This article is mentioned in the NRA Show wrap-up on page 9 of the June 2009 issue of Chef Magazine.
The 2009 National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, held May 16 to 19 at McCormick Place in Chicago, saw fewer attendees and some less elaborate booths this year as the foodservice industry grapples with a recession. And yet, the NRA Show and colocated International Wine, Spirits & Beer event provided operators from across all industry segments with innovative products, menu items and ideas to help them improve their business as the economy heads toward recovery. Below, the editors of Chef Magazine narrow down their picks for the most informative, interesting or downright appetizing parts of this year's NRA Show. And we'll see you at next year's NRA Show, to be held May 22 to 25 in Chicago!
Allergen-friendly dining is easier than you think
I had the opportunity to sit in on the allergen-friendly dining education session on Sunday afternoon, May 17. The panelists really shed some light on how easy it is to make your restaurant accessible to (and safe for) diners with a food allergy to any one of the eight major groups--fish, peanuts, wheat, soy, treenuts, eggs, milk and shellfish--or any other food-related intolerance. It starts with proper staff training, according to Victoria Griffith, director of quality assurance for the Washington, D.C.-area Clyde's Restaurant Group. Griffith explained how Clyde's uses an incentive-based training system (such as a contest to come up with a way to remember the eight allergen groups), along with materials from the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and the National Restaurant Association's Food Allergen Resource Center, to teach and reinforce allergen-friendly dining procedures in the front and back of the house. The communication procedure itself is quite simple, and it starts when the customer alerts the waiter of a food-related allergy or intolerance, and the waiter alerts manager. The waiter and manager communicate with chef. The waiter enters the order, using proper modifiers to describe the food allergy. The chef communicates with the line cooks. When the order is up, the waiter or manager takes the dish to the table by itself, separate from the rest of the order. Lastly, the waiter follows up with guest.
Another big point, made by Ming Tsai, chef/owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., is being aware of cross-contamination. Cutting boards, grills, tongs, knives: Any tool you use in the kitchen can be contaminated if you don't clean your equipment properly after handling allergen foods. "Think of it like raw chicken!" Ming said, and no cook in their right mind would reuse a cutting board to start chopping vegetables after handling raw chicken on it.
Ming Tsai shows off his food allergen "bible," a reference guide to every dish at Blue Ginger, broken down by ingredients in each preparation (further narrowed down by each protein, starch, vegetable, sauce and garnish). Allergens are highlighted, and labels for processed foods (like soy sauce) are photocopied and included. The guide makes it easy for the servers and cooks to know what aspects of a dish contain allergens.
What really resonated with me, though, was when Ming said that all too often, a diner is embarrassed to tell his server about his allergy to, say, peanuts. That diner might go ahead and pick an entrée that appears peanut-free--but what he may not know is that the tempura vegetables on the side are cooked in peanut oil. Or maybe that diner will feel forced to avoid his favorite fish (albeit peanut-free) just because he does not want to take the risk that there may be trace amount of peanuts. But if you train your servers to make it habit to ask about food allergies and to check with the kitchen on what parts of that dish contain said allergen, you'll be able to tell that diner that the fish is in fact free of peanuts and that you can happily replace the peanut oil-fried tempura vegetables with steamed ones. That diner can now enjoy his favorite fish without having to worry about an allergic reaction. And ultimately, you've just improved the guest's experience--and won him over as a repeat patron.
--Lacey Griebeler, managing editor
As seen on the Culinary Scene
By all accounts, attendance was down at this year's NRA Show, but you certainly wouldn't have known that from some of the crowds that gathered to watch demonstrations at the Culinary Scene booth. As in years past, the '09 Culinary Scene roster was packed with big-name kitchen talents--celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill and Topolobampo), Stephanie Izard (Bravo's "Top Chef") and Marcus Samuelsson (Aquavit, Riingo and C-House), just to name a few.
Yet, given the current sluggish state of the economy, this year's interactive demos were all about maximizing the value of the finished dish. From butchering techniques to cooking applications, these demos aimed to showcase how to effectively drive business by mastering "profitable proteins," (i.e. how to use both traditional and less well-known cuts to create innovative, customer-friendly menu items).
Having missed all but a few snippets of the demos that took place during the first three days of the show, I made sure to carve out some time on Tuesday, May 19, to hit up the demo stage at booth number 2489. After grabbing a coffee, I made my way through the tradeshow floor and snagged an open seat at the Culinary Scene just in time to take in the butchery/cooking demonstration by Phillip Foss, executive chef at Lockwood at the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago.
The ambitious and always talented Foss demoed a poached young chicken with seasonal, complementary side ingredients like tournéed carrots, morels and a purée of spring peas. (His original recipe--a PDF of which can be downloaded here--called for pickled ramps as well, but it seems those were lost in transit to McCormick Place that morning.)
Just before the NRA came to town, Foss wrote about this dish on his blog, thepickledtongue.com: "French to the core, poached chicken is an under-utilized preparation. Most--including myself--love a crispy skin. [However,] in a former kitchen, I actually had a cook who could not grasp the idea of not crisping the skin and decided to crisp it behind my back. He not only didn’t get away with it, he was sent home. In my eyes, when the quality of the chicken is outstanding, poaching is a very subtle means of cooking that I believe better captures the essence of the bird. Especially when done with a wet mushroom like morel--or even better, white or black truffles."
As he broke down and poached the bird and then cooked the dish's side components, Foss engaged the Culinary Scene audience, walking them through each critical step of the recipe. He even fielded a few questions during an unscripted intermission while an assistant dashed behind the off-stage curtain to track down some "missing" garlic. In the end, Foss lifted the finished plated--five cylindrical hunks of poached chicken, including a wing skewered lollipop-style by a reserved bone, all covered in a mustard mousseline sauce--while the those of us watching cheered, snapped photos and probably salivated just a bit.
Glocalization: The right balance of global and local
--Evan Noetzel, associate editor
Phillip Foss' poached young chicken in mustard mousseline, with morels and spring peas
Phillip Foss' poached young chicken in mustard mousseline, with morels and spring peas
On Tuesday, the final day of the show, the exhibitor hall looks like a shell of its earlier self, as fewer prospective clients walked the tradeshow floor, and vendors packed up early in the day, hoping to catch evening flights home. Still, compelling educational sessions continued well into Tuesday afternoon, though they saw fewer attendees.
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, about 20 of us gathered for the panel titled "Glocalization: Culinology to the Rescue." I, for one, hadn't heard the term "glocalization" before reading about the session that morning. And I learned that I wasn't alone. Kraft Foodservice chef and Research Chefs Association board member Harry Crane moderated a panel of chefs and industry experts who discussed the hazy term, loosely defined as a person or entity that thinks globally and acts locally. The panelists dubbed the term itself as "marketing speak," "ridiculous" and hard to understand, but they all acknowledged the importance of defining what is considered local and finding the right balance between sourcing locally and menuing globally inspired dishes while still acting responsibly.
"Glocalization defies easy understanding--it sounds like marketing speak to me,'" said panelist Tom Miner, the principal of research and consulting firm Technomic. He discussed the two terms from which glocalization stems: global and local. "Global has an authentic aspect: It implies flavor, taste and smell that replicates authenticity," he said. "Local has yet to be defined; but there's a promise of quality and freshness there and a sense of being closer to home and supporting community." Miner also talked about the political implications of supporting local sourcing--that supporting local producers could translate into an anti-statement to agribusiness or chain restaurants for their large-scale, international focus.
"You need a food source that's both global and local to make a large chain work," said Shannon Johnson, executive director of menu development and innovation for Applebee's Inc. Johnson discussed how Applebee's aims to balance global and local product sourcing through empowering its 45 franchisees to become involved in the communities in each of their regions.
"We menu 40 percent of our dishes to be local, flexing to meet local, cultural or seasonal needs," he said. "We have chicken-fried steak in Texas and clam chowder in the Northeast. Franchisees are involved in their communities and do charitable outreach programs like pancake breakfasts. We put up photos of the local football team."
Because of the scale and leverage of Applebee's, the chain can also access products from all over the world to fill the remaining 60 percent of its menu with more exotic ingredients to satisfy the increasingly informed customer. Still, Johnson said, sourcing globally translates to environmental, political, safety and economic concerns. "There's no silver bullet," he concluded.
For Susan Goss, chef/owner of Chicago's West Town Tavern, glocalization translates into menuing globally inspired dishes using local products, which she said makes it harder to keep a low price point. "You have higher food costs if you're shopping locally," she said. "Some of this can be solved by branding, since guests are willing to pay slightly higher prices when they see you're supporting the community." She also said sourcing locally improves staff loyalty, since they are proud to work for an establishment that uses local ingredients where possible. Goss said West Town Tavern has embraced only sourcing sustainably produced seafood on its menu. She also raised a question that became a dominant theme throughout the remainder of the panel: "What does local really mean? Salt, tea, coffee, spices--none can be sourced locally. Don't make claims you can't support."
Robert Danhi, research chef and Asian ingredient expert, said while it is important to support local farmers, restaurant owners shouldn't forget the role of import and export in the global economy. "Who you are and what you stand for is important if your restaurant offers retail products, for example. With items like spices, coconut milk and red curry paste, local is not an option so how can you still be responsible about it?"
Here, he said, is where Culinology comes in: Conscious menu development requires the blending of culinary arts and food science. "Culinology is dissecting the flavor components of a dish and understanding how that flavor is created. It's an understanding of chemical structure and how it's reacting on the tongue, and reinventing it," he said. For example, coconut milk comes in several forms, each with different textures and flavors. While the canned version may be cheaper than the bag in a box, the pasteurization process the canned milk underwent changes its chemical structure, which could affect its texture and flavor as a result, Danhi said.
This point hit home with me. If you're sourcing flavor elements from abroad, you have to make certain choices at the ingredient level that ultimately could change your dish. When we think of global cuisine, we often associate it with authentic flavors, as Technomic's Miner noted. Still, how can a chef in Cleveland truly achieve authenticity in an Indian curry sauce or Chinese fish sauce or even Italian marinara when we are blending locally grown shallots and garlic with imported spices? Unless we were on that soil, freshly grinding the perfect blend of spices, or fermenting the right blend of fish and soybeans or picking the freshest tomatoes and basil during the right time of year, how can we claim to be truly authentic? In a nation like the United States, a veritable melting pot of global cultures and cuisine, we should embrace our own brand of authenticity as blending local and global flavors, while being honest and responsible about it.
--Maggie Shea, editorial assistant
What was your favorite moment at this year's NRA Show? Tell us about it in the comments section.