and taste, to vegans and vegetarians who are the real drivers behind the global shift to natural and organic foods. “Plant-based and plant-forward foods are huge,” says Doherty. The shift toward a plant-based diet has “pulled everything along the tidal wave with it.”
Wild is More Relevant Than Ever
According to this seasoned, international chef, Wild – and Wild Blueberries – have never been more relevant.
- People are increasingly worried about their mortality – they want to trust how their food is grown and manufactured.
- The story of Wild is believable because it comes directly from Mother Nature herself.
- Food service providers are seeking foods that offer a quick nutritional fix – foods that are high in antioxidants and offer the highest bang for their buck.
Wild Blueberries have amazing menu capability, adds Doherty. “Just having the name “Wild Blueberries” on the menu gives you confidence that you are cooking with something extraordinary.”
Doherty’s affection for Wild Blueberries is linked powerfully to his childhood as well.
“I grew up on the West Coast of Ireland where there were lots of peat bogs and lots of mist. The Wild Blueberry barrens reminded me of my homeland. Wild Blueberries grow in a coastal environment that gets constant mist, and I think the salt air has something to do with the powerful taste of the Wild Blueberries too.”
Chef Doherty is looking for ways to add more Wild Blueberry to Sysco’s menus. “Wild Blueberries are sustainable, attainable, and affordable. They’re a crop from the beginning of time.”