Mystery Box Culinary Challenge Tests Skills, Builds Unity

The Ohio Health Care Association event takes chefs on a creative adventure. A package of surprise ingredients tests skills and introduces new dishes.

Everyone loves a good mystery, especially competitively-minded chefs taking part in a culinary contest for Ohio Health Care Association members.

In March, chefs from a Northeast Ohio senior living community won first place among teams from 23 communities participating in the Mystery Box Culinary Competition sponsored by Gordon Food Service, Sandridge Crafted Foods, and the OHCA.

Each team received a mystery box filled with 14 ingredients. Their job: Use as many of those products as possible to create four different dishes – a plated entree, side dish, salad and dessert.  

“The competition was born out of the pandemic as a way to add more fun and creativity to healthcare for all those communities that were struggling,” Alison Dankovich said. She’s a Gordon Food Service Business Solutions Specialist and one of the judges for the event.

She was joined by co-workers Healthcare Sales Manager Alex Kohout and Culinary Specialists Blythe Beck and Anthony Schulz, as well as Sandridge Regional Account Manager Keith Amos and OHCA Clinical Director Heidi McCoy.

Truly a Mystery Challenge

Food contest judges often conduct blind taste tests. In this case, the judges could see just fine. They just couldn’t taste.

Because it originated during the pandemic, the mystery box challenge has always been virtual. Recipes are judged on their creativity in using ingredients, appetite appeal, presentation, and team inclusion.

The Gordon Food Service culinary team selects products that create an interesting challenge for chefs. Some unusual or unexpected items are thrown into the mix just for fun. 

“The teams don’t have to use all of the ingredients, and they can add as many of their own products as they want, but they get points for each mystery box ingredient they use,” Dankovich said. Each team was required to use at least five mystery box ingredients in its total recipe package.

Recipes were created and judging took place in mid-March via Zoom presentation. Even though no tasting was allowed, participants pushed their creativity such as one team used Monin Habanero Lime Syrup in a vinaigrette.

And the Winner Is …

This year’s first-place winner was Symphony at Centerville, a memory support community in Dayton. Topping all others, their four meals were:

Salad. Sweet Potato Quinoa Kale Salad

Who said salads had to be made of lettuce? This salad is packed with nutrients and is served with a fan of avocado slices across the top. Mystery box ingredients include kale salad mix, quinoa, tapioca pudding, sweet potato kale soup, dill-ranch sauce and buttermilk biscuits.

Entree. Cajun Crusted Chicken Cordon Bleu and Waffles

Try this for an elegant take on chicken and waffles. Hot kettle chips form a tender-crisp crust around chicken stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese, served atop Liege waffles and topped with a mushroom sauce. 

Side. Kale Mac and Feta Cheese

This dish used many of the mystery box ingredients, including cavatappi, sweet potato kale soup, ranch-dill dressing, Nashville hot kettle chips. 

Dessert. Creamy Mocha Tapioca Pastry 

The simple buttermilk biscuit has never looked so elegant. This one-of-a-kind treat is a biscuit filled with creamy mocha sauce and tapioca custard that is baked until brown. It’s served with a garnish of cinnamon, fresh raspberry and mint leaves.  

Symphony at Centerville used all 14 items in the mystery box, some of them more than once, for a total of 19 items used. So just how do you serve Monin Habanero Lime Syrup? Sparingly … but it does add a bit of zesty lime to the corn topping that accompanies the chicken cordon bleu.

“I think it’s a great outlet for teams to be creative with ingredients that maybe they don’t always get to use or maybe they’ve never used before,” Dankovich said.

Building a Sense of Community

While chefs enjoy the challenge, everyone benefits. The foodservice team learns about products, communities engage with residents, and staff members from different departments forge relationships.

“It really builds a sense of community throughout the whole healthcare organization,” Dankovich said. “With a lot of staff turnover, this really helps bring some departments together through team building.”

Another benefit, she noted, is that some communities have expressed an interest in adding mystery box-inspired recipes to the menu. “Operators were really surprised at how adventurous the residents were at trying some of these items.” 

Second place in this year’s competition was Hillspring Skilled Nursing Facility in Springboro. Their menu included a Chicken & Biscuit Casserole, a Sweet Potato & Dumpling Soup, a Spicy Tex-Mex Quinoa Salad, a Waffle Bread Pudding with Coffee Tapioca Ice Cream and a Dill Pickle Ranch Mac & Cheese.

Finishing third was Altenheim Senior Living Community in the northeastern city of Strongsville. Their menu included a Harvest Crisp Salad, a Cavatappi Timbale side dish, a Sweet Potato and Chicken Ragout entree, and a Tapioca Fried Waffle Wow for dessert. 

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