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Just Desserts: A Top Chef's Great Passion

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Long before she put on her first chef’s jacket, Erika Davis learned to add a pinch or two of passion to her dishes. Her grandmother and mother taught her to bake “from scratch” and to make jelly from the strawberry patches she played in on the family farm. By age 12, Davis was baking cookies and selling them in middle school.

“I chose this career because there was nothing else I ever wanted to do. I wanted to be Wonder Woman, but pastries have been my passion since I was a little girl,” says the Illinois native.

Today, Davis orchestrates the creation of an amazing array of sweets as the Executive Pastry Chef at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club. The artistry of her team’s desserts dazzles diners at the posh resort 20 miles southeast of Jacksonville, Florida. The latest favorites are the Red Velvet Cake (pictured), Maple Bacon Ice Cream Napoleons, and White Chocolate Cinnamon Fritters with White Wine Pears and Goat Cheese Ice Cream.

“The joy for me is the smiles on people’s faces when they eat my desserts,” Davis answers when asked what she enjoys about her profession. “It makes my heart feel good to see that they appreciate the hard work I’ve put into their desserts.”

Her culinary creativity is one of the delights attracting visitors to Ponte Vedra, a AAA Five-Diamond resort on the Atlantic coastline. The historic Inn and Club offers an impressive list of amenities including luxurious rooms and suites, an oceanfront gym, two 18-hole golf courses and four restaurants. Its ultra-modern spa is the largest in the region, and Tennis Magazine rates the racquet Club, 15 Har-Tru hydro courts and the instructional program as the top tennis resort on the East Coast.

Davis joined the Ponte Vedra staff in 2007. As a contestant on the first season of Bravo’s Top Chef Just Desserts last year, she competed against other exceptional pastry chefs from around the country. Sound advice she received from her mother years ago helped Davis get the most out of the reality TV experience.

“She always said don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Compare youself to yourself to get better,” says Davis. “It’s all about knowing yourself and being determined to be the best that you can be.”

Besides giving her best at Ponte Vedra, Davis is involved in projects that benefit culinary students and the Jacksonville community. She launched an online cookie dough venture with her family in February. The chunky, chocolate chip cookies Davis made on Episode 3 of Top Chef won her $1,000 and rave reviews from New York’s legendary cake designer, Sylvia Weinstock.

“There’s nothing like having hot cookies coming out of the oven, being with your family and sharing a nice treat,” Davis adds.

Proceeds from the Ultimate Cookie Dough Company will provide scholarships for students in the culinary and hospitality fields through Culinary Wonders USA. Davis spearheaded the creation of the website devoted to showcasing minorities in the industry. One friend featured on the site describes Davis as the prototypical black female chef.

“Her easy and infectious spirit, her tireless worth ethic, and her honest care for her staff and really everyone she comes in contact with, are just a few of the things that make her so brilliant,” says Therese Nelson, a New York City chef.

In January, Davis, hosted the second annual fundraiser for the Jacksonville Beach Elementary Preservation Fund, Inc. Seven award-winning chefs prepared dinner for guests attending “A Night on the Hill." The event raised more than $20,000 for the Rhoda L. Martin Cultural Heritage Center. Mother Martin was instrumental in establishing the Saint Andrew African Methodist Episcopal Church from the kitchen of her home in 1905. She also founded the Jacksonville Beach Colored School.

Perfecting her talents as a pastry chef put Davis in the position to make her own mark as a African American female in a white-male dominated culinary world. In 2004, she became the first black woman to hold the position of Executive Pastry Chef at the famous Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Her climb up in a field dominated by men gave Davis a tougher skin and an unshakeable commitment.

“We don’t cry in the kitchen. There’s no crying as a pastry chef,” Davis explains. “If you have a strong will, you can do whatever you want to do.”

Davis wants to sweeten the journey for today's culinary students through sales from her online company. For more information about her frozen cookie dough, please visit the website of The Ultimate Cookie Dough Company.

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