Monday, May 21, 2007

24 Miles

Location: McCormick Place, Chicago
Time: 5:30pm, Sunday, May 20, 2007

I'm sitting in the lobby of McCormick place and it's a complete madhouse. The line for the taxi is unbelieveable and the crush of restaurant industry humanity is swirling by with a dizzying rush.

And I'm completely wiped out.

I'm sitting next to the water fountains and next to some boisterous Canadians (from Toronto) who are hooting and hollering about all sorts of topics. They're wiped out too but ready to party. One of them says that he heard that if you walked each aisle you would walk a total of 24 miles.

No wonder I feel wiped out.

My back is aching. My feet are sore. I'm tired. In other words: I'm wasted.

And I still have at least a 30 minute commute back to my hotel.

The National Restaurant Association Show is the largest foodservice trade show in North America and just like a proper American trade show, there are people from all over the world here. It's huge. It's dizzying. It's incredible. And there's a ton of food, drink and alcoholic beverages for you to gorge yourself, if you so desire.

John Klein once told me that the NRA show is a good one to visit every two or three years. I think he's right. God knows you're not out buying a new cooking line every year and since I'm in a specialty niche, it's even moreso. For those of you in the coffee business, the NRA Show is much bigger than SCAA. If SCAA is the largest show you've attended then you're in for a shock at NRA. However, if you've been to the Consumer Electronics Show or the Magic Marketplace fashion trade show, then NRA won't seem that big to you.

After an early morning flight from Baltimore (that was packed to the gills), I walked every aisle. 24 miles in one day while eating samples along the way, chatting with vendors and generally being overwhelmed by the enormity of the attempt. Smarter creatures will dedicate one day to each of the three main halls - allowing themselves time to savor the experience, attend seminars, attend the keynote and, generally, linger around.

Not me. I'm not that smart a creature. I'm here for a day and I've got to marathon it. Lots of cool things to see and taste.

One thing I learned the first year attending restaurant shows was: moderate your eating. There are, literally, hundreds of vendors giving away free samples of food and drink. It's very easy to let your eyes be greedy, gorge on everything in sight and then pass out from gluttony. Take small bites, you're just tasting.

I arrived at the hall hungry. Early flight, no breakfast and it's 10:30am. Gotta eat.

The thing about restaurant shows I never understood is why attendees bother to eat at the convention center food centers. I mean, there are hundreds of vendors giving food away. Grab some fried shrimp here, tilapia there, some sausage over here, a little prime rib a the next booth, a cup of soup, a taste of jambalaya - and you're done. All free and without the outrageous price gouging typical of convention center companies, like Aramark. And the quality of food is at least on par or better than that hot dog for eight bucks.

For me, the highlights of the show were:

- Finally discovering that True Refrigeration makes lowboy worktop refrigerators with illuminated glass doors. Gotta have those for Nail Salon Espresso.

- Checking out the Paco Jet and learning how its' used. While I love my two barrel Coldelite ice cream freezer, the PacoJet's gonna replace it at Nail Salon.

- Seeing Paul Prudhomme signing autographs. Hadn't seen Chef Paul in years and he's looking good.

- Meeting Philip and the crew from PolyScience. Great to finally meet them in person and hear about some new things that may be coming down the pipeline. Found out that they're also readers of this blog. It's an honor and I'm slightly embarassed.

- Wagyu Beef from Japan. It's truly incredible. I must have it. I must open NFA Steaks and offer it on the menu. The marbled fat is indescribable, not to mention the taste and texture.

Some disappointments:

- CookTek wasn't in attendance so I wasn't able to see their lineup of induction ranges. I will have one of those.

- Turns out that Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz hung out at the Polyscience booth for three hours on Saturday. Damn my lameness in coming on Sunday!!!! Oh well, last time I saw Keller was during a tour of his kitchen right before service in January 2005 and he didn't look too happy with this interloper snooping around.

- The utter lack of quality coffee roasters at the show. Sure, you can buy coffee from Sara Lee, but why? Unfortunately, none of our Third Wave crew was there to show the restaurant biz what coffee can be like. Hmmm - sounds like an opportunity for next year.