Culinary R&D apparently was a big hit (we won’t really know until we hear from our sponsors, who are usually too polite to gripe too loudly during the conference itself unless they're really mad).
My job, apart from writing about it, schmoozing and generally being polite to everybody, was to present some background on Mexican food in chain restaurants, put together by Nancy Kruse, and then run a panel discussion about it.
All the panelists were great, but the star was Margarita Carillo Arronte de Salinas, whom no one at NRN had ever met before.
I thought that if we were going to talk about Mexican food it would make sense to have, you know, a Mexican, there, so I e-mailed Allison Moore from the Produce Association of the Americas, which, you may recall, is made of a group of Mexican produce exporters who want to expand their presence north of the Rio Grande.
I asked her if she knew of an articulate, English-speaking American chefs, and she tracked down Margarita for us.
Well, she was charming, but was not about to put up with chain restaurants calling their food Mexican. I was standing at the podium, screening questions that were being sent up from the audience on note cards, reading with part of my brain and listening with another, so I'm not sure what Margarita's expression was when Stephen Kalil — director of culinary innovation and executive chef at Chili's, and a great guy — read data indicating that the three most popular "Mexican" cheeses at U.S. restaurants were Monterrey Jack, Pepper Jack and, oh, I forget, some other Jack. But I can imagine what it was.
When Oona Settembre, one of my favorite corporate chefs and currently the culinary R&D director for On the Border, said that some types of chorizo weren't available in the U.S., Margarita told her she could make her own. She promoted Mexican wines, told the chefs to find Mexican-food experts to help them (Stephen Kalil asked her for her card), and told them to come to Mexico (which Oona has done, by the way; she had been talking about putting tortas on the menu even when she was at Dave & Busters).
John Koch, vice president of R&D and culinary operations for Avado Brands, which operates Don Pablo's Mexican Kitchen and Hops Grill Brewery; and El Pollo Loco's manager of culinary development, Jonathan Rogan, also were on the panel.
Oh, it was fun.
Afterwards, Margarita showed the attendees how to make a Mayan pumpkin seed-tomato paste called Ha-sikil-p'ak.
Here are some other things I learned at Culinary R&D:
Shakey's, which now is mentioning the brands of some of its ingredients on its menus, has an organic sauce at its buffet; it's on the margherita pizza.
Rib Crib has a new menu
Chili's is extending its rib line with a bunch of new barbecue sauces
Shakey's target market is 6-11 year-olds.
I learned many other things too, but they're secret.