The 2016 National Restaurant Association Show: What are the hottest food trends?

If there were one word to describe the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show, that would be: amazing. Every year in May, tens of thousands of restaurant professionals from around the world meet in Chicago to learn about the latest industry trends, to showcase their products, to negotiate business deals, and ultimately to network and share stories and experiences with their peers. It is a high caliber event which has a little bit of everything for everyone. Aspiring chefs, Michelin star restaurateurs, grocery store buyers, food bloggers, niche business owners – there is a panel, pavilion or education session to suit everyone’s tastes, interests or expectations.

Still, what has the NRA Show got to do with the ice cream pictured above? And can ice cream represent a food trend? According to a survey of almost 1,600 professional chefs recently conducted by the National Restaurant Association, the answer to the second question is yes. A trend towards artisan ice cream, made with quality ingredients is currently gaining momentum and it is driven by increasing consumer demand. As you can see from the pics below, at this year’s edition of the NRA Show the ice cream business was represented by a wide array of companies. They were eager to display their latest creations, which encompassed many flavors and were made up of carefully selected ingredients, likely to satisfy the most sophisticated palates.

 

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Artisan ice cream is not the only hot topic in the industry at the moment. According to restaurant professionals, consumers continue to show great interest in natural ingredients, minimally processed food, and sustainable seafood. The Organic & Natural section of the Show was brimming with producers who epitomized these trends. From delicious bites of sunshine tomatoes and bean-based finger food to sorghum salad, hemp bars and fresh lettuce, I tried them all and fell in love with their flavors. There is so much choice on the market if you want to eat healthily!

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Every year, the National Restaurant Association announces its Food & Beverage Awards (FABI) recipients, recognizing companies which bring quality and innovation to the industry, which push the boundaries to deliver new and flavorful taste experiences to the table. The awarded products are then displayed at the NRA Show for participants to get the chance to sample the products themselves. I tried several FABI products and my favorite were the Boulart ciabatta bites, the Sevillo slow roasted red tomatoes, and the Stonefire naan dippers.

As someone who is always  interested in quality bread suitable for panini, Boulart’s wholesome and satisfying ciabattas left me in awe: such great quality in such small packages 🙂 Meanwhile, the slow roasted tomatoes – which had been marinated in a mixture of oil, oregano, garlic and salt – were packed full of flavor and gently reminded me that I should use most roasted veggies in my cooking. Lastly, with summer entertaining fast approaching, I thought the naan dippers would make the perfect base for a wide range of finger foods. They don’t seem to be available in stores yet, but I’ll definitely buy some when they are.

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Since we eat panini so often, I was determined to check out in detail the bakeries represented at the show to get fresh ideas on what might work in my panini. I was not disappointed – on the contrary: everything I tasted was fresh, inspirational and delicious. I really wish some of the specialty breads I saw and tried were available to me locally. Alternatively, maybe it’s time for me to start baking my own bread 🙂

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I had an early lunch at Bellavita, the largest made-in-Italy food and wine expo outside of Italy. What is more Italian than pizza – and who makes the best pizzas? The Italians, of course. While munching on pizza I also got the chance to sample a range of other high quality Italian products.

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If you didn’t want to have ice cream for dessert, the NRA Show offered plenty of alternative options. I have a very sweet tooth, and even I found the dessert offerings overwhelming. From cheesecake and chocolate with various percentages of cocoa to layered cakes and chocolate “gravies” – there was so much choice! The Sweet Street Desserts stand was my favorite by far. They were there to promote their new line of Manifesto cookies, which are additive free and contain non-GMO ingredients. Furthermore, the Sweet Street suppliers have ongoing sustainability programs with farmers – all of which are features that align nicely with the latest industry trends.

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An ethical dessert goes well with a socially responsible cup of coffee. Speaking of sustainability as an industry trend, at the Show I got the chance to visit Lavazza’s stand and to find out more about their new !Tierra¡ Single Origins range of coffees. I am currently undertaking research on the coffee trade, and as such I was looking forward to finding out more about Lavazza’s project, which was developed in collaboration with The Rainforest Alliance. The project aims to maintain an ethically sustainable supply chain and thus to improve the production techniques and social and environmental conditions of coffee farmers in some of the poorest countries on Earth, such as Ethiopia and Tanzania.

The coffee I tried had a deep, dark flavor and instantly brought a smile on my face. It is good to see that corporate social responsibility has become such a meaningful enterprise, and I hope more companies will follow suit. For now, sustainability is firmly on the agenda – and so it should be, I think.

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I had a great time at the National Restaurant Show this year: I learned a lot about the latest trends, I discovered innovative products which made me rethink some of my recipes, and I was inspired by others to come up with new ideas in the kitchen. Over the next few months I will try to put to practice what I’ve learned at the Show, while also staying true to myself and my culinary history. Looking forward to next year’s Show already 🙂

*Disclaimer: I was not financially compensated by any of the companies mentioned or shown in this post. All opinions expressed here are my own.


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