What sort of a charmed life is one living when Chef Robert Irvine factors into it twice in a single month? I had the pleasure of walking the floor at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago this week, and was treated to a delightful array of sights, smells, tastes, huge portions of protein, and in the case of Chef Irvine, sounds!
Overall, while there were no gangbuster introductions, the show seemed to achieve a cosmic balance of the healthy (e.g. gluten-free), the indulgent (pastry galore), the novel (spinach balls) and the old-school standbys.
Here’s a sampler from this roving do-it-yourself Lazy Susan:
1) MO’ MEAT! An unlimited assault of meat. Australian Wagyu beef (unbelievable!), Ditka’s chicken sausage (should real men eat it?), bangers from Jolly Posh, jamon iberico de bellota, plain old hot dogs, and the list goes on. A veritable on-the-fly charcuterie. Ron Swanson’s vision of heaven. Perhaps the only product equally welcomed at either NRA show.
2) Celebrity! The boundary between cooking as craft and cooking as entertainment has been erased forever. Anthony Bourdain, a few of Food Network’s A Team (Aarón Sanchez, Robert Irvine, Alexandra Guarnaschelli – and that was just the day I was there), and many others. They attracted long lines, and in the case of the showcase demo area, made a lot of noise (yes, that’s Chef Irvine wearing a tight black short-sleeved shirt for a change).
3) Rising international influence. The international representation of exhibitors was exceeded only by the internationality of the attendees. Not just many countries, but lots of delicious cross-fertilization of ingredients and techniques. More proof of the unstoppable globalization of foods and flavors. Peru debuted at NRA this year.
4) Salmon – oak or maple smoked, flavored, salty, delicious – – and in unlimited supply. Like the brunch table at that swanky Bar Mitzvah you heard about but weren’t invited to. Maybe it’s been there all along, but I was astounded at all the options this year.
5) Tchotchkes – Flo bobble-heads (from Progressive Insurance), t-shirts, cozies, pens, etc. I was lucky to be on the floor close to the show’s end, and scored a nice bottle of Magueye Sweet Sap – – an old-but-new, tasty alternative sweetener. You heard it here first.
6) Umami – OK, there are 5 flavors now, just like there are 8 planets. Forget what you learned as a kid. It’s here, it’s savory, and it means great taste. A whole area was devoted to just umami.
7) Greek Yogurt – – it’s alive! And not just in plastic containers any more. Not only were Greek yogurt-based dessert options shown that more closely resembled ice cream sundaes, there was also Greek yogurt cheesecake, mac and cheese, and more. Hmm…starts out as a healthy option, now loaded with sugar and other stuff. We’ve seen this before: energy bars, muffins, etc.
7) Technology – from the large booths of companies like NEC and IBM, to small software entrepreneurs, at times the NRA looked more like a technology convention. Whether hi-tech signage, online menu management software, or nutritional scoring, technology seems almost as important as the food in enabling operators to compete profitably. Judging by a lot of sameness in some of the standard food offerings, perhaps it’s already passed food in importance…
9) Alternative ordering/delivery – GrubHub/Seamless, MobileTummy and others were pitching all manner of new ways to hook people up with food. Order online, order by mobile, have it delivered, have it ready – – another case where technology is enabling options that are designed to match the way people live.
10) Focus on kids’ health – consistent with NRA’s own Kids Live Well program, there were quite a few exhibitors focusing on not only healthier fare that kids might actually eat, but techniques to evaluate nutritional content and make good choices as foodservice operators, as well as consumer-friendly apps to make it easier to find a restaurant with kid-friendly offerings.
And now to the Stairmaster.