More than 74,000 restaurant and foodservice professionals and 2,140 exhibitors gathered in Chicago May 19-22 for the 88th annual National Restaurant Assn. (NRA) Restaurant-Hotel-Motel Show to check out innovative new products and trends and to mingle with celebrity chefs from all over the world.
According to a survey of more than 1,000 chiefs, conducted by the NRA, the hottest menu trends are bite-size desserts, organic and local produce, flatbread and bottled water. Cuisines at the top of the list include Asian appetizers, Mediterranean, Latin American, Pan-Asian, Brazilian/Argentinean, Thai, sushi and Cuban.
"The nation's 935,000 restaurants have long been the breeding ground for many of the world's best culinary artists," says William Anton, convention chairman. "America's fascination with all things food-related has opened new doors for these individuals to share their creativity and inspire chefs and home cooks everywhere."
At the show, one could rub elbows with Chefs Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill and Topolobampo), John Doherty (Waldorf-Astoria), Tom Douglas (five Seattle restaurants), Gale Gand (pastry guru at Tru), Thomas Keller (The French Laundry), Danny Meyer (Union Square Hospitality Group), Paul Prudhomme (K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen), Marcus Samuelsson (Townhouse Restaurant Group), Harry Shapiro and Peyton Young (Harry's Roadhouse), Rick Tramonto (Tru and Osteria di Tramonto) and Ming Tsai (Blue Ginger).
As well as Cat Cora (America's first female Iron Chef), Steve Raichlen (host of PBS's "Barbecue University"), Juan-Carlos Cruz (host of Food Network's "Calorie Commando"), Art Smith (formerly Oprah's chef) and Sally James (Australian author of 12 cookbooks). Many attendees flocked to cooking demonstrations by former White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib and watched the international teams competing at the American Culinary Classic. Chefs from the Research Chefs Assn. also were on hand with advice on new menu items.
Unlike other food shows, which are tightening their belts, NRA seems to expand every year. With 2007 projected sales of $537 billion, up 5 percent, the restaurant industry will garner 47.9 percent share of the food dollar and will dish up more than 70 billion meal and snack occasions.
One genuine news story was unveiled at the show: a joint venture between Chicago-based NutraSweet Co. and American Sugar Refining Co., parent of Domino sugar. Together they will develop and distribute a new line of sweeteners (their ingredients not specified) that will compete with Equal and Splenda.
At the show, trends appeared to be ethnic foods, organics, "green" environmentally friendly products and trans fat free oils, as well as products to ensure food safety.
Cadbury Schweppes featured bottled mojitos. Chef Bombay Inc. passed out samosas, tasty Indian pastries. Australian firms Outback Pride and Hoo Roo Foods offered a new line of Australian Harvest Bush Foods (created from desert limes, bush tomatoes and Tasmanian Mountain Pepperberries picked by indigenous Australians) and offered samples of barramundi (crusted with pepperberries and macadamias) and Wild Hibiscus Flowers in syrup in Champagne flutes. The bubbles cause the flowers, which are edible, to open. Bubbies Homemade Ice Cream and Desserts served Haupia, Okinawan sweet potato ice cream in a beautiful purple hue. Fresh Green Organic Garden sprouted a fascinating organic micro mix of arugula, mizuna, tendergreen, bull's blood, beet top, tatsoi and kohlrabi.
Hot new products
One thing that seemed to dominate this year's NRA Show was the abundance of flesh. Not necessarily the crowds, rather, the number of meat products. Meat is indeed still the center of the plate for most Americans. And not just meat, but well-seasoned meat-oriented items, such as barbecues and marinades, sauces and smokers.
Beverages also were flowing in great tidal waves, with the Coca Cola exhibit taking up one huge corner of the show floor to feature dozens of new products and acquisitions. (And this was just before the company announced its purchase of the success-story phenomenon, Vitaminwater.)
According to the NRA's 2007 Restaurant Industry Forecast, beverage trends include more bottled water, coffee, energy drinks and wine. Fair trade and organic coffees were on display everywhere. A unique coffee concept from Natfood SRL is Gin-co, containing ginseng extract. And a whopping 50 companies brewed up tea or products to make tea. Among them, Cooper Tea Co.'s Bazaa High Energy Tea containing 140mg of all-natural caffeine. Fully Loaded Tea rolled out superfruit tea with goji berries, seabuckthorn berries and lingonberries.
Australian company Madura Tea Estates introduced Green Tea and Papaya Leaf blend and showcased its line of kosher-certified black, green and herbal teas. They are free of tannic acid and suitable for people who have undergone gastrointestinal surgery. Australia's Brookfarm takes the macadamia (cholestrerol free and the richest source of monounsaturates) to new levels with its vacuum-packed Oven Roasted Macadamia Nuts with Sea Salt, Oven Roasted Macadamia with Kashmiri Chili and Sea Salt and Oven Roasted Macadamia with Bush Pepper Spice and Sea Salt.
Honest Tea debuted Honest Kids, with less than half the sugar of other popular kids pouch drinks, and a full days' supply of vitamin C and Orange Mango with Mangosteen and Pomegranate White Tea with Açaí for adults. Numi Organic Tea introduced Gen Mai Cha (toasted rice green tea). Sugart Group rolled out iTea, a single serve tea wand that works like a tea infuser. And you can sip for kids with the Tea District's Children's Tribute Citrus Green Tea. A percentage of the proceeds will go to the Children's Cancer Research Fund.