Some trends and random delights from the NRA’s annual industry mega-event.
If you want to see where things are headed in the restaurant business, this is the place to do it. The National Restaurant Association’s annual show is the biggest of its kind, attracting a worldwide audience of more than 2,100 exhibitors and 70,000 attendees. According to the NRA, “restaurants are the nation’s largest private-sector employers, generating an annual economic impact of $1 trillion.” This is where these legions of industry professionals come to see what’s new—what they’ll be serving, how they’ll be cooking it, what they’ll be serving it on, even how they’ll clean up after.
In past years, it’s included such pre-packaged ersatz delights as jalapeño poppers and other fat bombs. And with good reason. On the way to the show, Marion mentioned something she’d read in The New York Times food section. In “In New York, the Taste of Victory,” an article on competitive cooking in New York, amateur chef Nick Suarez advised that a heavy hand with fat and salt was an asset. “If the audience is only getting one bite,” he said, “you have to pack as much flavor as you can into that bite.”
That approach to attracting the audience of potential buyers was deliciously in evidence as we sampled our way through the show at Chicago’s McCormick Place—plenty of salty, fatty treats to tempt us. But this year, there was something much more interesting going on. A few words normally heard in the hippest, healthiest, hautest new restaurants were echoing throughout the giant exhibition halls.
Sourced. This is an umbrella term we heard a lot. Not exactly local or organic, although it can and often does mean both. What it really means is being able to say where your food came from—not just the region, but perhaps even the farm or orchard or river. Knowing how it grew, how it was treated. In other words, the antithesis of factory farming, where you really don’t want to know how your food got to your plate.
Artisanal. Breads, cheeses, teas, jams… Homemade, handmade versions of these have been around forever. But now there’s a name that elevates the process of making things by hand, in small, controlled batches, with natural ingredients and traditional, time-honored methods. This term was refreshingly all over the show. I think our favorite use of it, though, was at the International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event, a recent addition to the NRA Show. There we met representatives from two distillers—Heartland Distillers in Indiana and Great Lakes Distillery in Wisconsin—making small batch, artisanal spirits. The aptly named Indiana Vodka is made from corn, the Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Vodka, from wheat. Both were as smooth as any big name, premium bottle service vodka you’d care to overpay for in some exclusive club.
Green. Yeah, everybody’s bandying this one about these days. But this was a major trend we were seeing. The most interesting, most ubiquitous new green product—and the one most likely to trickle down to home cooks first—was biobased dinnerware and serving pieces. Not recycled or recyclable, mind you—these things actually return to the earth. And they don’t just decompose. You can actually add them to your compost, where they will provide nutrients for future plants. Depending on the company, their plates, trays and other food containers are made from bamboo, sugar cane, corn and even potatoes. One company, EATware, is promising distribution in supermarkets and dedicated stores soon.
Okay, so sourced, artisanal and green aren’t exactly new terms or promises. But hearing them—and hearing them often—at such a huge food industry event was very, very encouraging.
And finally, a reminder that restaurants are part of the hospitality industry. There’s just something about being around people who make food for other people for a living. Smiles, laughter and genuine warmth spread throughout the entire exhibition space at the NRA Show. At times, we had to extract ourselves from conversations so that exhibitors could conduct actual business with actual paying customers. The very first person we ran into at this year’s show embodied all of the above. Paula Lambert, of the Dallas-based Mozzarella Company. Since 1982, her tiny downtown factory has turned out award-winning cheeses, all made by hand.
Her love and knowledge of cheese extend well beyond mozzarella, though. She’s the author of a couple of books on the subject, including the wildly popular, encyclopedic The Cheese Lover’s Cookbook and Guide: Over 150 Recipes with Instructions on How to Buy, Store, and Serve All Your Favorite Cheeses, now in its ninth printing.
Paula chatted amiably with us about everything from making cheese to walking in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood to her belief that Chicago has the best Mexican restaurants, high praise from a Texan. And she reminded us once again why we love food and the people who make it.