My apologies, dear reader, for my recent silence. I just got back from Chicago, where I attended the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, also known as the NRA Show, the Restaurant Show and the Show.
I’ve been known to call it simply “that,” as in: “Oh, please don’t tell me I have to go to that again.”
It’s not bad for a trade show, but everyone who attends from Nation’s Restaurant News has a lot of ground to cover, hands to shake, people to make nice with, all while still meeting deadlines from outside the office. Backlog ensues.
The schmoozing can be a bit much even for me, and I’m a good schmoozer.
“Are you having a good show?” people ask me. I have no idea what that means. I go, I do the work I need to do and see the people I need to see. I try to enjoy myself and get enough sleep so that I don’t hurt myself. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad.
It doesn’t help that I go with a bad attitude. I get so many obnoxious, nagging messages in the weeks leading up to the show that I’m sick of it by the time I get there.
“Be sure to visit booth 3041 to learn the latest trends in latex technology!”
“Stop by 5311 to try our new cheese straws, now with 0 grams trans fat!”
Shoot me now.
And then when I’m on the trade show floor, if I so much as raise an eyebrow as I walk by a booth I run the risk of being accosted by someone who insists that I taste something like their black salt.
And then they require positive feedback.
“Isn’t it great?” they ask.
“Delicious,” I say. I want to say “It tastes like salt,” but then I’ll be attacked with a sales pitch about how the subtle flavors of iron and ash really bring out the flavor of food. Tacked onto that will likely be a completely specious assertion of the health benefits of those trace minerals.
One particularly pushy publicist dragged me across the trade show floor to sample his Belgian waffle mix, something I would never, ever write about because NRN doesn’t write about mixes that likely would be sold by our advertisers, for obvious reasons.
So I ate a slice of waffle topped with smoked salmon and crème fraîche and stood there until the publicist looked satisfied that he’d done his job, and then I wandered off.
Oh whine, whine, whine. Poor me, being plied with food and drink and treated like my opinion were worth something. Boo hoo.
There are of course booths that I like to visit. It’s good to check in on the latest soft drinks from Atlanta and spicy foods from Avery Island. And I got to be on a panel this year talking about Asian food.
Besides me, the panel was quite august: Dan Coudreaut, director of culinary innovation for McDonald’s, thank you very much; Ross Kamens, executive chef of Noodles and Company; and Doug Martinides, vice president of culinary development for on-site giant Aramark.
So that was fun. And I managed to make it to a couple of good parties. The best one — and I’m not just saying that because we throw it — is the MenuMasters party.
MenuMasters mostly honors chain restaurants for innovations that are significant in both culinary and economic ways, although an independent restaurant is honored each year, too — this year it was the Inn at Little Washington.
Some celebrity fine dining chefs come to the party — Patrick O’Connell was there to pick up the Inn at Little Washington’s award, and Paul Prudhomme was holding court from his scooter — but this world is very different from the foie gras- and Champagne-laden world where I spend most of my time, and it’s every bit as interesting and, by most measures, more important.
Dan Coudreaut from McDonald’s was there, getting teased by Kathleen Kennedy of Starbucks for being named in the Chicago Sun-Times, along with Oprah, as one of seven pivotal Chicagoans. Dan was his usual aw-shucks about it, which is his nature. I guess if you introduce edamame to mainstream America you can afford to be low-key about it.
Chris Martone from Subway was there, too. So was Peter Gibbons, currently of Denny’s, which is major enough, but he’s the guy who rolled out the chicken Whopper when he was at Burger King.
Mark Miller (not the one from Coyote Café, another one) was there. He had to be because he was getting an award for Captain D’s menu revamp, but he likes to come to the MenuMasters party.
Of course it wouldn’t be a party without Oona Settembre (isn’t that the best name you’ve ever heard?). She was for years the woman behind the food at Dave & Buster’s, and now she’s at On the Border. She was marveling at how young, slim and cute newly single Luke Belsito looked. He developed the chili dishes at Red Robin, but now he’s on his way to Texas Roadhouse.
The gang from Mimi’s Café was chatting with a couple of guys from California Pizza Kitchen, one of whom, it turns out, developed their carne asada pizza, so I told him the pieces of meat were too big. He nodded, perhaps in agreement, perhaps to be polite. Hard to say, really.
I closed out the meeting hanging out with NRN’s event planning staff, who were doing a relaxed sort of post-mortem of the event.