Thursday, May 21, 2009


Interlopers be gone!

Over the years, I've been to a lot of trade shows: SCAA, NPPL, ShowBiz West, CoffeeFest, CES, and even though this years' NRA was smaller than ever, it was the most brutal trade show I have ever attended. Brutal not because of the vendors but the size really was a tough grind. Four days of non-stop walking the show and talking with vendors and it's still nearly impossible to see everything.

After four days, I was worked. By 7pm Tuesday, while shopping at the Target nearest to O'Hare, I hit the wall. Done. Finished. Spent. I just needed to trudge to the airport and hang on for the flight home.

As always, the National Restaurant Association Show was an experience. Just about everything and anything food and restaurants is on display. While the proliferation of the Internet has made researching easier, nothing beats seeing the goods face-to-face. Sure that chair looks nice on the website, but what is it like to sit in that chair? And, after days of walking and standing on thin-carpeted concrete, all you want to do is sit in a chair.

One man and his NRA harvest.

I've been to a lot of food shows and learned my lessons the hard way. At first, a food show seems like a veritable smorgasbord orgy and you go ballistic eating everything in sight - like your own personal buffet. Then you get ill. Too much eating. Too much food. Too much crap.

The other side of trade shows is that you want to grab everything in sight. All the free books, magazines, catalogs, brochures, pamphlets, product samples, promo items and sexy models that you can stuff into your bag. You then trudge all that stuff back home with you where it sits in a corner, undisturbed for how many months before you throw it away.

During shows like this, I let them scan my card and send me information at home where I can take the time to properly review the material. My goal is to acquire no more paper material than I can carry in one hand, without a bag. This limits my burden and forces me to choose only the most important pieces to review that night.

When it comes to eating, I don't know why anyone attending shows like this needs to visit a restaurant or snack bar in the center. Food is everywhere, and while they don't give you full servings, a little grazing along the way when you get hungry is an easy and cheap way to keep yourself full Of course, most of the food you're eating you really don't want to eat on a regular basis...

Sexy goodness from CookTek.

CookTek, my favored induction heat source, debuted their new eight burner range top. Requiring 208v 3Phase power, it's simply bad to the bone. I want one. Also got the chance to see their Apogee induction top up close and now understand why I must spend the additional three hundred dollars for one. But the coolest thing they had on display was their counter induction warmer. Pull the digital sensor pad away and all you have is your non-reactive countertop. Put the pad down and you've got induction. Promises that they're developing a full-powered version for cooking means that you can have your beautiful granite countertop and cook on it too.

Chris Cosentino prepares Porchetta di Testa.

One of the highlights of this show was watching Chris Cosentino prepare a porchetta di testa. Quite simply, you take a pig's head, debone it while maintaining the integrity of the skin, fill in the skin holes with the ears, roll the head with some herbs, seasoning and tongue - while keeping the snout intact. Wrap the roll in netting, vacuum-pack it in a bag, cook it for six hours in an immersion bath (a la sous vide), chille and slice. Delicious and I'm calling my butcher this week to secure myself a pig's head. Maybe I'll even give Chris' "Brain-naise" a try...

Fountain Coke versus Slurpee Coke.

Coca-Cola has to have one of my favorite booths at the show. For no other reason than they give out free Coke to anyone who asks. And they're not measly servings either. Twelve ounces of amber Coke goodness. Compare their approach to Pepsi and their comparatively anemic booth and it's no wonder why Coke is Number One.

One afternoon, I decided to give fountain Coke and Slupee Coke a head-to-head comparison - if only to satisfy my own curiosity. While fountain Coke is decidedly sweet, Slupee Coke is carbon-y (as in fizzy carbonation) and the sweetness is lessened. Actually, it really is like freezing Coke, which diminishes it's character and isn't very interesting.

Freshly sliced Jamon Iberico.

Since it is the national restaurant show, food is at the forefront. Unfortunately, most of that food is utter crap. If it's frozen, portioned, processed and prepackaged, it's on display here. Like I said above, you can eat for free at the show, but the food isn't very good. Sure, the Lamb-Weston fries are something you've tasted before, but are they really good? No. I found this show interesting because it reminded me of the coffee trade shows: lots of stuff on display, most of which do not compute for me or the company.

Luckily, there are a number of vendors whose products look applicable. Take Solex and their selection of Spanish products, like the Jamon Iberico they were handing out. At roughly one thousand dollars per leg, it's not cheap, but it is delicious. And while there were a number of regional producers at the show, it reinforced the notion in my mind that we ought to keep with our mission of sourcing the best local ingredients. Though, I have to say that while I'm a constant skeptic of American Wagyu, I did find a vendor whose product (if they can achieve their highest grade) looks as though it might rival the original Japanese.

MK's Erik Williams promoting Cornish Hen, Morels and French Asparagus .

Tuesday is the last day of the show and also one of the slowest. Most vendors have scaled back their sampling so foraging for lunch is slightly more difficult. While looking at ovens, Louis Petrozza snuck up on me to offer his advice on procuring ovens (a used Blodgett is a better buy than an inexpensive new oven). I can't say I disagree. But it's so much fun buying new!

Erik Williams, executive chef at Chicago's MK Restaurant was giving a demo that I wanted to check out. He's making a pan-seared cornish hen with morels and French asparagus. The asparagus looked so delicious, I just wanted to reach out and grab a handfull. Erik has a great demeanor and personality, and gave a great show. It's just a shame that he was scheduled on the last day so the crowd was much smaller.

Le piece de resistance- rotary evaporator with vacuum pump and circulator.

I was attending the NRA as the guest of Philip from PolyScience. Armed with my PolyScience Exhibitor badge, the show was a very different experience. Other vendors either eye you suspiciously (one came out and asked if I was a competitor spy) or ignore you altogether. Since I was here to find new products and buy them, it was a bit irritating to be outright ignored, but it was also a relief not to be constantly battered by the full court press that people with attendee badges were receiving. In that vein, I was able to browse in peace.

On the flip side of the coin, having a PolyScience badge afforded me a level of familiarity and, dare I say: "prestige" with certain individuals at the show. Did it make me cooler? Maybe. Did it separate me from the typical restauranteur who buys everything pre-portioned from Sysco? Possibly. Whatever the case, there were certainly a number of times when I was welcomed warmly because I was associated with such a great company - and for that, I am grateful. Thanks Philip.

While there will always be a longing in my heart for a nice chamber vacuum, my show lust was driven by the introduction of the PolyScience rotary evaporator with vacuum pump and chill circulator. Just look at the picture above. It was destined to be part of my arsenal. Of course, I hope my banker won't see this otherwise my letter of credit may disappear.